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Political commentator David Frum

Political commentator David Frum. From January 2001 to February 2002 he was a special assistant to President Bush for economic speech-writing. He held the position during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and he's the man who put the axis in the oft-repeated Bush term "axis of evil." Frum is the author of the new book, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, an inside account of the White House.


Other segments from the episode on January 8, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 8, 2003: Interview with David Frum; Commentary on the meaning of the word "plastics."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: David Frum discusses his new book "The Right Man" and
his experience working as a speechwriter for President George W.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest David Frum was the presidential speechwriter who originated the
phrase the `axis of evil,' which President Bush used one year ago in his State
of the Union address to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Actually, Frum's
phrase was the `axis of hatred'; it was changed to `axis of evil' in the
editing process. We'll get to that a little later. Frum was a special
assistant for economic speech writing during President Bush's first year in
the White House. Frum's new book is an account of that year. It's called
"The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush." Frum is a
political commentator on NPR's "Morning Edition," a contributing editor to the
National Review and a fellow at the conservative think tank the American
Enterprise Institute. One of his previous books, "Dead Right," was about the
American conservative movement. Yesterday we recorded an interview about his
new book.

I want you to describe the atmosphere in the Bush White House. From your book
it sounds like it was pretty formal.

Mr. DAVID FRUM (Author, "The Right Man"): Yes, the Bush White House was
the--I discovered this actually accidentally--the last place in America where
a man can feel underdressed coming to work in a brown suit. It had a nice
feeling, though. You know, the kind of high-tension confrontations you see on
the TV show "West Wing," with people jabbing fingers into each other's lapels,
there was none of that. There was a code of gentleness of manner that was
very sweet and endearing. And I think that is a large part of sort of the
mystery of the Bush administration, is the people there came to feel great
loyalty toward each other because, by and large, they treated each other very

GROSS: Now you said there's like no cursing in the White House, and that when
you once said `damn sure,' the temperature in the room dropped several

Mr. FRUM: Yeah.

GROSS: On the other hand, one of the big famous Bush administration gaffes is
when the president didn't realize he was in front of a live microphone and he
said, `That's Adam Clymer, major-league A-hole from The New York Times.'

Mr. FRUM: Yeah.

GROSS: And Dick Cheney answered, `Yeah, big time.' So how do you reconcile

Mr. FRUM: The president is the president. He's got his own rules. I
wouldn't want to say there was no cursing in the Bush White House. I wasn't
in every room and in every meeting. But what I did notice was there was a
kind of soft manner that is absorbed from the culture of modern evangelicals
and that really set the tone. And as you say, I mean, I had this--where I let
slip a pretty mild curse, by my standards, and realized I'd done something
wrong. The tone of that administration is not all set by the president. It's
a bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy, in many ways, sets its own standards,
which are sometimes a little different from the behavior of the people at the
very top.

GROSS: Now you say that the Bush White House had a rule, no marijuana after
college. Explain that rule.

Mr. FRUM: When you go to work at the White House, you have to go through a
whole series of security clearances, and once a clearance is put in place in
1947 or 1972, it never comes off. So there's this ever higher tower of
regulations that are ever more insane. One of them, for example, is that you
are supposed to list ever foreign trip you've ever taken, the date of
departure, the date of return, all the places you visited in between, for the
past 15 years. This rule was put in place back when people visited Europe on
the SS United States, maybe twice in a lifetime, and is still there in the day
of the $299 weekend fare to Paris, but it's enforced.

One of the other rules they have is they look through your background.
Obviously, it is illegal to smoke marijuana, and that is something that goes
into your record. Now different administrations have enforced the rule
against having smoked marijuana in the past with greater or less severity.
The Bush administration enforced it very severely. There was an exception.
They'd overlook marijuana smoking in college, but if you continued afterward,
you were disqualified from a position of trust under the United States.

GROSS: And do they just ask you, or do they investigate this?

Mr. FRUM: Well, they ask you and they investigate. But it would be a very
serious crime to lie.

GROSS: So what was your answer, if you don't mind telling us.

Mr. FRUM: My answer was I smoked marijuana in college and not afterward.

GROSS: OK. You say one seldom heard an unexpected thought in the Bush White
House or met someone who possessed unusual knowledge. Conspicuous
intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House. What do you
mean, and why do you think that was so?

Mr. FRUM: Well, one element of George Bush's background is very, very
unusual--I think unique from ...(unintelligible), which he is the only
president who has had the experience of having been a White House staffer
himself. He wasn't on the payroll, but he functioned in his father's vice
presidency, and then in his father's presidency, as a midlevel staffer. And
he got to witness how the White House staff goes wrong.

The White House has often tried to employ very brilliant people, and there
were many of them in the Clinton administration; there were a couple in the
elder George Bush administration, there were some in the Reagan
administration. Some of these people had a habit of being quite destructive.
One of the most famous of them is a man named Richard Darman, who was the
budget director under the elder Bush. People don't get smarter than Richard
Darman, but he was a completely destructive presence in the force of the White

And so President Bush, when he was drawing up his staff--the president has
access to all the talent he wants; he can have anybody--he decided that what
he was looking for was less brilliance and more steadiness, trustworthiness
and loyalty to himself. Now that had the advantage of this nice tone that we
were talking about before, and certainly has the advantage that the people
there are very loyal to the president, as they should be. But it has a cost,
which is that the president, I think, loses the benefit of hearing from very
unusually minded people.

