David Frum has spoken for American conservatism for a generation – now he despairs of it
David Frum has been a major force in American conservatism for more than 20 years. He was a speechwriter in President George W. Bush’s first administration and is said to have coined the phrase ‘axis of evil’. In the last few years, however, he has fallen out with the leading conservative magazine, National Review, the leading conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, and the leading conservative TV network, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. He is an active political blogger at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, where he regularly deplores Republican intransigence and bloody-mindedness.
Rather than write a self-justifying memoir, the time-honoured response to a public parting of ways, Frum has just published Patriots, a comic novel about dysfunctional Washington. America’s political community is going to enjoy matching fictional names to real faces, and it’s not hard to imagine a movie version. His message is that the conservative movement has betrayed its heritage, lost its intellectual energy, and bred a generation of obstructionists.
Frum (born 1960), the son of a well-known Canadian TV personality, Barbara Frum, was educated south of the border, at Yale University and then Harvard Law School. Working for the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s and 1990s, he gained a reputation for writing brilliant but sharply critical articles on other conservatives. This phase of his career culminated in the publication of Dead Right (1995), a panoramic account of conservative follies and mishaps since the Reagan years. The Republican party, he believed, had failed to live up to its promise of limited government, and was too deferential to its evangelical wing.
He patched things up with What’s Right (1997), outlining a policy for conservatives to regain the initiative. He was clearly a Republican insider through the early Bush years and an ardent supporter of aggressive policies in Afghanistan and Iraq. This second honeymoon did not last. It is difficult to believe that he will return to the conservative fold for a third stint, but that is all to the good — as an independent writer he is more interesting and more provocative.
Patriots is heavy on discussion of the issues and perhaps a little light on character development. Frum told me, in a recent conversation, that he found it difficult to create believable, three-dimensional characters, especially those who speak for positions with which he has no sympathy. Still, he thinks fiction might be a better way of reaching readers than journalism. ‘Since 2009, when I have been giving talks trying to explain what’s going on in Washington, what I have discovered again and again is that the explanations that connect most with audiences are actual stories about what’s been happening.’ Will Patriots be more influential than his journalism? ‘One can only hope!’
The novel’s central character, Walter Schotzke, is the orphaned heir of a mustard manufacturer. A self-indulgent slacker in his twenties, he needs his grandmother’s string-pulling to land a job on the staff of old Senator Hazen of Rhode Island. As he comes of age and gradually learns to take his responsibilities more seriously, Walter discovers that the capital is in thrall to manipulative ideologues and selfish billionaires.
A black liberal, Monroe Williams (guess who), from the ‘Nationalist’ party has just lost the presidency to General Pulaski, a ‘Constitutionalist’. The wheelchair-bound Pulaski was wounded in combat during America’s long-running war against… Mexico. He dismays Constitutionalist regulars by trying to build a coalition across party lines to solve the financial crisis. They hate the Nationalists and set out to thwart him, which gives Walter a chance to witness campaigns of deliberate misinformation, the massaging of public opinion, and the character assassination of anyone who won’t fall into line.
Walter’s boss, Senator Hazen, a figure left over from a more decorous era of bipartisanship, puts the national interest first and supports the president. Frum says this figure, the book’s moral exemplar, is modelled not on any one person but on some of the more honourable politicians he has known over the years, including the current Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and the former US senator from New York Jacob Javits. Alone among all the characters, Hazen performs a genuinely selfless act. From him Walter learns a sense of noblesse oblige. Frum told me, ‘I would like to see a lot more noblesse oblige in America today. There is shockingly little sense of obligation in this time of national crisis.’
The characters in Patriots glide through a world of glamour, power and wealth. Just offstage, however, stands a nation of unemployed, abandoned and desperate people. To highlight them, Frum believes, would have been to make the book less amusing and more sombre. ‘It is hard to make something that is both funny and furious, a comedy with a point.’
He is angry at Republicans’ irresponsibility, best exhibited last year when ‘they almost let the nation default on its financial obligations’. Not that he thinks the Democrats are any better. In the future, he says, ‘I don’t doubt that Democrats will learn from the Republican playbook of the last few years and push the system in an even worse direction. It’s like a man falling downstairs, a worsening cycle. At each stage it’s never been worse, but the next step will be worse yet… The game is played in a rougher, more ruthless way than ever before and the system can’t stand it.’
The passing of an older, better generation is a central theme in Patriots, and Frum makes no bones about the fact that the new crowd are inferior to their parents. They also suffer from foreshortened horizons. Valerie, Walter’s girlfriend, is cleverer, more motivated and more disciplined than he, but without an inherited fortune of her own she has no prospect of a political career. The most she can hope for is to advance his career and be an influence for decency along the way. ‘I wanted to have her bump into the limits,’ says Frum. ‘As an event planner she serves rich people. Throughout the book you see many people whose role is now to serve. Walter himself becomes aware of how much more servile people are becoming in the midst of this awful recession.’ They know that the alternative is unemployment.
Patriots offers a fascinating glimpse into American political life from a writer who has lived at its centre since the Reagan years. Whatever the outcome of this November’s election, Frum offers plenty of reasons to feel discouraged. As a reader you are left feeling deflated, with no more than a glum admiration for the second-rate Walter. Only by contrast with his mendacious contemporaries can he represent hope for the future.