The Right Man by David Frum

July 17, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): The Right Man is the first inside account of a historic year in the Bush White House, by the presidential speechwriter credited with the phrase axis of evil. David Frum helped make international headlines when President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address linked international terrorists to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. But that was only one moment during a crucial time in American history, when a president, an administration, and a country were transformed.

Frum worked with President Bush in the Oval Office, traveled with him aboard Air Force One, and studied him closely at meetings and events. He describes how Bush thinks—what this conservative president believes about religion, race, the environment, Jews, Muslims, and America’s future. Frum takes us behind the scenes of one of the most secretive administrations in recent history, with revealing portraits of Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Condoleezza Rice, and many others. Most significant, he tells the story of the transformation of George W. Bush: how a president whose administration began in uncertainty became one of the most decisive, successful, and popular leaders of our time.

Liked:

  • Well, Frum is a professional journalist and former presidential speechwriter, so it goes almost without saying that this book was well-written. It was very readable and cohesive, and contained a chronological flow that was easy to follow.
  • This book is surprisingly well balanced, too. Though the title alone tells you what Frum thought of Bush, he wasn’t simply a cheerleader. He also talked about Bush’s shortcomings–real and perceived–and was quick to point out the President’s mistakes (the “Awful Office” speech, etc.).
  • The inside account of how Karl Rove and Karen Hughes worked for/against each other was fascinating. It’s always interesting trying to figure out who truly wields the power in any given administration.
  • Frum didn’t spent a lot of time patting himself on the back. I personally think the “axis of evil” phrase was great, and while Frum took some credit for it, he didn’t pump himself up too much. I’m not sure if I would have been able to show similar restraint!

Disliked:

  • Since this book only covers one year of the Bush administration, it feels woefully incomplete — especially since it ends with Bush’s approval ratings near 90%. I wonder what Frum would have to say about the rest of Bush’s terms, particularly in regards to some of the early criticism that a “war on terror” would essentially be a war without end.
  • I would have liked it if Frum had given more insight into the speechwriting process. I didn’t just want to hear how he got an assignment, did the research, and churned out a speech. I wanted to hear about sessions with other speechwriters where they go back and forth about what to include and why, and how they received inspiration for certain ideas. Basically I wanted a scene out of the West Wing where Toby and Sam sat around tossing ideas at each other. Guess that would just be too Hollywood (and Frum himself said the real daily workings were nothing like the TV show).

Rating:

The Right Man by David Frum is a mostly interesting inside account of the Bush White House during the immediate aftermath of 9/11. When read as a snapshot of a very narrow period in time, it works. But it’s very difficult to limit my evaluation of the book to that single year, particularly since this all happened in recent history. When gauged against the backdrop of the subsequent 7 years of Bush’s presidency, some of Frum’s analysis doesn’t hold up very well. Overall I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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