You need one or two of those folks, and there tended not to be many of them in
the Bush White House. There are some exceptions. I mean, let's not make a
mistake, the average level of intelligence was very high, and there were
people of phenomenal mind, like Karl Rove, who in a weird way combines the
role both of being like the political boss of the Bush White House and also
its Arthur Schlesinger Jr.--its court intellectual, the guy who's read more
and knows more than anybody. He's a startling exception to that rule. But
the rule is the rule.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Frum. He's a political
journalist and commentator, former speechwriter for President Bush. His new
book is called "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush."

Let's talk a little bit about writing speeches. Your focus was economics, at
least, until September 11th.

Mr. FRUM: September 11th.

GROSS: Yeah. Let's start with your economic speeches. Do you have a
favorite phrase that you came up with for one of your speeches?

Mr. FRUM: Well, I had a favorite experience. About a week after I started
at the White House, I was given the assignment of writing a speech for the
president to alert the country to the news that a serious recession was on its
way. It wasn't clear yet whether it had started--this was early February. It
wasn't clear yet whether it had started, but everyone understood it was on its
way; it had been coming for some time. And the president wanted some language
to describe this. And I just couldn't think of anything, and I was new to it
and I found it very frustrating. And you're too self-conscious when you
write; I mean, the power of the presidency and all that and it was going to be
given in the Rose Garden.

I ended up wasting a whole afternoon trying one thing after another; went
home. Then I thought I'd come in early. I had forgotten I had car pool
duty--I had to drive my kids and some neighbor's kids to school. And as I
pull out of the driveway, the indicator light goes on in my minivan. My wife
did not refuel it. She had it the other day. She hadn't refueled it before
she parked it. Oh, brother, I ended up driving all the way to the school then
all the way back to town with this indicator light flashing at me. Bingo! So
I wrote the speech in which I said, `There's a warning light flashing on the
dashboard of our economy,' and the president said it in the Rose Garden, and
it was the quote of the week in Newsweek, and it lead The Wall Street Journal
and The New York Times and it was on the Reuters wire. This is pretty

GROSS: You talk a little bit in your book about the editing process of

Mr. FRUM: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and you say Karen Hughes, who used to be communications director in
the White House, forced every Bush speech through a drastic translation
process. What's an example of what the process was like?

Mr. FRUM: Well, Karen was a very powerful person, unafraid of anybody, and
she had a series of rules about the way you had to talk to the American
people. For example, you were never to use the word `parents.' You were to
say `moms and dads.' You were never to use the word `businesses,' you were to
say `employers.' Above all things, she hated the word `but,' because that
drew contrast and implied you had to have one thing or the other. Better to
use `and.' Better still to use the conjunction `as,' as in `As we go forward,
so we make progress,' that kind of thing. I have to say, as I repeat all
this, you can see this can be mocked, but, in fact, it is the way people talk,
and it does have an impact. And she gave Bush tremendous service.

Bush was himself a very active editor, which may surprise some people, who
don't believe that he cared much about words, but he cared. And even if words
sometimes eluded him, that made him care about them all the more. He was very
alive to what he wanted to say, and he was a very precise editor. He would
read drafts himself, usually pretty early in the morning. And he would read
them with this big marking pen in hand. And we all got to know his fierce
scratches and notes that he would--if he saw something he didn't like, you
would see it. You'd get the annotated version back or he would telephone you
or summon you into the Oval Office, which was the worst of all.

I once wrote the phrase, in a draft speech, `I have seen with my own eyes,'
and Bush circled the words `with my own eyes' and wrote beside it in big
letters, `Duh.' He has a very, very precise mind. And if he saw a stray
thoughts, things not in the place where they naturally ought to go, he would
coral them with this inky lariat and pull them back into place.

GROSS: President Bush had been mocked a lot for misusing words, for coining
words that don't exist and, you know, for Bushisms. Having written for him,
what do you think of his ability to just speak extemporaneously?

Mr. FRUM: Yeah. I was struck the first time I met him by this shock of this
commanding figure. I was not prepared for this. I had seen all of those
parodies, too--I'd seen the Bushisms, too--and I was expecting somebody who
was maybe a little more unsure. But from the moment you see him, he is
completely in command. And he does speak more fluently in private than in
those days he did in public. Maybe he had stage fright, I don't know.

But here's a strange thing that I always did notice with his private speech.
At the same time as he made all these malapropisms, he also used a kind of
almost old-fashioned linguistic correctness. President Bush is, I think, the
only person of his generation I've ever heard use constructions like, `I
should have done so' and `hitherto,' `hence forward.'

GROSS: Hitherto is almost archaic. I mean, that's not just tidy, that's...

Mr. FRUM: It's literary.

GROSS: Well, it's a very written, not spoken type of word.

