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The Right Man

The Right Man

4.4 12
by David Frum

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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


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.

Before becoming a White House speechwriter, David Frum was a highly regarded author of books and political commentary and an influential voice on the pages of The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard. His commentary has been described by William F. Buckley as “the most refreshing ideological experience in a generation.” Now, in The Right Man, we see Frum as a front-row observer and participant. Not since Peggy Noonan’s account of her time in the Reagan White House has an insider portrayed a sitting president with such precision, verve, honest admiration, and insight.

The Right Man will command international attention for its thoughtful account of George W. Bush in the midst of his greatest challenge. It will be an essential reference for anyone seeking to understand who our president really is and how he is likely to lead us in the future.

Editorial Reviews

As a White House speechwriter, David Frum coined the term "axis of evil." From 2000 to 2002, this Yale University and Harvard Law School graduate served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush for economic speechwriting. The Right Man chronicles the first tumultuous year of the Bush administration. As the title suggests, Frum provides a positive portrait of the chief executive he served.
Publishers Weekly
Frum, author of Dead Right and the phrase "axis of evil," looks back on a year as a speechwriter in the Bush White House in this affable and witty but slightly cagey account. Frum recounts the travails of crafting the President's public pronouncements and the ordeal of the terrorist attacks, and draws funny thumbnail sketches of White House personalities like communications director Karen Hughes, who "disliked verbs" because they "conveyed action, not feeling." Mostly, though, he keeps the focus on Bush, vigorously disputing the notion that the President is a dim-witted figurehead for powerful advisors like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove and insisting that Bush is a commanding leader who came into his own after 9/11. But he also describes the president as "ill informed" and "sometimes glib, even dogmatic," with "a poor memory for facts and figures"; his strengths are "tenacity," "courage," a "large and clear" vision and a "Holden Caulfield streak" of sincerity. Frum was not part of the inner circle, so his evidence for Bush's leadership sometimes consists of the bold statements Bush made in speeches that were crafted by others to explain policies hashed out by his subordinates. His sketchy defense of Bush's policy-making is similarly unconvincing; concerns about the energy industry's influence on the plan to drill in Alaska are dismissed as "goofy," and his recap of the Bush tax cut doesn't answer the main criticism that it is skewed toward the rich. Frum is an engaging writer, but this is very much a speechwriter's book-packed with graceful sound bites, but ultimately more spin than substance. (Jan.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The presidential speechwriter who gave us the phrase axis of evil offers this insider's view of George W.'s first 600 days. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Random House, Incorporated
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7.02(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.31(d)

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Into the Mess

Missed you at Bible study."

Those were, quite literally, the very first words I heard spoken inside the Bush White House. I had just stepped through the side door to the West Wing?not the front door you see on television, the one the marine guard in red-striped pants opens for congressmen and ambassadors, but the staff door, which is one floor down and a little to the side. I had been invited into the West Wing to have breakfast in the mess with Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's chief speechwriter and the principal author of the inaugural address Bush had delivered just five days before. The reproach about missing Bible study was directed to Gerson, not to me. Even so, it made me twitch. It had been a month since Gerson had asked me to consider joining the new administration's speechwriting staff. Today we were to discuss the proposition in earnest over breakfast in the White House mess. The news that this was a White House where attendance at Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory, either, was disconcerting to a non-Christian like me.

My appointment that morning had been scheduled for 8:10. Not 8:00, not 8:15, but 8:10?my first introduction to the White House habit of parceling the day into five-minute increments. I already knew enough about the new administration to know that I had better arrive exactly on time.

The mess is a windowless suite of wood-paneled rooms decorated with nautical prints and old brass shipfittings. As Gerson spoke about the job, I found myself fingering the blue-bordered paper menu, trying not to gawk at the room as if I were Gerson's third cousin from Des Moines. I had to keepmy attention focused on the business at hand: explaining to him the reasons why I believed I was unsuited to the job he was offering me.

