Book Offers Rare Insights Into Bush Presidency

Times Staff Writer

In the first insider book about the Bush White House, a former speech writer depicts a president who is impatient, quick to anger and sometimes lacking in curiosity, but whose shortcomings are outweighed by his decency and tenacity.

The book, by David Frum, delivers a mixed verdict on the Bush presidency, presenting a look that is at once sharply critical but also unstinting in its praise -- a detailed and complex look at a presidency as it pivoted from an uncertain peacetime policy to lead a nation attacked by terrorists.

In the months before Sept. 11, 2001, Bush was "not on his way to a very successful presidency," writes Frum in "The Right Man," which goes on sale today. With the exception of chief political aide Karl Rove, Frum views Bush as surrounded by genial lieutenants -- few of whom impressed the author with their intellectual power.

He says Bush is often glib. He also often uses quirky language, for instance referring to environmentalists as "green-green-lima-beans." Frum also describes Bush as "often uncurious and as a result ill-informed" on some matters that Frum does not specify.

But the terrorist attacks, Frum stresses, drew out Bush's greatest strength: his resolve.

"George Bush, the uncertain peacetime president, has been nothing short of superb as a wartime leader," Frum writes.

Confronting a common criticism of the president, Frum also says: "Bush was not a lightweight. He was, rather, a very unfamiliar type of heavyweight. Words often failed him, his memory sometimes betrayed him, but his vision was large and clear. And when he perceived new possibilities, he had the courage to act on them -- a much less common virtue in politics than one might suppose."

Although the account is largely positive, the book is likely to cause an instant ripple because it breaks the Bush White House's code of silence. Almost without exception, the president's aides have refused to air internal disputes or provide unscripted accounts of the president or the workings of his staff.

Asked for comment, Scott McClellan, a deputy White House press secretary, said, "There are a number of books being written that will offer a variety of perspectives" on the administration. He added: "It's not the place of the White House to do book reviews or book promotions."

Frum, a native of Toronto, was credited with drafting the term "axis of evil" to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea that Bush used in his State of the Union address in January 2002. Frum had submitted his resignation before the speech and was not viewed as having left on bad terms. But he was never part of the president's inner circle.

In contrast to close confidants who have been at Bush's side since his days as Texas governor, Frum was a conservative writer for the Weekly Standard who was hired as a speech writer several days after the president was inaugurated.

His book provides a more detailed look than previous newspaper or magazine articles of the two aides on whom Bush has relied the most -- Rove and Karen Hughes, who left the White House payroll in July to return to Texas with her family, but who still serves as a key advisor.

"Rove was a risk taker and an intellectual. Hughes loathed risk and abhorred ideas. Rove was a reader and a questioner -- a curious man, always eager to learn. Hughes rarely read books and distrusted people who did -- anything she did not already know she saw no point in knowing."

Hughes, he writes, is something of a "mother substitute" for Bush. She alone can criticize him, and when he performs well, he appears to take pride in reporting his success to her.

"She is a very valuable person," Frum says. "She does things for Bush that nobody else would do. Her methods work, time after time, and she has good judgment."

It was Hughes who laid down various rules for speech writers, Frum says: Parents would be referred to as "moms and dads"; "tax cuts" would be called "tax relief," to come across as "a healing balm."

Hughes' office in Texas said she was on her way to Afghanistan, on a State Department mission, and was not available to respond to Frum's comments.

Frum's year helping turn Bush's thoughts into speeches gave him a unique perspective on the president's work habits and leadership.

In the Oval Office, Frum says of his first meeting with the president, "Bush was a sharp exception to the White House code of niceness. He was tart, not sweet."

Frum recalls Bush asking his speech writers how they thought he was performing in office. To their enthusiastic compliments, "he nodded grimly," and complained that when he was governor of Texas, he could ask a store clerk how he was doing and get an honest response.

Now, Frum writes, "he was locked in a bubble, hearing only compliments."

While even critics would pay tribute to his image of likability, Frum says of the president, "in private, Bush was not the easy, genial man he was in public. Close up, one saw a man keeping a tight grip on himself."

He also describes Bush as someone whose attention could turn to a single light left burning -- or an entire building of undimmed bulbs.

Finishing a practice session before a speech one day, he pointed to a table lamp, and demanded: "Do you think it's going to occur to anybody to turn that lamp off when we leave the room?" He flicked it off himself.

"It vexed him to look out the windows of the White House family quarters before sunrise and see the Executive Office Building bright with lights that had been carelessly left burning overnight," Frum writes.

Frum said Monday that his goal in writing the book was to present a picture of Bush as he saw him -- without betraying any confidences. "What I wanted to do was present a picture of a man I admire who has a great story to tell," he said.

"The Bush administration is one of the more mysterious administrations America has known. It was my experience that the better I got to know George Bush, the better I liked him, and I thought other people might have that experience," he said.

Frum was not impressed with most of Bush's staff.

"One seldom heard an unexpected thought in the Bush White House or met someone who possessed unusual knowledge. Aside from the witty and ingenious Mitch Daniels at the Office of Management and Budget and, of course, Karl Rove, who played the unusual dual role of political guru and leading intellectual, conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House," he writes.

As a workplace, the Bush White House is formal -- strictly blue and gray suits for men, few bright colors for women. Language is clean -- even a mild "damn" is frowned on.

Frum, a self-described "not especially observant Jew," found himself working in "the culture of modern Evangelicalism" that prevails.

He added:

"The television show 'The West Wing' might as well have been set aboard a Klingon starship for all it resembled life inside the Bush White House."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

An insider's perspective

In his new book on the Bush presidency, "The Right Man," former speech writer David Frum breaks the administration's "code of silence" to offer the following opinions:

On the common criticism of the president's intellect: "Bush was not a lightweight. He was, rather, a very unfamiliar type of heavyweight. Words often failed him, his memory sometimes betrayed him, but his vision was large and clear."

On key presidential advisors Karl Rove and Karen Hughes: "Rove was a risk taker and an intellectual. Hughes loathed risk and abhorred ideas. Rove was a reader and a questioner -- a curious man, always eager to learn. Hughes rarely read books and distrusted people who did -- anything she did not already know she saw no point in knowing."

On his first meeting with the president: "Bush was a sharp exception to the White House code of niceness. He was tart, not sweet."

On his impressions of Bush's staff: "One seldom heard an unexpected thought in the Bush White House or met someone who possessed unusual knowledge.... Conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°