Mr. FRUM: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, but his speech has those patterns in it that
are--at the same time he can then verge on ultra colloquial Texanisms that
he's got these memories of Victorian English all embedded in his speech.

GROSS: It almost sounds like he was trying too hard to, you know, speak

Mr. FRUM: No, no, because--no, no, because that was completely--sorry, that
was completely natural. I mean, the thing you do not see him do, you never
see him reaching for the $5 word. He speaks the way he speaks, he does the
things he does and you can like it or not.

GROSS: My guest is David Frum. He was a speechwriter for President Bush
during his first year in the White House. Frum's new book is called "The
Right Man for the Job: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush." More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is political journalist and
commentator David Frum. His new book, "The Right Man," is about his
experiences writing speeches for President George W. Bush.

Describe what it was like in the White House on September 11th when you found
out what was happening and you were told to evacuate.

Mr. FRUM: It was a just terrible day. Traffic was snarled in Washington all
morning as if there was some premonition that something terrible was about to
happen in the world, maybe somehow it had already begun. I didn't get to work
until almost 9, which was very, very late, and pulled into the parking spaces
at the Executive Office Building and walked in a little before 9. My cell
phone went, it was my wife, she told me that something terrible had happened
in New York and to turn on the television set. I got inside, saw the news,
and all these rumors began to fly that there were bombs on the Mall, that
there'd been a bombing at the State Department. And I realized that this is
going to be a day like no other.

I had a lunch scheduled that day over at the Pentagon, and I called my friend
there and said, `I'm not going to be coming.' I got his assistant who said,
`They're evacuating the Pentagon. Of course, you're not going to be coming.
And you better think about evacuating the White House.' And about then, my
wife called in and said that she had seen the same news and I better think
about evacuating the White House. And you get this sense of sort of
mulishness, `No, I'm not going to go. I'm going to stay at my desk.' I mean,
one is hardly one of the more indispensable people in the United States
government. There's no reason to stay at one's desk, but you have the sense
of `I'm going to stay, stay at my desk.' And so I sat down very purposefully
and very grimly, determined to, you know--well, write with renewed patriotism,
or whatever it is speechwriters do in wartime.

And at that moment, the Secret Service came along the corridors banging on the
doors saying, `Evacuate. Everyone is to evacuate.' And we all moved out into
the hall, and they began by saying, `Don't run. Don't run.' And then they
got some information and they said, `Run,' and everybody ran. And I remember
afterwards people would wear around their neck these badges with "The
Star-Spangled Banner" on it with the motto, `These colors don't run.' Well,
that day they did.

And so we all ran, we ran out of the building, we ran up Lafayette Square, and
they made us keeping moving, they shouted at us to take off our badges so we
wouldn't be targets for snipers. And we got all the way up to about I Street,
about two blocks from the White House, and we all then stopped, and no one had
any idea what to do. And it turned out there was no plan. And the reason
there was no plan was the last time anybody had thought that Washington might
be in danger was sometime back in the middle 1980s. And what they were
worried about was a nuclear strike on the White House, and their conclusion
was, `Well, the president and the vice president will be safe in their plane
flying off and the staff will all of course be reduced to radioactive dust, so
there's no need to make any special provision for them.' But there we all
were alive and milling about with no idea much of what to do or what was going
on in the world. And cell phones didn't work, and we were all cut off.

GROSS: What was the work that you did on September 11th and 12th and 13th?

Mr. FRUM: The work we did on September 11th was the drafting of a series of
suggestive statements for the president. He spoke a couple of times from the
various places that his jet touched down, and finally he returned to the White
House and gave a speech that night. And it was like this great funnel of
ideas flowing in. And so we wrote in this private office building, we wrote a
series of drafts of things he might way. By and large, they were not

But one thing from those drafts did make it, and I think that was actually one
of the key sentences of his decision-making, and that was the statement that
the United States would regard as an enemy not just the particular gangsters
who committed this atrocious act, but also everybody implicated and the states
that sponsored this act, as well. And that was a truly decisive moment in the
war, his decision to say that.

The next day, September 12th, was one of the quietest days I can remember.
The presidency's contained--well, in many buildings, but the two most
important are the West Wing and the Executive Office Building, which are
across this tiny little street, West Executive Avenue, which was closed to the
public in 1942 as a temporary wartime measure and has never reopened. And I
think the way to think about it is the West Wing is sort of the brains of the
presidency and the Executive Office Building is the arms and legs. And all of
that day, the 12th, the brain was thinking, and there was almost nothing for
the arms and legs to do. I just remember it as one of the quietest, stillest
days I saw.

The next day, the 13th, everything exploded into activity. The president gave
his great speech in the National Cathedral on the 14th, I think one of the
most perfect speeches ever given by a president. Not just one of the best,
because there are a lot of good speeches that's been given by many presidents,
but it's hard for a president to give a perfect speech because there's so many
people who want to do things to speeches that end up making it less than
perfect. That one--and again, that was mostly the work of Matthew Scully and
John McConnell. That one I just thought was not just beautiful, but also

And then the president flew up to New York for that wonderful moment when many
Americans decided, `Yeah, we're going to be all right with this man in
charge,' when he took that bullhorn and mad that completely unscripted remark
to the workers on the site that he could hear them and the whole world could
hear them and the world would hear from all the American people soon.