I had no connection to the Bush campaign or the Bush family. I had no experience in government and little of political campaigns. I had never written a speech for anyone other than myself. And I had been only a moderately enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush. True, I had preferred Bush to John McCain in the primaries; the whole point of the McCain campaign had seemed to be to vex and annoy conservative Republicans like me. But like many even within the Republican party, I was not excited by Bush. No, it was worse than that: I strongly doubted that he was the right man for the job.

Although people who met Bush individually or in small groups claimed to be highly impressed by him, on television he did not look like a man ready to be president. The late-night comedians and Bush's Democratic opponents had an easy explanation for Bush's awkwardness: stupidity. David Letterman offered these top ten headlines from a George W. Bush presidency: president fails in shoe-tying bid and america held hostage: day 16 of president's head stuck in banister. Jay Leno called Bush-Cheney the "Wizard of Oz ticket": "One needs a heart, the other needs a brain." Saturday Night Live depicted Bush as a party-hearty frat boy interested only in "huntin' and executin'," who responded to tough debate questions with a good-natured "Pass." Slate magazine published a daily digest of Bush's verbal gaffes; former Clinton aide Paul Begala used one of those gaffes for the title of his anti-Bush book: "Is Our Children Learning?"

Bush cheerfully replied that his critics "misunderestimated" him, and Bush's supporters explained that their man's stumbles and malapropisms were signs of nervousness, not ignorance. That was not a whole lot more encouraging: For a president, nerves are even more indispensable than brains. It is important that a president be in command of his words. It is essential that he be in command of himself.

My fellow conservatives did not worry that the candidate was too dumb; they worried that his campaign was too clever. Bush had borrowed a maneuver from Dick Morris: He ran almost as hard against his own party as he did against the other. In the space of a single week in October 1999, Bush accused congressional Republicans of "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor" and complained in a major address in New York City that too often "my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah"?Slouching Towards Gomorrah being the title of a recent best-selling book by conservative hero Robert Bork.

Bush described himself as a "compassionate conservative," which sounded less like a philosophy than a marketing slogan: Love conservatism but hate arguing about abortion? Try our new compassionate conservatism?great ideological taste, now with less controversy. Conservatives disliked the "compassionate conservative" label in the same way that people on the Left would dislike it if a Democratic candidate for president called himself a "patriotic liberal."

In August, I traveled up to Philadelphia to hear Bush speak to the Republican national convention. I was filing three reports a day for three different newspapers, and I think I witnessed every event, media event, and pseudoevent over the convention's four-day span. It was pretty disheartening. The same metal detectors that inspected for bombs and guns seemed also to have been calibrated to block out ideas?not merely conservative ideas, but any ideas. Instead, the delegates heard from a professional wrestler, watched a pep rally by inner-city schoolchildren, and listened in prime time to the testimony of a woman who had lost a sister to breast cancer. In the evenings, the convention showcased minorities, women, and heartwarming anecdotes, all seemingly intended to prove that Newt Gingrich's GOP had been remade into as soft a box of caramels as ever melted inside a glove compartment.

By the time Bush himself came to the rostrum to speak, I was as ready to scoff as any of the cynical journalists in the press boxes. When he finished, I was wobbled. The speech was not only very good, it was very smart?and not smart in the disturbing way that the campaign had been smart, but smart in an interesting way, even a promising way.

Bush's first challenge was to explain why voters should vote against incumbents after eight years of prosperity. The Democrats had lost in 1984 and 1988 by denying that the prosperity of the 1980s was real. Bush avoided that mistake. He acknowledged the prosperity?and then changed the subject to the moral failings of the people who had presided over it. "For eight years, the Clinton/Gore administration has coasted through prosperity. And the path of least resistance is always downhill. But America's way is the rising road."

Bush found a way to identify with his baby boom generation without boasting or condemning. "My generation tested limits?and our country, in some ways, is better for it. Women are now treated more equally. Racial progress has been steady, if still too slow. We are learning to protect the natural world around us. We will continue this progress, and we will not turn back. At times, we lost our way. But we are coming home." Conservatives had attacked the baby boomers for producing Bill Clinton; Bush sorrowfully reproached Clinton for betraying the boomers. "Our current president embodied the potential of a generation. So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But, in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose."

