In this collection of his occasional papers, David Frum once again demonstrates his worthiness to the harmless persuasion. Having agonized over his uneven prose, I finally concluded that Frum’s intellectual weaknesses are his practical strengths. His writing never offends anyone in the political mainstream, or upon whom his career as a publicist may depend. It is entirely consistent with his comments delivered to Tim Russert during an interview on CNN on July 13, when Frum urged Republicans to conduct an “exciting” campaign with “exciting” personalities like Cheney, Gramm, and Kemp. But he also warned Dole, with the smiling approval of his interviewer, to keep the “extremist” Pat Buchanan from capturing attention at the Republican convention. Frum’s notion of “exciting” would translate as “don’t make waves!” or “let the political class have its way!” There is nothing he says about contemporary politics, nor about anyone whose spear he seems to be carrying, capable of generating excitement. That is precisely what commends him to the liberal-neoconservative nomenclatura.

As in his earlier publication Dead Right, Frum in this book makes occasional libertarian noises. He wishes to cut taxes, deregulate some things, eliminate Aid to Dependent Children, and create a better climate for business investment. In a flight of hyperbole, he refers to the Kemp-Roth cut in marginal tax rates as the “most important single piece of conservative domestic legislation of the 1970’s.” Since that legislation resulted neither in stopping federal overreach nor in reversing the growth of taxes, it is hard to see it as a conservative landmark. Frum also exaggerates the effects of the “tax cuts” introduced during the Reagan administration. By focusing on (and exaggerating) the slight reduction in middle-class income tax rates, he ignores the hike in payroll deductions that took place at the same time, as happened with Social Security.

Most of the silliness in this collection of essays seems packed into the section on Pat Buchanan, which appears to be recycled from Dead Right and from Frum’s earlier polemic against Buchanan published in the American Spectator. This litany of denunciation is followed, in the manner of the format of Dead Right, by a saccharine tribute to the heroic Jack Kemp. Though Kemp could not cut the mustard as a presidential candidate, Frum is still impressed by this “captain with the mighty heart.” Me stresses the fight “that exemplified all that is best in him,” meaning Kemp’s and Bill Bennett’s fight against Proposition 187. Though a libertarian, Frum has no scruples about fighting to preserve social services for those illegally in the United States. Like Bennett and Kemp, he apparently considers those services to be a “human right.” He also lists as an achievement of Kemp’s “important conservative legislation” a “50 percent increase in personal income tax collection” by 1981. If that was indeed the case, Kemp-Roth was a disguised godsend for the managerial state.

Frum does note the ineffectiveness of Kemp and Reagan in changing the courses of American government. While repeatedly praising both men, he also indicates that neither had any lasting impact on the American welfare state. Frum perceives no contradiction in what he takes to be the twin missions of American conservatism, “smaller government and global leadership.” Unfortunately, there is no way that one can have both, as the history of most empires reveals. And the American case, as voluminously demonstrated by Robert Higgs, confirms this generalization: every major foreign entanglement has had a ratcheting effect on the expansion of the state at home. This causal relation is quite clear to me, though, unlike Frum, I do not describe myself as a libertarian.

It seems equally clear that Frum hypocritically accuses Buchanan (and “his friend and fellow-columnist whose ideas Buchanan has increasingly echoed,” Sam Francis) of turning conservatism away from its roots and towards greater statism. Both Reaganism and its Kempian variation, however, accomplished this long before Buchanan came on the presidential scene. Buchanan may be at least intermittently a “big-government conservative,” but he is not the first to fit that description: the 1980’s were full of them, and Commentary, to which Frum contributes, keeps that tradition alive and well. Indeed, Frum himself amply subscribes to it, given his views on civil rights, foreign policy, and social services to illegal aliens. Not surprisingly (to use one of his favorite expressions), his commentary on Buchanan and the paleoconservatives is the most factually distorted part of his anthology. Buchanan mentioned Goldman Sachs in his indictment of the Mexican bailout not because of his “habit of using Jewish names to personify things he dislikes,” but because it was the investment firm that Clinton’s Treasury Secretary had long represented and which stood to profit heavily from the bailout. Frum also accuses Buchanan of taking on a false litmus test “borrowed from Gottfried, Rothbard, and Chronicles to distinguish good, true conservatives from bad neoconservatives.” In fact, he never states the nature of the litmus test, though he does try to refute it by citing Richard Nixon and Jack Kemp as conservatives who would have failed it. It is questionable whether Nixon as President or Kemp at any time was a conservative, even by the definition applied elsewhere by Frum, which is that of a Taft Republican who believes in small government and fiscal restraint.

Frum descends entirely into gibberish when he tries to yank neoconservative chestnuts out of the fire. He tells us, for example, that it was not the neocons but Ed Feulner, someone “who never in his life had a good word to say about the Great Society,” who was “much more instrumental than Kristol in kiboshing [M.E. Bradford’s] appointment [as NEH director],” Feulner having been forced to take this action by Bradford’s tendency to “liken Abraham Lincoln to Hitler.”

Reagan, Frum explains, had withdrawn his support from Bradford because he did not “wish to wreck his political honeymoon in order to refight the Civil War.” We may wonder (or should we?) why Frum does not level the same charge against Bennett and Kemp, who have lectured white Southerners on the need to atone for their history of slavery. And what about Reagan’s own attempt to “refight the Civil War” by issuing an executive order to cease decorating Confederate monuments in and around the District? Describing Feulner and the Heritage Foundation as being without neocon ties, moreover, is an exercise in deception. In 1981, when Feulner went to Reagan in order to defame Bradford, well over half of his annual operating budget came from neoconservative sources.

Such desperate attempts to uphold neocon revisionist history show Frum at his worst. But he does have a better side, which can be seen in several of his shorter pieces. His remarks about Harry Truman as a vicious politician and his withering assessment of the religious right suggest the presence of a critical intelligence. Frum’s essay “The Legacy of Russell Kirk” is the finest piece I have ever read on the subject, though, like everything else in his anthology, it should have been written with more care. A better edited and vastly expanded draft of this critical tribute should have been placed at the end of the volume, instead of Frum’s boilerplate remarks on the Passover Seder. But here the editorial call might not have been Frum’s: his patrons might have mistaken for high theology his quite conventional gloss on the Passover Haggadah.


[What’s Right: The New Conservative Majority and the Remaking of America, by David Frum (New York Basic Books) 208 pp., $23.00]