GROSS: The Bush administration has been criticized by many journalists who
cover Washington for it secrecy, and a lot of journalists think that that's
not very healthy for the country to work within that level of secrecy. You
said there was basically a press ban after September 11th. What was the ban?

Mr. FRUM: Well, in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, we had no idea
what was going to happen and where the terrorists might strike next. For a
period of about three weeks, there was a ban on anybody below the level of
senior staff having any kind of contacts with the press at all. It was a
wartime measure of a kind that is much less stringent than has been put in
place in other wars, and the ban came off in due time.

I have to say I'm a little impatient with journalists' readiness to identify
their own commercial interest with the good of the nation. I'm not so sure
that it's right, that the nation is well-served when administrations leak like
sieves. All administrations want to keep their secrets. The Bush
administration here is no different from the Clinton administration, the
Reagan administration, any of those that went before it. It wants to keep its
secrets. Where it is different is that it succeeds in keeping its secrets.
And I think the most interesting thing to know is to understand why it is that
they are successful. And the reason they're successful is not, as many
journalists in Washington think, because there is some kind of heavy hand on
the staffers intimidating them into not talking. It's because President Bush
is a man who's very good at creating a feeling of loyalty among those who work
for him.

And I think if you want to understand this administration and this man, the
question of: Why is he so successful at winning loyalty when other presidents
have been so much less successful?--that's the most interesting thing about

GROSS: Do you have an answer to that?

Mr. FRUM: I do. I think he is good at winning loyalty because he's very good
at giving loyalty. Presidents tend not to do that. Presidents tend to look
at the people around them as very expendable, and they tend to wash their
hands of anyone who gets into any kind of trouble. They can be very
coldhearted men, often, and maybe they need to be. But George Bush has got
quite a record of sticking by people and of remembering the people who
remember him.

Something even more: The most precious thing a president can do is to give
the people around him a piece of himself. And I was struck almost from the
first time I met him by a habit that he had of saying, in the presence of new
staffers, people who he didn't have much of a history with, saying something
that was indiscreet--I mean, not a state secret, but something that, if
repeated, would be trouble for him, and everyone in the room would understood
this if repeated would be trouble for him. And he would say it to the
staffers, and the staffers would all absorb it and take it away with them.
And what he had done was he'd given them a piece of himself, and he had
created a feeling of obligation in them that said, `Well, he's trusted me.
Now I owe him my loyalty in return.' And that's how the secrets are kept,
because the people who work for him want him to succeed and care about him in
a way that's maybe more personal than some recent presidencies.

GROSS: David Frum. His new book is called "The Right Man: The Surprise
Presidency of George W. Bush." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, the ripple effect of the phrase the `axis of evil.' We
continue our conversation with David Frum, former speechwriter for President
Bush. And our linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the word `plastic,' and how
its use in the pop culture of the '60s reflected the social changes of the

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Frum. He was a
speechwriter for President Bush during his first year in the White House.
Frum is now a fellow at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise
Institute. His new book is an account of his year working for the president.
It's called "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush."

I want to ask you about the most famous line that you wrote for one of the
president's speeches, and that was the `axis of evil' that was referring to
Iraq, Iran and North Korea, although the way you originally wrote it before it
was edited, it was the `axis of hatred.' And this was in the speech that
President Bush gave just a few months after September 11th; it was his January
29th State of the Union address last year. Let's back up a little bit. What
was your assignment?

Mr. FRUM: The State of the Union address is like the moon shot of the
presidency. It's the biggest thing that the White House works on all year and
involves an enormous amount of labor by a lot of people that then has to be
blended into a harmonious whole. So I had a series of assignments, of things
I was working on, and one of the things that I was asked to do was to come up
with a coherent explanation of the relationship between al-Qaeda and Iraq and
the other problems in the Middle East that the United States faced. Is there
some way of making it vivid to the people? Because al-Qaeda's not controlled
by Iraq directly, and although there is some evidence that the two of them had
cooperated, we also knew the two of them didn't like each other much. And
that was true of many of America's enemies in the Middle East, some kind of
cooperation, mutual mistrust, but overriding hatred of the United States. And
is there some way to bring all of this together?

So I thought about this--so I wrote a couple of pages on this to sort of
describe what this relationship was, and I wanted to make a couple of points.
I wanted to say, one, that the fact that these people disagree with each other
and dislike each other is not going to prevent them from forming a common
front of hostility to the United States, of working together against their
most immediate enemy. And then I wanted to say that they're reckless. This
is not like the Cold War where the Soviet Union--wicked as the Soviets were,
the Soviet Union was run by people who were very good calculators of risk. As
we've seen, the terrorists that the United States is engaged with right now do
not think in that kind of rational way. They're capable of anything. And the
last point I wanted to drive home was to give some sense of the ideology that
motivated these people. I mean, they use the language of Islam, but when you
actually look at their ideas, they are much more like the fascism of the
1940s, that same kind of nihilism and the drive for total power and contempt
for liberalism and democracy and the obsessive anti-Semitism that runs through

And so, you know, you begin--so I wrote two or three paragraphs on the theme
that this conflict bears some resemblances to that other one, and I then said
that these enemies of the United States are linked together in an axis of
hatred against the United States.