Then Bush did something truly ingenious. He took his greatest personal vulnerability?his reputation for wildness?and used it to cancel his party's greatest vulnerability?its image as a claque of moralistic Church Ladies. "I believe in a God who calls us, not to judge our neighbors, but to love them. I believe in grace, because I have seen it; in peace, because I have felt it; in forgiveness, because I have needed it."

Altogether, a superb performance. But was it wholly convincing? Everyone knew Bush hadn't written his words. Whose voice were we really hearing?

The 2000 election was the messiest and most nerve-racking in 125 years. Bush's reinvention of the Republican Party did not quite work. He lost the popular vote by half a million ballots and had to be carried over the finish line by the U.S. Supreme Court. To put that in perspective, remember that we call the 2000 election "the closest in history" only because Bush was declared the winner in the end. If the recount had gone the other way?if Gore had somehow found the five-hundred-plus votes he needed to carry Florida?Gore's margin over Bush would actually have been larger than Kennedy's over Nixon in 1960.

In the elections of the nineteenth century, at least three presidents received fewer votes than their main opponent.* But it has been a long time since it last happened, and in the meantime, the country's attitudes toward voting and democracy have changed dramatically. Bush arrived in office politically crippled.

On one of my first trips with Bush after I joined his staff, I fell into conversation with a local Republican activist, a woman in her early forties who had quit a high-powered job to stay home with her children. Somehow she had failed to obtain a ticket to the event at which Bush was speaking. I was able to persuade the Secret Service to let her through. "Thank you," she said, "I wanted so badly to see my president." She had summed up Bush's dilemma in two words. To half the country, he was "my president." To the other half, he was not the president at all.

The lines that divided those two halves from each other were not mainly lines of race. (Although Bush lost the black vote overwhelmingly, he won a smaller share of the white vote than his father did in 1988.) Nor were they lines of class. (The large majority of Americans who described themselves to exit pollsters as "middle class" divided their votes between Bush and Gore almost exactly equally.) They were lines defined by family status and religious observance. Bush beat Gore by fifteen points among married people with children and by seventeen points among people who attend church every week. Gore beat Bush by nineteen points among women who work outside the home and by twenty-nine points among people who never attend church at all.

Bush's strongest supporters were not the richest Americans?in fact, Americans who described themselves as "upper class" voted for Gore over Bush. Bush's strongest supporters were the people most outraged by Clinton's misconduct. One of the questions the exit pollsters asked in 2000 was, "What is the most important thing to consider when you decide who to vote for?" One-quarter of all voters listed "honesty" as the most important thing. They voted 80 percent for Bush.

Bush's base liked his tax-cut plan. They supported him on missile defense, on Social Security reform, on faith-based charities, even (if less enthusiastically) on education. But what they most wanted from him was something much simpler: They wanted him not to be Clinton. In other words, Bush had come into office with half the country thinking him little better than some Paraguayan colonel who seized the presidential palace and the other half pretty much indifferent to everything in his program except the promise to lay off the interns. That was not much of a mandate to govern.

So now, in this new year, he would have to begin all over again: He would have to win the political majority that had eluded him in November. Then he would have to find something important and worthwhile to do with that majority. It was difficult to be optimistic about his chances.

But I wasn't a bookmaker. I was a journalist, and I was being offered an up-front view of the biggest story America has to tell. I had so often walked along Pennsylvania Avenue and looked inward at the old mansion, glowing cool and opal by night, refulgent with reflected sunlight in the day. Everybody in the world wants to know what goes on in there. So did I. An English historian once described government as "the endless adventure." Bush's adventure might succeed. I hoped so. But succeed or fail, it would be worth witnessing. My faith in Bush was not deep. But my curiosity was.

Besides, what was the alternative? Gerson challenged me directly: Conservatives had been losing political battles for a dozen years. Was I really content to heckle from the sidelines as they lost again? Gerson knew that as a journalist I had published articles critical of Bush. Yet Bush was willing to take a chance on me?would I refuse to take a chance on Bush?

