Former economic speechwriter for President George W. Bush and conservative commentator David Frum returned to his hometown of Toronto Friday night to discuss his new novel “Patriots,”
a fictional tale about a conservative “Constitutionalist” war hero president, who has been elected to replace a one-term black liberal “Nationalist” president.
Life imitating art
The story, which unfolds against a backdrop of economic calamity and a drug war at the United States-Mexico border, pegs the question: are genuine believers worse than non-genuine believers? The novel takes an insider look at the world of Washington, including how it is dominated by money, power and sex.
Speaking with CBC Radio’s Alison Smith at the Toronto Reference Library, Frum touched upon a variety of issues pertaining to the novel and U.S. politics. He explained that much of the book is based on real life incidences and people – more true of the minor characters. Instead of writing a non-fiction book, he decided to take the fictional approach.
“What happens when you live in Washington you amass all kinds of stories and anecdotes that for one reason or another you can’t use.” stated the CNN conservative commentator. “You collect these things over time.”
Over the past three years, Frum had a difficult time because a number of people were heading in one direction, while he was marching in the other. In this period, he found himself dealing with people who he thought had lost a sense of reality and he had to ask the question: “Why do I think so differently from all of you?” To tackle this question, he felt a novel was much more appropriate because to get the answer to the problem it would turn into auto-biographical, but with a story it could be “outer-regarding” and “amusing.”
“A lot of the stories are true and a lot of them are recombined and a lot of characters are based on real life personalities,” noted Frum, who added that even some of the dialogue is true. “People come across passages that seem impossible. How could anybody so stagy, so corny, so histrionic, so strident? That’s taken from a Fox News transcript.”
The first line in his novel had been in his mind for about a decade, but during the storm of the Tea Party he had compiled many stories. The main character, who comes from a life of privilege as his family maintains a mustard fortune, is pushed into a Washington situation and is the observer for readers.
Frum was interested in creating the main character because he is the representation of the “incredible out of touchness” of the American elite and economic leadership. As the story progresses, he realizes that the problems he faces in his life are rather “flimsy” on the grander scheme of things.
During the talk, he quoted one of the first paragraphs in the “Great Gatsby,” which he noted was said to him by his mother on numerous occasions and is something that should be written in the Pledge of Allegiance: “Whenever you are tempted to criticize anybody beware not everybody in life had has the advantages you’ve had.”
“One of the things that’s strange about American politics right now is that when you look at some areas, the country has never felt richer,” explained Frum. “The recovery for those that have done well has been very rapid and dramatic. But for 80 percent of the country, the situation is between bad, grim and horrible.”
One of the influences for writing this book was the people who go to the Tea Party rallies, organize the group and do all the work. “They’re living through a social calamity.” He went on to explain that human beings need explanations, they want to know why certain things are happening and they want to be reassured that it wasn’t something they did.
“Currently, you’re ready to be led or misled and one of the things in the book: how does it happen that these people get abused in the way they do? The plot of the book is how a small group of people set in motion these fears.”
A brief look at politics
In this election cycle, it seems like political discourse has become a blood sport, but how did it become that way? Frum cites economic pressure, immigration and the media as three aspects that have turned U.S. politics into a Mixed Martial Art fight.
Economy: The situation the U.S. is in is going to disappointment a lot of people, said Frum. This will transpire because if healthcare benefits for retirees remain the same then the tax rates can’t stay as they are. If tax rates stay the same then healthcare benefits for retirees can’t remain the same.
“So everybody is going to have the experience of losing our having something taken away from them.”
Immigration: Since 1970, more than 40 million people have immigrated to the country and this has led economic redistribution to become ethnic redistribution “and that’s always more bitter.”
Media: The media, which has become more partisan, exists right now to generate an audience by inflaming these two aforementioned fears.
According to Frum, the American system is quite susceptible to corruption, while parliamentary systems are prone to abuse and authority.
