A man of more than three words

OK, so he’s not as eager to claim it today as he once was.

‘Axis of Evil.’ That’s the three-word phrase David Frum penned for the 2002 State of the Union Address that would hang over U.S. domestic and foreign policy in the post-9-11 era. At the time, he served as special advisor and speechwriter to U.S. President George W. Bush.

Frum dedicates a chapter of his book, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, to the speech. His wife caused a bit of controversy when she bragged about her husband’s authorship of the phrase to friends in an email. The email leaked to the media and, some say, lead to Frum’s White House exit.

Most observers agree that speech – even that phrase – helped fuel the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And we know how that ended, or rather, hasn’t ended. That war, which has cost $800 billion and more than 133,000 lives to date, still limps along today well off the front pages of most newspapers.

So you would understand why Frum shies away from full credit today.

“You certainly exaggerate my role in all of this,” Frum says. “That was a speech I was one of a number of authors. The writer proposes; the decision-maker disposes.

”Speech-writers are never very important people.”

That may be. But for 13 months, including the five months following the Sept. 11 attacks, Frum had a vantage point on history second to none. All thanks to his speech-writing post.

“You have to get into the mind of the principal like nobody else does,” Frum says. “You have to be able to answer the hypothetical question: ‘What would they say about this topic if they had as much luxury to think about it like I do?’ Nobody else has to do anything quite as personal.”

The Canada-U.S. Institute welcomes Frum and his particular brand of conservatism to Western as the second guest of the Visiting Fellows Program. The lecture, The Unhappy Giant: U.S.- Canada Relations in the Great Recession, will be held 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20 in North Campus Building, 101.

Born in Toronto in 1960, Frum is the son of legendary Canadian journalist Barbara Frum. He received a simultaneous B.A. and M.A. in history from Yale University in 1982, then graduated cum laude from the Harvard Law School, where he served as president of the Federalist Society.

During those early days, Frum saw his personal epic take shape.

“Then, as now, young people were grappling to understand what had gone wrong with a world that seemed to be working pretty well up to that point,” says Frum, who came of age in another moment of economic crisis, the late-1970s/early-1980s. “The desire to understand what had gone wrong, led me to the study of politics. The desire to do something about it, led me to the practice of politics.”

Today, the author, blogger, commentator and political consultant (as well as Top Five guest on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher) calls Washington, D.C. home.

He is an intellectual conservative, a balanced, thoughtful man more from the William F. Buckley as opposed to Michelle Bachmann side of the spectrum. On his blog, frumforum.com, he has made numerous observations about the state of his party, and what its straying from its intellectual roots has created.

“There is a tremendous insistence that the right way to respond to the worst recession, the worst economic downturn since the 1930s is another dose of the same medicine that worked well in the 1970s,” he says, stressing a new generation of challenges requires a different kind of politics. “If your politics is to stay relevant, it has to adjust to new circumstances.

“American politics is having great difficulty doing that; it is trapped in obsolete paradigms.”

Admittedly, from Congressional tantrums to Tea Parties, it’s not hard to get a laugh at of the current state of the Republican Party.

But don’t dare call it silliness. Frum sees a very serious side to this struggle.

“Oh, there is nothing silly about it. It is desperately serious,” he says. “You may see things that are irrational; you may see things that are poorly considered. But what you are hearing from Americans is a terrible distress.

“When responsible leaders don’t provide responsible solutions, problems don’t go away. Desperate people in pain then turn to irresponsible leaders.”

And this mess south of the border has powerful ramifications here.

“In Canada, things are going really well,” Frum says, who will expand upon this topic during his Western lecture. “I cannot remember a time when the political systems in the two counties have been pointing in more different directions than now.”

Canada handled the economic downturn better than any major economy. Frum attributes its survival to “good luck and good decisions.” But we cannot afford to pat ourselves on the back; work remains.

“How do Canadians respond to a world where the United States is not leading the way it once did? That’s the question we need to confront.”

Right now, no matter who emerges from the GOP pack, Frum has no plans to work a presidential campaign in 2012. He hopes to guide the debate through his blog, and free from the constraints of a campaign. But never say never.

Although he doesn’t see a ‘Frum conservative’ in the race currently, he isn’t giving up hope.

“Let’s see if we can make one.”