The Right Man

I read David Frum’s The Right Man over the weekend. I’ts a good book, quite funny and highly readable. Frum is a bright guy and writes from a solidly conservative viewpoint.
My only quarrel with the book is that Frum takes, in some respects, a too negative view of President Bush and, especially, his pre-White House career. In my view, he over-extends his thesis that President Bush is an unlikely person to have become such an effective war leader; he portrays Bush as largely a failure prior to becoming President, and his Administration as mostly a failure prior to September 11.
To draw this picture, Frum essentially omits Bush’s extraordinarily successful two terms as Governor of Texas–which furnished, after all, his qualifications for the Presidency. And he fails to mention Bush’s business success as managing partner of the Texas Rangers, focusing instead on his ultimately-unsuccessful years in the oil business. Here, I think Frum writes as one who is not very familiar with the business world. Bush’s oil company crashed because the oil business generally crashed, and it seems not to occur to Frum that a businessman can develop not only skills but confidence in his skills in a business that ultimately fails.
And while it is true, as Frum writes, that Bush was not an outstanding student, he was a much better student than, for example, Al Gore–and anyway, who cares? Many presidents have been mediocre scholars–among recent holders of the office, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan come to mind.
And unlike President Bush, no one ever scours Gore’s history (or that of Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy, or other leading Democrats) for suggestions of failure. This is because those individuals never worked in private industry; as lifelong politicians, they have never risked failure except in elections.
Likewise with Bush’s pre-September 11 accomplishments. Given that he had been in office for less than nine months, the fact that he had already achieved his most important domestic priority–a substantial tax cut–indicates success, not failure.
A final quibble: while generally admiring the President, Frum more than once criticizes him for being “incurious,” an evaluation that seems somewhat at odds with his broader view of Bush as a creative genius (my words, not his). This strikes me in part as a young man’s misunderstanding of an older man. It seems not to occur to Frum that by middle age, a great many questions should be answered and therefore no longer subjects of curiosity. And given the demands on a President’s time–in peacetime, let alone wartime–curiosity no doubt falls low on the scale of priorities.
On the whole, though, it’s a fun book.


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