Commentary Magazine


The Right Man by David Frum

The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush
by David Frum
Random House. 303 pp. $25.95

Character IS destiny, according to the aphorism made famous by George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss; to judge from her own treatment of this claim, Eliot did not much approve of it. But the observation is hardly new. Heraclitus made it over two millennia earlier: “A man’s character is his fate.”

I have often thought about this sentiment while trying to sort out my own views on the American presidency. In 2000, a liberal friend of mine asked me in astonishment how I could support George W. Bush for the presidency. He was, she said, too dumb—and she probably also thought that he had gotten even dumber by living in Texas. Since my own family is from Texas, I sat down and wrote her a letter in which I said that from what I could tell, temperament was more important than intelligence in selecting the chief executive of everything from a business firm or a voluntary association to the federal government.

Of course, intelligence is important. A candidate must understand the issues, be able to connect facts and concepts, and express his understanding well to other people. But I suspected that what my friend meant by “intelligence” was something more akin to what we encounter in college: verbal facility, a lucid memory, and skill at quick give-and-take.

I have met many chief executive officers of private companies and have been struck by how much they vary in this sort of intelligence. I am not old enough to have known William Knudsen, the one-time head of General Motors, who, when asked by the government to evaluate some new program, thought about it and finally said, “It won’t work.” When asked what he meant, he repeated: “It won’t work.” He was right. I have also known some CEO’s of high verbal facility who are excellent at quick give-and-take. What the two varieties of executives have had in common is not the same sort of intelligence but the same temperament.

That temperament was once described by the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott in these words: “Not an abstract idea, or a set of tricks, not even a ritual, but a concrete, coherent manner of living in all its intricateness.” This view, impressed upon me by the late Edward C. Banfield, stuck with me as I taught in a business school for some dozen years. Even though I knew nothing worth teaching about business, it was a most enjoyable experience; the students were bright, hard-working, and pleasant to be around. But in the years since my retirement from the school I have been struck by how often the most successful entrepreneurs have turned out to be not the students who performed the best on my exams (exams that, I confess, measured rather little about business) but those who showed a grasp of the problems presented to them and had a good way of approaching those problems. All of my students were bright (in the college-defined sense), but the brightest were not usually the most successful.

This applies to Banfield himself. Though he was in possession of one of the finest intellects I have ever known, he could not have organized a two-car funeral. I once helped him pull down a tree, and his plan—to rope the tree to the bumper of his car—almost resulted in launching the car into the stratosphere.

It also applies to Presidents. I revere James Madison, the father of the Constitution. He had an extraordinary mind, and his contributions to The Federalist made him, along with Alexander Hamilton, the deepest student of our political regime. But I am not convinced he was a very good President. On his watch, the British burned down the White House.

Among the Presidents I greatly admire, I wrote to my friend, are Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan. (By “admire” I do not mean that I have agreed with all of their policies but that in my opinion they handled the key features of their job masterfully) Among those for whom I have much less admiration are Wilson, Hoover, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton. With some exceptions, the “smartest” Presidents are on the second list.

Wilson had been a college president, Hoover a gifted engineer, and Nixon a brilliant student of foreign policy. But Wilson helped misalign postwar Europe and created a useless League of Nations, Hoover thought the answer to the Depression was to cut government spending, and Nixon had a fatal character flaw that led him to imagine enemies everywhere. Carter had thought carefully about foreign affairs and got almost all of it wrong, and Clinton was, well, Clinton—perhaps the most skilled political personality and best public debater of modern times but one who in eight years accomplished next to nothing.

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My friend had no doubt heard all of the jokes that made the rounds on the television shows in 2000: that Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney were the Wizard of Oz ticket—“one needs a heart, the other a brain”—and that Bush cared only about “huntin’ and executin’.” The cracks were pretty silly, but they accurately reflected the media’s storyline: Al Gore may have been a phony, Bush was a dope. (At least that is how the press portrayed the contest until the vote count in Florida changed the story to one of an allegedly “stolen election.”) But, as I said to my friend, my reason for preferring George W. Bush was that, having met him twice for conversations, I thought he had the right temperament to be President.

Having now read David Frum’s The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, I think this even more strongly. Usually I am reluctant to read books like Frum’s. I recall an earlier volume by a Harvard-trained man who, after a year or so in Jimmy Carter’s White House, set out to explain to the world why he was smarter than everyone else he had met there. And I remember a similar book, again by a Harvard-trained man, written after a brief tour with President Reagan. Maybe the problem is Harvard. In any case, Frum, a Yale graduate, has done better than those two, perhaps because he began by thinking he was smarter than others and ended up thinking he was not so smart after all.

Frum approached his first year as a junior speechwriter for George W. Bush with many of the same reservations held by my friend. Though she is a liberal and he a conservative, Frum was taken aback by the first words he heard in the Bush White House: “Missed you at Bible study.” What disconcerted Frum, who is Jewish, was hearing an implicit summons to study the Christian Bible: not compulsory, but not entirely uncompulsory, either. He was also struck by the absence of certified intellectuals on the White House staff: no Rexford Tugwell, no Henry Kissinger, no Daniel P. Moynihan, no George P. Shultz. Of course, Karl Rove, a serious thinker as well as a skilled politician, was there, but who else?