The ceiling in the mess is very low, not even eight feet. You can feel the weight of the West Wing above your head, and with it the weight of American memory. The tape recorders that had wrecked the Nixon presidency had whirred away just a few feet from where I was sitting now. Over yonder was the colonnade where President Kennedy had paced during the terrifying hours of the Cuban missile crisis. Lincoln had walked here, too, when the White House stables stood where the Executive Office Building now stands and the West Wing itself was just a path leading to the telegraph offices in the War Department on the other side of Seventeenth Street. George Washington had watched the mansion rise, had chosen the contrasting round and peaked pediments of the mansion's windows, had perhaps touched the walls that every staffer touched whenever he or she thought nobody was looking.

Yes, I was ready to join the adventure myself. I had been looking in from the outside for a very long time. If only for a little while, I would like to look out from the inside. Besides, it wouldn't kill me to know my Bible better.


The Un-Clinton

On the morning of January 30, 2001, I donned a dark suit and sober necktie and drove downtown to begin my first day of work in the Bush administration. Hundreds of other eager staffers did exactly the same thing. We parked in the White House parking lots, answered our White House telephones, printed out documents on White House stationery . . . everything that real White House employees do. But when we turned on our television sets?and almost every White House office has a television in it?we viewed a parallel universe, where ex-president Bill Clinton remained America's top news maker.

On inauguration weekend, Americans had learned that Clinton's final official act as president had been to pardon wealthy felons under circumstances most politely described as fishy. Americans learned that Hillary Clinton had requested and received hundreds of thousands of dollars of gifts from rich friends for her new houses in New York and Washington. And they learned that the Clintons had loaded hundreds of pieces of White House furniture into their moving trucks.

For Bush, this final storm of Clinton scandal was a very favorable wind out of port. The instant the scandal story broke, Bush's approval rating gusted up to 60 percent, and there it hovered for the rest of the winter and through the spring. It was no longer only a religious minority who hungered for an un-Clinton as president; the whole country seemed to have had enough. As I passed the open doorway of the Oval Office one weekend afternoon, a guard pointed out the famous Resolute desk, the desk used by Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and now Bush.