GROSS: And how did `axis of hatred' become `axis of evil'?

Mr. FRUM: Well, what happens is--when you write these things, you write your,
you know, four paragraphs on--I've got the Iran/Iraq/al-Qaeda brief and I
write my four paragraphs or five paragraphs or whatever it was--probably more
than that--that I think should be in the speech, and then it goes into an
editorial process which is overseen by the chief writer, Mike Gerson, and it
goes to the president, who's very, very involved. And one of the things that
Gerson and the president had agreed from the beginning was they wanted to use
the language of absolute good and evil, a more theological kind of language as
a way of explaining this struggle. And so `axis of hatred' became `axis of
evil,' which I think is rhetorically much more powerful. I think that was a
good change. It may have been less exact but more powerful.

And then, you know--so it was very exciting, and they then took a lot of the
rest of the language that I had drafted verbatim. It was a very, very
exciting moment to watch him.

GROSS: As you said, it was very rhetorically powerful, but the effect of that
phrase has been very controversial.

Mr. FRUM: Yeah.

GROSS: The `axis of evil' has been criticized for its bellicose rhetoric
which possibly helped incite North Korea to take its more aggressive stand on
nuclear weapons. Let me just read you a couple of things.

The Boston Herald on January 5th printed an article that said, `Few Western
commentators question whether oppressive regimes in Iraq, North Korea and Iran
deserve to be labeled evil, but they are sharply divided over whether a Bush
speechwriter's catchy phrase was a diplomatic gaffe or a purposeful warning
shot across the bow of rogue nations.'

North Korea issued this statement in late October: `The Bush administration
listed North Korea as part of the axis of evil and a target of US pre-emptive
nuclear strikes. This was a clear declaration of war against North Korea. In
the long run, the Bush administration has adopted this as its policy to make a
pre-emptive nuclear strike at North Korea.'

So, you know, North Korea is saying that this whole axis of evil thing is part
of the reason it's, you know, thrown out the nuclear weapons inspectors and
why it's revving up its nuclear reactor again. And...

Mr. FRUM: Well, look...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FRUM: ...whenever a criminal is caught in midcrime, he always says it's
something that the policeman did that made him do it. At the time that the
president made that statement, North Korea had been cheating on its nuclear
agreements for close to eight years. And obviously they were indignant about
being caught, but the idea that being caught is responsible for their
transgressive behavior, that can't be right. I think the speech and this
phrase was exactly right. I think it did a couple of things that are so
important. One was it made the American people understand this is a moral
conflict. This is not a fight over some oil well, it's not a fight over
strategic advantage; that what we are engaged in here is a struggle over what
kind of century the 21st century is going to be.

I mean, there was this extraordinary hopeful moment after the fall of the
Berlin Wall when we really could think that that old American idea of a world
united in peace and trade could be real. And terrorism and the states that
sponsor terrorism is the biggest threat to that. It is our Nazi Germany, it's
our Soviet Union, and it has to be dealt with not just as a strategic problem
but as a moral problem. That's the only way you can energize the American
people to take action.

GROSS: Doesn't that get to another issue that's been raised about the axis of
evil, which is if Iraq and North Korea are equated, why is it that we're
preparing to go to war against Iraq even though so far UN weapons inspectors
have found nothing? Whereas North Korea is making nuclear threats, it already
has nuclear weapons, it's on the verge of getting more; the United States is
concerned that it can sell the components of nuclear weapons to other
countries and help terrorists and emerging nuclear powers, and yet the United
States government is saying, `Well, no, no, we're not planning to attack North
Korea. This is not yet a crisis.' So if these countries are both part of
that same axis of evil, what's the explanation for the double standard on how
we're treating Iraq and North Korea?

Mr. FRUM: We have as many standards as we have problems. I mean, it would be
childish to say that every world problem must be treated in exactly the same
way. As for the original Axis, we didn't treat all of those countries in
exactly the same way, either. We made a much greater war effort against
Germany than we did against Japan, even though it was Japan that had attacked
us first. We took much more care and offered a much friendlier hand to Italy
even though Italy was also a member of the Axis. We treated different
problems differently.

I mean, Iraq and North Korea and Iran--these are not our children who must all
be given the same sets of rewards and punishments according to their merits.
These are our enemies, and they are to be dealt with intelligently in light of
our priorities and our vulnerabilities. Obviously now that we have made the
terrible error in the 1990s of allowing North Korea to become a nuclear state,
we obviously have to proceed with more circumspection than we need in the case
of Iraq, which is not yet a nuclear state.