Frum, a bright man who has written some good books and essays, seems to have been initially captured by the college definition of intelligence. But his views soon changed, and not because he discovered that Bush was well educated. It has been noted by others, after all, that the President graduated from Yale and earned an MBA at Harvard Business School, while Al Gore, though he graduated from Harvard, never finished either divinity school or law school. I do not attach much significance to these differences; they could have any number of politically irrelevant causes. Nor is this what swayed David Frum.

Instead, he focuses rightly on the actual decisions Bush made, for this is the essence of the matter. A good executive must know what is important, must make moral judgments about how to manage important matters, and must inspire subordinates and colleagues to act as he wishes them to act and to defend his core convictions against the relentless attacks they will surely suffer.

President Bush’s central beliefs, according to Frum, come out of a very different source from President Reagan’s. The latter was a profound conservative who mistrusted government, while the former is an evangelical Christian who does not distrust government. Now, many people think that is exactly what is wrong with Bush; he is, they say, censorious, prudish, and ostentatiously devout. But that is not the case. Bush’s brand of Christianity makes him rather calm, patient, and deliberative in the pursuit of what he believes is the right thing.

That right thing may embrace actions and attitudes that would, conventionally though inaccurately, be described as “liberal.” (If the press ever reported it, you would know that Bush is an environmentalist who built in Crawford, Texas, a ranch house that is a model of recycled water, low energy costs, and drought-tolerant plants.) But his core convictions include giving back to taxpayers a big part of government surpluses, supporting education, encouraging churches and synagogues to do more to help those in need, and drawing a firm line against terrorism. These are his principles, not those of Andrew Card, Dick Cheney, or Karl Rove. The President, some may be surprised to learn but Frum amply demonstrates, runs the White House.

An example. When a Chinese fighter pilot rammed an American surveillance plane, forcing it to land on Hainan Island, there was the usual flurry of diplomatic moves that ended in our air crew being freed and compensation being paid to China. When it was over, a journalist asked the President whether, despite our longstanding “one China” policy, he thought we had an obligation to defend Taiwan if China attacked it. “Yes, we do,” Bush replied. “With the full force of the American military?” the reporter pressed. “Whatever it took,” the President replied. The doctrine of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, pioneered by Jimmy Carter and embraced by Republican as well as Democratic secretaries of state, had died.

Another example. When the President said he had looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and gotten “a sense of his soul,” the world tittered. What Bush meant, it now appears, was that he and Putin had agreed on the threat posed by radical Islamic fundamentalism. Two months later, when the war against terrorism began, Putin measured up to Bush’s judgment: he increased Russian oil production to calm world markets, kept his nuclear force on standby when the United States went on full alert, allowed U.S. forces to enter Uzbekistan, and offered only the mildest objections to our abandoning of the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Maybe it was Putin’s soul on display, maybe it was just smart politics: either way, Bush had judged him accurately.

A third example would be Bush’s response to 9/11, but everyone knows that story. A better and less well-known one concerns his attitude toward Israel. He had campaigned for the presidency without saying much about Israel, and apparently entered office eager to distance himself from the incessant efforts, culminating in the Clinton presidency, to solve the “problem” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Frum tartly observes, he was also regarded by many Jews as either a redneck Texan or an upper-class frat boy, in either case as someone who had little natural affinity with their concerns. Many serving American diplomats, in company with their predecessors, were maintaining that a “sound” American policy in the Middle East meant taking a frequent hammer to Israel for failing to advance “the peace process,” and there seemed little reason to think that Bush felt otherwise.

But Bush had flown over the territory of Israel, observed its tiny size and porous borders, and talked with Ariel Sharon. According to Frum, when the freighter Karine A. was caught with many tons of Iranian arms bound for Yasir Arafat’s forces in Gaza, Arafat made the mistake of personally reassuring Bush that the arms were not his. That did it. “Bush does not lie to you,” Frum writes. “You had better not lie to him.” Bush calmly responded that he recognized Israel’s right to defend itself, and denounced Arafat for supporting terrorists. Arafat became one of the few important leaders with whom Bush would not talk. In a June 2002 speech, Bush supported the creation of a Palestinian state, but only if it were democratic, tolerant, liberal, and without Arafat.

In doing all this, Bush moved in step with, but also helped create, the mood of his own party. Public-opinion polls in recent years have showed Republicans much more supportive of Israel than Democrats, while the proportion of Democrats supporting the Palestinians has run nearly three times higher than Republicans. This is a remarkable fact, and one that has received much less attention than it deserves.

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Bush, Frum concludes, is an unusual man. He has many human faults—he can be incurious, uninformed, impatient, devoid of the right words—but he is not a lightweight. Rather, Frum argues, he is an unfamiliar kind of heavyweight, a man with a strong vision and personal courage who is willing to take the high-risk option if that is what the security of the country requires. He is good without being weak, and a natural wartime leader.

Who would have thought it? No one who believes that the marks of a good leader, especially in wartime, are a talent for verbal sparring and the resource of a quick memory. But I suspect the American public has known it all along. During campaign seasons, they watch the presidential debates not to learn who among the candidates can most easily identify an obscure world leader or most accurately describe a piece of legislation but rather for an insight into character and temperament. David Frum confirms that they are right to do so.

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About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.




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