Meet the Author

David Frum is the author of Dead Right, praised by Frank Rich of The New York Times as “the smartest book written from the inside about the American conservative movement” and by Peggy Noonan as “not just a great book—but a classic.” Frum’s 1996 collection of essays, What’s Right, prompted The Wall Street Journal to dub him “one of the leading political commentators of his generation.” His history of the 1970s, How We Got Here, was described by the National Review as “an audacious act of revisionism, written in a voice and style so original it deserves to be called revolutionary.” He received a simultaneous B.A. and M.A. in history from Yale University in 1982. He was appointed visiting lecturer in history at Yale in 1986; in 1987 he earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He is a contributing editor to the National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and he has written regularly for The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Weekly Standard, and Canada’s National Post. He is a contributor to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. From January 2001 to February 2002, he was a special assistant to President Bush for economic speechwriting. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, journalist and novelist Danielle Crittenden Frum, and their three children. He can be reached via the Internet at davidfrum.com.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Right Man 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was very suprised by this book. I read it because I had heard a recommendation, but approached it with a degree of skepticism. I didn't want to read a 280 page 'rah-rah' Bush pep rally. I was pleasantly suprised with how well Mr. Frum covered events as they happened and recorded them in a fashion that produced an easy to read manuscript. This book did a fantastic job of recounting the perspectives of one Presidential speechwriter, and how he viewed our President's handling of crises. I highly recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
George W is destined to be revisited time and again, the way Harry Truman is.... they are both independent thinkers who know right from wrong, call a spade a spade, get the info they need , then march straight ahead. Buy this book, and also buy an unadvertised gem called 'Cockpit Confessions of an Airline Pilot,' by Keshner.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A great read for people who think George W Bush is not in the driving Seat An outstanding inside look at our President and the NSC, as they are suddenly faced with how to respond to the terror attacks on 9 11, Where to respond, how to respond, and how to determine results. Gives insight and perspective on just how complicated planning a war can be. I must heartily recommend Keshner's COCKPIT CONFESSIONS OF AN AIRLINE PILOT, which I am now re-reading in segments every day. What a fantastic life.... what a trip.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am pleased to write I found Mr. Frum's insightful look at President G.W. Bush's first year in office refreshingly candid. Mr. Frum is quick to point out GW's shortcomings as well as his strengths and pulls no punches when discussing the qualities and weaknesses of the president's key advisors and support staff. Mr. Frum is no fawning 'Bush-ite' and 'The Right Man' is not a literary lovefest disguised as a serious journalistic endeavor. Frum's book provides a straightforward - and not always favorable - glimpse inside an administration responding to one of the most crucial periods in our nation's history. Also recommended: 'COCKPIT CONFESSIONS OF AN AIRLINE PILOT' - Stephen G. Keshner; 'The Breach' - Peter Baker
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this thoroughly. President Bush has the weight of the world on his shoulders and this book gives us another look at the man we elected to lead us. The political skeptics such as the reviewer who did not read this book yet panned it still cannot get it through their heads that we have a decent, intelligent, moral human being in the White House who is trying to do the right thing. It IS quite a switch.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am pleased to write I found Mr. Frum's insightful look at President G.W. Bush's first year in office refreshingly candid. Mr. Frum is quick to point out GW's shortcomings as well as his strengths and pulls no punches when discussing the qualities and weaknesses of the president's key advisors and support staff. Mr. Frum is no fawning "Bush-ite" and "The Right Man" is not a literary lovefest disguised as a serious journalistic endeavor. Frum's book provides a straightforward - and not always favorable - glimpse inside an administration responding to one of the most crucial periods in our nation's history. If you are interested in the "whys and hows" of political decisionmaking and crisis management at the executive level, read "The Right Man."
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very well done and intersting to read. Good title for this book. Hope it does well, it will mean more people will understand this president.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
OK, come on! I haven't read the title, but the fawning preliminary review can't be allowed to stand. Frum helped to author the "axis of evil" speech, which put the US in the position of a) lumping Iran in with Iraq at a time when Iranian pro-Western sentiment is at the least running at a recent high; and b) threatening North Korea with preemptive military action in a situation where we have absolutely no ability to do so (without unacceptably seeing North Korea flatten Seoul). So can we trust such an account? Obviously not -- it at best can be a biased account from an insider who puts rhetoric over reality.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In the first insider look(many of the Bush White House 'secrets' have since been confirmed by subsequent books of journalist Bob Woodward, ex-treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and others)on America's new KGB--king george bush--the former W speech writer depicts the Oval Office occupier as one who is impatient, quick to anger and sometimes /_sic_/ lacking in curiosity. However, perhaps with an eye to bolster book sales as well as paying homage to Dubya loyalists, David Frum tempers his critique with obligatory labels of 'decency' and 'tenacity' attributed to the Chickenhawk-in-Chief. Prior to September 11, 2001, the legitimacy of the incompetent W regime was teetering on collapse, as Mr. Bush was 'not on his way to a very successful presidency,' Frum ruefully but truthfully confesses. The conservative writer goes on to describe '43' as 'often uncurious and as a result ill-informed /_no Shock and Awe here_/' More alarmngly, Dubya was surrounded by a coterie of fellow chickenhawks, none of whom impressed the author with their intellectual prowess. Perhaps the most damning stab at the Bush is Frum's own reaction on his first meeting with the media-conferred 'Mr. Nice Guy' at the Oval Office: 'Bush was a sharp exception to the White House code of niceness. He was tart, not sweet.' And the Coward from Crawford soon revealed his true demeanor--'Bush was not the easy, genial man he was in public. Close up, one saw a man keeping a tight grip on himself.' At long last, an insider--though unwittingly--confirms what many citizens suspect, that the White House cabal of G.O.P.(Greed, Oil & Profits)frat boys is a gang of anti-democratic, vindictive and power-hungry white men.