But it just strikes me as madness to say that since North Korea is now a
nuclear state and therefore a very, very difficult and dangerous problem, that
therefore we should wait until--that therefore Iraq has somehow acquired the
right to be allowed to become just as severe a problem before we do anything,
it seems to me that you want to handle problems in the order that makes sense
from the point of view of the person faced with the problem. And the
president is exactly right, Iraq is both in some ways the most urgent problem;
also the one that is easiest to solve; also the one that in many ways where
the United States has the strongest legal case because Iraq is so flagrantly
in violation of so many international commitments.

GROSS: My guest is David Frum. He was a speechwriter for President Bush
during his first year in the White House. Frum's new book is called "The
Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Frum, and he is a former
speechwriter for President Bush. He's a political journalist and commentator.
His new book is called "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W.

OK, now your phrase `axis of hatred,' which became edited to `axis of evil,'
had immense like ripple effects throughout the world. At the same time, it
had a real funny, real surprise ripple effect in your life in that your wife
e-mailed some friends saying that you had written that phrase, and she
e-mailed that with pride.

Mr. FRUM: Right.

GROSS: And somehow that e-mail got forwarded to someone in the press, and
this kind of violated one of those speechwriter's codes, I think particularly
in the Bush administration, which is that speechwriters don't take credit for
their phrases. So what were the repercussions in the White House when people
discovered that this e-mail had gotten released to the press?

Mr. FRUM: This is sort of a funny story, but it's also in some ways a story
about the abuse of the press. I at the end of January had been at the White
House for a year and decided that the time had come for me to go. I had had a
very satisfying year, it had been very interesting, but it had been a year. I
wanted to write in my own name and voice, and the State of the Union, at least
my work on it, was behind me and it was time to go. I handed in the letter of
resignation about the 24th or 25th of January. The State of the Union was
delivered on about the 28th of January, and a few days after that my wife sent
a letter to--an e-mail to her brother and some friends saying that I had
written this segment, this portion of the speech dealing with Iran and Iraq.

There was nothing so very remarkable about that. The New York Times Magazine
had just published a long story about Karen Hughes' role in the president's
speech. My friend Michael Gerson had given interviews to Dan Balz of The
Washington Post describing his role in the National Cathedral speech. The
Bush administration was a discreet administration, but it wasn't a monastery.
People did talk about the work they did all the time. And there was nothing
very remarkable about sending an e-mail to friends saying that you had done
something. One of the writers I knew there had a habit of whenever he had
written a speech that he was proud of, that he would circulate it to
journalists all over Washington as, you know, `Here's something you might want
to read.' So this was something entirely normal.

Now what did happen was it did get intercepted and Slate magazine got
it--e-mail is a treacherous medium--and it became a two-day story. And it was
mostly--this would be about the middle of February--two-day, very comic story
and I took a lot of razzing for it, which I, you know, took in good humor and,
I mean, some of the things that were said were still pretty funny. Anyway,
the end of February came and my time to go came. As I was packing my bags, I
was watching television and Robert Novak comes on television and says I've
been fired from the White House because of this e-mail. It was a total
invention. I have to say it's one of these things, also, that you learn about
Washington, which is this is a story that, you know, completely groundless and
yet television is powerful and it will--you know, it lingers on in the ether.

GROSS: Political journalist David Frum is my guest, former speechwriter for
President Bush and now author of the book "The Right Man: The Surprise
Presidency of George W. Bush."

You started off in the Bush White House writing economic speeches until
September 11th, you know, when the emphasis of the speeches changed. When you
started writing economic speeches, the thrust was more or less there's a big
budget surplus so we're going to give some of this money back to its rightful
owners, the American people, in the form of tax rebates. And we're going to
cut taxes, too. Now we have a huge budget deficit and we're facing a war
that's going to cost billions and billions of dollars, and the president has
just given his new economic plan which calls for increasing tax cuts, about
$600 billion worth of tax cuts over the next 10 years, including eliminating
taxes on stock dividends. How can both extremes, the budget surplus and the
budget deficit, call for the same reaction, which is tax cuts?

Mr. FRUM: I think the president in both cases faces two problems that are a
little different but still related. One is the problem of the short-term
performance of the American economy and the other is the problem of the coming
retirement of the baby boom. And one of the lessons that John Maynard Keynes
taught us about a society is societies cannot save for their future in cash.
They don't have any place to put the cash. All they are doing is writing
checks to themselves. The way societies as a whole save for the future is by
increasing their productive capacity. And the way we're going to pay for the
retirement of the baby boomers is by making sure, if we do, if we succeed, the
way we will if we succeed, is by making sure that the American economy of 10
and 15 and 20 years out is much more productive than the American economy of
today, amazingly productive as that economy is.

And President Bush, I think, has been pursuing from the beginning a program of
comprehensive tax reform aimed at stimulating the long-term productivity of
the American economy. He's trying, one, to get the economy out of recession
by offering it some immediate advantages and some of the tax--and tax cuts
always do that. And the second and more controversial thing he's trying to do
is to get the American economy in shape for the coming retirement of the baby
boomers. And that's why he was so interested in things like a year ago
lowering the rate of tax on incomes in order to encourage more investment, and
now making sure that the corporate tax system is more rational.

