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David Frum

David Frum

Posted: November 27, 2007 12:08 PM

The Content of the Controversy


The Washington Post yesterday ran a report on my review of Michael Gerson's Heroic Conservatism. The review itself is not yet available online. The full review deals with the consequences Gerson's approach to politics and rhetoric has had for the Bush administration. It was the first few opening paragraphs, however, that sparked the controversy that prompted the Post report. For the benefit of those who do not yet subscribe to the print NR (hurry up!), I thought it might be a public service to post the relevant passages below.

Shortly before the scheduled publication of this book, the Atlantic magazine published a scorching article by Michael Gerson's former White House speechwriting colleague, Matthew Scully. In painstaking detail, Scully depicted Gerson as a man who distorted the record to magnify his own role in events.

The article convulsed Washington. And it presents any reviewer of Heroic Conservatism with a dilemma: Should I review the book or review the man?

I worked closely with Gerson and Scully, and I know both men well, as I do the third member of that once-intimate band, John McConnell. I witnessed the events Scully chronicled, and I can attest to the accuracy of Scully's account.

That said, I also know that Michael Gerson is an important figure in American life, whose ideas and values shaped the Bush administration. I anticipated that his prescriptions for the Republican future would deserve a hearing on their own merits, without regard to the personal foibles of their author.

And yet, on repeated rereadings of advance and final editions of Heroic Conservatism, I find that the teller and the tale cannot be so easily separated. A couple of stories illustrate why.

Heroic Conservatism opens with a dramatic account of a meeting in the Oval Office on November 18, 2002. A handful of people have been toiling in secret (Gerson calls it a "humanitarian conspiracy") to develop a plan for an ambitious program to help Africans infected with HIV/AIDS. Not even Condoleezza Rice knows about it: only Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, his staff, some researchers at the National Institutes of Health, and Gerson himself. Now, on the big day, the plan is to be unveiled to potentially hostile critics. And it is left to Gerson to deliver the plea that carries the decision in favor of the plan.

It's an exciting and even heroic story. Only ... it's not quite true.

Among the many, many people who knew the "secret" were the two principal authors of the AIDS plan. Jay Lefkowitz, general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget, and Robin Cleveland, later to serve under Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank, had toiled for weeks on the laborious and technical task of designing and funding the program. Nor was there any real suspense about the decision the president would make at the November 18 meeting.

Gerson, a skilled writer, surely knows that one can shape history as much through the facts one omits as through the facts one includes. By omitting the TRUE protagonists from the story, he aggrandizes the role of those he includes, starting with himself. That pattern is sustained throughout the book. Thus, on page 59 of Heroic Conservatism, Gerson tells a story of Election Day 2000: "Election night came in Austin along with a cold and steady rain. I paced in the campaign headquarters, then walked up Congress Street to the large, outdoor platform that had been constructed for the victory celebration. I expected a narrow win. But I had, folded in my pocket, the only copy of a concession speech, which had not been shown to Karen, Karl, or the candidate, out of superstition and awkwardness. It began: 'My fellow Americans . . . '"

Reading that passage casually, you would be led to the conclusion that the speech that Gerson was carrying was Gerson's work. It was not. Scully and McConnell had written it unaided.

Some corrections of these omissions seem to have been inserted at the last minute. Comparing the early-release version of the first chapter to the final printed versions, I notice that many appearances of the phrase "I wrote" have been amended to "I helped to write."

But other omissions remain. And awkwardly, one of them involves me.

I was not altogether surprised to find no mention of my own White House work in the pages of Heroic Conservatism. Scully and McConnell, who contributed vastly more than I ever did, get only the most glancing references. But I was surprised to find an observation from my own White House memoir reprinted almost verbatim and without credit on pp. 36-37 of Heroic Conservatism as the author's own invention.

FRUM (2003): "Rove had ideas that nobody else had--and that was his value to the president. Hughes had the same ideas that everybody else had--and that was hers."

GERSON (2007): "Karl was valuable because he thought in ways that nobody else did. Karen was valuable because she thought in ways that everyone else did, which is often the key to being an effective communicator."

I have been assured that the passage will be attributed in future printings of the book. It was this, however, that persuaded me that I had better set the record straight myself.

Those who wish to fact-check my claim are advised to turn to p. 35 of The Right Man.