Correcting David Frum

Tom PiatakOn September 13, 2004, a piece by David Frum called “Correcting Pat Buchanan” appeared at National Review Online. In it, Frum charged that Buchanan had opposed America’s war against the Taliban and had “repeatedly predicted doom and disaster.” Frum spoke of Buchanan’s “past opposition to military action against Osama bin Laden” and said “I cannot find on the record any contemporaneous declaration of support from [Buchanan] for the Afghan campaign.”

I was surprised and angered to read this, since I knew absolutely that Buchanan had supported the Afghan campaign as well as “military action against Osama bin Laden.” I immediately sent Frum a tartly worded e-mail informing him of Buchanan’s support for the Afghan war. Frum replied, asking me “to send . . . a single example of such a statement—that is, one that he made AT THE TIME.” Taking this as a challenge, I searched the internet and quickly found a slew of contemporaneous statements by Buchanan supporting both the Afghan campaign and “military action against Osama bin Laden.”

These statements were made by Buchanan on the McLaughlin Group of October 5, 2001, which I sent Frum. Far from predicting “gloom and disaster,” Buchanan told McLaughlin, “The Talibani air force is going to have a very short but exciting war.” Far from opposing military action against the Taliban, Buchanan told McLaughlin “The Taliban have to be overthrown” and “I think we can take the cities.” Agreeing with Mortimer Zuckerman, Buchanan said “you got to go in there, replace the government, get the Afghans to help you, and then run through all these camps, run all of these guys to earth, kill as many as you can.”

Buchanan was unambiguous as to what we should do with bin Laden. When McLaughlin asked how we should respond if bin Laden attempted to surrender, Buchanan said “shoot him!” When McLaughlin pressed to see if Buchanan was serious, Buchanan said “sure” and invoked the example of Che Guevara: “What did you do with Che Guevara when we found him?” So far, not even David Frum has suggested that Buchanan secretly harbors a soft spot for Che Guevara.

To his credit, Frum thanked me for the correction. But he still maintained that Buchanan “said the direct opposite in print” and said that “either (Buchanan) is blowing with the wind . . . or he is playing to two different constituencies.” By September 19, Frum had apparently decided that the image of Buchanan “blowing with the wind” was not a convincing one, so he wrote at National Review Online that Buchanan was engaged in “a strange double-messaging”—saying one thing in print, and another on TV—and that “For accuracy’s sake, I regret that I was not more alert to it in this case.” Frum’s apology was for not being “alert” to Buchanan’s “strange double messaging,” not for misrepresenting what Buchanan had said and then having the gall to declare, “let us have no false pretenses about where Buchanan has really stood for three years.”

For accuracy’s sake, it is a shame Frum did not simply apologize for erroneously saying that Buchanan had opposed the Afghan campaign and even military action against Osama bin Laden. It is understandable that Frum might not want to apologize. Frum has been waging a journalistic jihad against Buchanan for over a dozen years. More to the point, if the world worked as Frum imagined, there would be no need to resort to Buchanan’s fictitious opposition to the Afghan war to tar him; Buchanan’s undoubted opposition to the war in Iraq would suffice. But, at this juncture, Buchanan’s opposition to the Iraq war looks less like a blot on his patriotism than a credit to his foresight.

Still, Frum should have apologized. An examination of Buchanan’s columns at the time of Afghanistan does not reveal any statement opposing military action against the Taliban, much less “opposition to military action against Osama bin Laden.” In his September 13 piece, Frum cites only one Buchanan column, which Frum identifies as being from “September 28, 2001.” (In fact, this column appeared in the Los Angeles Times, on September 18, 2001). This is the same column Frum cites in his infamous “Unpatriotic Conservatives” essay, with the same error as to its date. However, Buchanan states at the beginning of that column that “President Bush has now received full authority to wage war against all who abetted the slaughter. It must be done” and states at the end, “Let us pay back those who did this.” On October 19, 2001, Buchanan wrote that “The President has moved with great prudence in the Afghan war. Let us go in, get them, get out, and go home, and let the Arab and Islamic world work out its own destiny.” And, on November 16, 2001, Buchanan described the day Kabul fell as “a good day for America and a great day for Mr. Bush.” If Frum was unable to find “any contemporaneous declaration of support from [Buchanan] for the Afghan campaign,” he must not have tried very hard.

To be sure, Buchanan did write against the folly of nation building and warn of the danger of turning America’s just retribution for September 11 into a clash of civilizations. But that is hardly the same as opposing military action against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban sponsors. In both print and on TV Buchanan said we needed to act against the Taliban, despite the cost. On October 5, 2001, Buchanan told McLaughlin that bin Laden expected an “explosion” if American struck at the Taliban. Buchanan said he did not think this explosion would occur, “But in any event, we’ve got to do this. You’ve got to run down the Taliban, take them out, and drive them out of the country, at least as a first step.”

Setting Frum’s words against Buchanan’s, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Frum is a fundamentally unreliable witness to what Buchanan says and a deeply flawed interpreter of what Buchanan thinks. Conservatives of all types would do well to remember this when evaluating Frum’s continuing broadsides against paleoconservatives in general (some of whom Frum has tarred as “unpatriotic conservatives”) and Buchanan in particular.

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