The reforms he's proposing--the treatment of dividends--are endorsed, I think,
by most economists, conservatives and liberals, as sensible. Some of the more
liberal ones may not like who gets some of the benefit of that but they agree,
at least in theory, that it would be good if the tax system did not favor debt
over equity.

GROSS: Well, let's face it, most of the more liberal people think that the
tax cuts are going to benefit the rich and that the poor and the middle class
aren't going to get much out of it at all. And therefore how is that going to
help their retirement?

Mr. FRUM: Because of the 1992 bill--tax code that is so redistributive,
literally all of the taxes are paid by the top two-thirds of the population
and none at all--of the income taxes--and none at all are paid by the bottom
third. And because we've also created a political taboo that says the payroll
tax must never be touched because that's Social Security money and every
politician knows that you mustn't touch it or else, you've created a situation
in which tax talk is always going to be about the top two-thirds of the
population. They pay the income taxes, which is the only taxes we're allowed
to talk about.

But it's certainly true, I mean, President Bush is a Republican and a
conservative. He's not as radically free market and radically libertarian as
some of the Republicans who proceeded him like Reagan and Gingrich, but he
comes from a party that believes the answer is markets and a market-oriented
party is going to believe that tax cuts make sense. I mean, I could turn your
question on your head and say the Democrats feel the same way; when times are
good, they call for more spending, and when times are bad, they call for more
spending. And they have an ideological commitment, too.

GROSS: Now you're actually Canadian by birth. Are you a US citizen yet--or
are you a US citizen? Let me take the `yet' out of that. Yeah.

Mr. FRUM: I'm about to become a US citizen. I am not yet one. I have
cleared the formalities; I just have to take the oath.

GROSS: Now you describe in the book that there are some restrictions that
were initially put on you because officially someone who's not a US citizen
can't walk around unescorted in the White House, but eventually you were
allowed to walk around unescorted. Did it feel odd at all to be working in
the White House and still be a Canadian citizen?

Mr. FRUM: It's odd. There's no rule against foreign nationals working for
the president. The rule is a ban on foreign nationals walking unescorted
inside the White House complex, and so for the first month or so that I worked
there, I had to be escorted all the time, and I ended up not doing this. It
was impossible. So what I would have to do is just, you know, make sure the
coast was clear when I went to the bathroom.

But I was once arrested. A guard saw me, saw that I had a badge that
indicated that I didn't have a permanent pass, and he said, `You better come
with me,' and `Where are you going?' And I told him the number of my office
and he asked whose office it was and I said it was mine, and he said, `That's
just impossible. You can't have an office; you're a foreign national.' He
took me off to a boiler room, to a security station near a boiler room, and
phoned around and found that, yeah, indeed I was.

But it paid off in the end, and it paid off the very first time I traveled
with the president. It was his first overnight trip as president, and we were
staying in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and through some glitch there weren't
enough hotel rooms to go around, and so they ordered us all to double up, and
I was given an assignment, a billet. I was told I was going to be staying
with Colonel So-and-So. I knocked on the colonel's door and said, `Sorry to
impose myself on you, but I've been billeted with you, and if you don't mind,
may I put my stuff over there?' And I turned my head, and over there was the
second bed in the room, and on the second bed was this briefcase--not a
briefcase, a computer case--not a computer case, it was the football. It was
the nuclear command codes of the United States.

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

Mr. FRUM: And he looked at me as if I'm completely crazy, and said, `You
can't stay in this room. What kind of security clearance do you have,
anyway?' And at this point the lightbulb went on, and I said, `No security
clearance at all, Colonel. In fact, I'm a foreign national.' And he then
went truly wild, picked up the phone and got me my own room.

GROSS: What a way to get it. Well, all right. David Frum, thank you so much
for talking with us.

Mr. FRUM: Thank you very much.

GROSS: David Frum's account of his year as a presidential speechwriter is
called "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush."

Coming up, our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has one word for you: plastics. This

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Evolution of the meaning of the word `plastics'

Back in 1967, a famous line in Mike Nichols' movie "The Graduate" signaled a
new attitude toward the role of synthetic materials in American life. Our
linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has these thoughts about what has changed since then
and what hasn't.

(Soundbite from "The Graduate")

Mr. WALTER BROOKE: (As Mr. McGuire) I just want to say one word to you, just
one word.

Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Yes, sir.

Mr. BROOKE: Are you listening?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yes, sir, I am.

Mr. BROOKE: Plastics.


If "The Graduate" had come out in 1957 instead of 1967, the nation wouldn't
have seen much to snicker about in that famous line, where a skeptical Dustin
Hoffman receives some career advice from a family friend. Until the '60s,
plastic connoted all the blessings that science was bestowing on modern life.
The American enchantment with synthetics really got going in the 1920s.
Bakelite caught on as a material for everything from fountain pens to
telephones, and designers like Elsa Schiaparelli redeemed viscose from its
tacky associations under the new name of rayon, from the French for `beam of
light.' The transparent version of viscose called cellophane was such a
success in both packaging and fashion that Cole Porter listed it among the
superlatives of "You're The Top," alongside of the Colosseum, the Louvre
museum, Mickey Mouse and a summer night in Spain. And in a 1940 poll to
determine the most beautiful word in the English language, cellophane came in
third right behind mother and memory.