“Think about it this way: supposing you’re a corrupt, sinister interest group and you want to corrupt Canadian politics. It would be worth your while to bribe the prime minister – it might be worth it if you could – it might be worth it to bribe a relevant cabinet minister. But what a waste of money to bribe a [Member of Parliament]. You’ve got a very finite set of targets and after a while it’s like Henry Kissinger’s joke about the nuclear weapons, ‘Do you want to make the rubble bounce?’”
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Frum believes there are many facets of the government and political systems that money can make a difference because the power is distributive, which is why the structure in place today is more open and less authoritarian than parliaments around the world.
He finds it “really bizarre” that presidents are not permitted to staff their own governments and the amount of money that has to be spent. “Candidates are not any happier having to spend their time raising money.”
In Washington, politicians are not allowed to raise money on government property so the Democrats and Republicans established a headquarters near Capitol Hill. The buildings are quite large, Frum pointed out, they consist of dining facilities and many, many cubicles where senators and congressmen can sit down and make phone calls asking for money.
From 2003 to 2010, Frum was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Therefore, he has a lot of experience working with think tanks, but he doesn’t hold them in the highest regard. He labelled them during his talk as being in the middle between a university and a public relations firm.
If a donor gives money to a university, you don’t know what they will say. Meanwhile, if you donate money to a PR company, you’ll know exactly what they will say because you’re giving them money to say it.
In recent years, think tanks, more on the conservative side, have noticed that if you just tilt your position on the PR side then you can generate a lot more money. “There has been noticeable change of output of these institutions.”
Frum, who will vote for Romney in November, said the former Massachusetts governor was viewed as a “super competent person” when he surfaced as a national political figure prior to the 2008 presidential election. His record consisted of bringing in healthcare reform in his state, enhanced revenues by making administrative changes and was “good at many things.”
In 2008, Frum worked on the Rudy Giuliani presidential campaign and the former New York City mayor did not like Romney and made a joke that he would “make the greatest secretary of transportation of all-time.”
This was the campaign that Romney wanted to run and lead. In the final weeks leading up to this year’s election, Romney is now viewed as a non-authentic person.”
“Most of us, first you mean something then you say it. In the world of politics, it’s the other way around,” iterated Frum to a lot of laughs. “In takes a certain strength of character to be a conscious hypocrite. You have to remember what you think, you have to keep it separate and it takes a lot of self-knowledge. What happens to most people, they don’t want to be conscious hypocrites so there’s something you need to say, you believe, at least by the 38th, 433rd or 118th time.”
When asked what type of president Romney would be, Frum responded, “I used to know the answer to that question.”
What he used to say, though, is that he would be similar to President George H.W. Bush where he would be “completely transactional.”
“The moment he was elected, he would say he will be the greatest secretary of transportation of all-time, see my consulting people in four years and rely on the instruments of control of the Republican Party that would hold onto Fox News.”
Despite his criticism over the two-time presidential candidate, Frum will “probably” vote for Romney on Nov. 6 because “elections are about the future” and voters have two choices of general paths about the way society should be run.
“If the core ballot questions contained: do you want government with more scope for business and entrepreneurship and less government or more scope for government and more burdens on business and entrepreneurship? Then I’m going to be in the first group.”
The defeat of President Barack Obama
To Frum, the prospect of an incumbent loss seemed quite plausible six to eight months ago. However, with each passing week, it seems less likely. The president’s problem isn’t someone to his left challenging him on his drone strikes or not enough economic stimulus. His real problem is: do his people come out and vote? Most of his supporters, says Frum, are younger, poorer and have suffered more since the election.
Americans will vote when they consider their vote to be effective, but the opposite will happen when the electorate thinks his or her vote won’t matter in the slightest.
“It’s demoralization that makes people stay at home,” said Frum. “The Obama base is demoralized. They voted in 2008 hoping things will be better and for most of them things are not better. Things are better enough in Ohio and that’s why Obama is in trouble because that’s not good enough.
“What you want to be able to do is say, ‘It’s morning in America’ and he can’t do it.”