Nylon took the world by storm when it was debuted at the World's Fair of 1939,
where the DuPont Pavilion featured a shapely Miss Chemistry reclining on a
podium in nylon stockings. And nylon was followed by a host of new materials
with alluring names--Lucite, vinyl, formica, Styrofoam, Dacron--each more
miraculous than the last. That filament finally broke in 1963 when DuPont
introduced the leather substitute Corfam at the Chicago Shoe Show. The
following year, it made the new material the centerpiece of its World's Fair
pavilion, a triumph of synthesis from its Tedlar roof and Delrin doorknobs to
its Mylar curtains and Fabrolite seat upholstery.

DuPont had reason to be confident. Corfam was light and durable and could be
cleaned with a wet sponge. It seemed a natural, if you'll excuse the
expression. But Corfam was a marketing catastrophe. A few years later,
DuPont took a hundred-million-dollar write-off and sold off its Corfam
operation to a company in the People's Republic of Poland, where the material
quickly became the rage of captive nation haute couture.

People had good practical reasons for rejecting Corfam, which didn't breathe
or break in the way leather did. But the material was also the victim of a
more equivocal attitude toward synthetic products. As it happens, in fact,
1963 also recorded the first use of the word `plastic' to refer to something
superficial or insincere. From then on, plastic itself would be the P-word,
charged with a curious ambiguity. For the hippies and later the Greens, the
word stood in for all the artificiality of American consumer culture. Frank
Zappa captured that spirit in his 1967 song "Plastic People" from the album
"Absolutely Free."

(Soundbite of "Plastic People")

Mr. FRANK ZAPPA: (Singing) Me see a neon moon above, I searched for years,
I found no love. I'm sure that love will never be a product of plasticity, a
product of plasticity, a product of plasticity. Plastic, plastic people. Oh,

NUNBERG: But the '60s also saw the birth of a new sort of cultural
plastiphilia. That had less to do with the corporate triumphalism of DuPont's
Better Living Through Chemistry than with a cool detachment of pop art in the
mods. That was what led performers to take names like Plastic Bertrand and
the Plastic Ono Band, and it spawned a line of songs from the Jefferson
Airplane's "Plastic Fantastic Lover" to Bjork's "Dear Plastic," a paean to the
joys of artifice.

(Soundbite of "Dear Plastic")

BJORK: (Singing) Pla-pla-pla-plastic, ny-ny-ny-ny-nylon. Dear plastic, be
proud. Don't imitate anything. You're pure, pure, pure.

NUNBERG: Deep down, though, the difference between the two parties was more
stylistic than philosophical. It was a question of how you responded to the
synthetic superficiality of American middle-class life. The plastiphiles
assumed a pose of studied irony. Plastic was unhip when it denied its
synthetic nature in AstroTurf, Lucite chandeliers, disposable diapers or
polyester leisure suits. Hip plastic was girls in vinyl miniskirts from Mary
Quant dancing to "Wah Watusi" by the Orlons, of course. Spandex was hip, and
so was the million square feet of polypropylene sheeting that Christo used to
wrap a mile-long section of the Australian coast near Sydney. Needless to
say, those distinctions had nothing to do with chemistry or environmental
apprehensions. The same molecules could be unhip in car upholstery and chic
in a Gucci bag.

Not surprisingly, the plastic wars left their marks on the language, too.
Once `plastic' became a term of derision, people started to avoid the word to
refer to the new materials that were coming out of the lab. From then on,
plastic no longer meant any manufactured polymer the way it did in the 1950s.
Now it only connotes glossy materials like vinyl, polystyrene and Lucite. Ask
people what their computer housings are made of, and they'll fumble for a

For that matter, you don't see the word `polyester' much anymore, either. We
may still drape our bodies in it, but now it's sold as microfiber or under
brand names like Gore-Tex, Polarfleece and EcoSpun, names that aren't tainted
with the down-market kitsch of "Saturday Night Fever." And 40 years after
Corfam tanked, synthetic leather is back as the fabric of choice for
wildlife-friendly performers like Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, but now
it's called pleather, with the P-word reduced to an unobtrusive prefix.
Pleather, it's not a name in a class with cellophane.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.
He's the author of the book, "The Way We Talk Now."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Plastic People")

Mr. ZAPPA: (Singing) Vinyl girl, she waits for me. She's as plastic
as she can be. She paints her face with plastic goo and wrecks her hair with
some shampoo. Plastic is--oh, oh, baby, now you're such a bag. I don't know,
sometimes I just get tired of you, honey. It's your hairspray or something.
Plastic people, oh, baby, you're such a drag. I hear the sound of marching
feet down Sunset Boulevard to Crescent Heights, and there at Pandora's box, we
are confronted with a vast quantity of plastic people. Take a day and walk
around, watch the Nazis run your town. Then go home and check yourself. You
think we're singing about someone else. But you're plastic people, oh, baby,
now you're such a drag. Whoo! Me see a neon moon above...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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