There's a telling anecdote in David Frum's new memoir of his year as a White House speechwriter for George W. Bush. Early in the presidency, Frum--who later received credit for the deathless, and perhaps senseless, phrase "axis of evil"--submits a speech. The President eviscerates it. Frum asks why. "The material he had hacked out," Frum writes, "seemed to me the headline story of the event. Bush shook his head at me. The Headline is: BUSH LEADS."
This is meant to seem admirable. And it is, in a way, I suppose. Before Bush, leadership had fallen out of favor as a political strategy. Followship was all the rage: follow the polls, follow the focus groups, follow your consultants. "Leadership," wrote Dick Morris, the Iago of the Clinton era, "is a dynamic tension between where a politician thinks his country must go and where his voters want it to go." And guess who usually wins that tug-of-war? (Actually, it's neither the voters nor the politician; it's the consultant who massages the data and advises, "Be careful, Mr. President. Try something bite-size.") So it has been fun to watch Young Bush fly in the face of the mingy, tactical, peripheral politics of recent years--to run a very different sort of presidency from Old Bush or Bill Clinton, to propose wildly ambitious and blatantly ideological and extremely risky policies, to "overload the system with new ideas," as one Republican told me last week. "Karl Rove is telling people this is 'the second hundred days,' but it's even more ambitious than that," he added. "The strategy is total domination. Don't let the Congress up for air." The word of the hour in Washington is bold. Bush has proposed a bold new tax cut. He hasn't backed down from his list of conservative judges. And, perhaps boldest of all, he wants a market-oriented reform of Medicare--and a reform of malpractice insurance too. Headline: BUSH LEADS.
But wait a minute. Let's go back to Frum's anecdote; a metaphor may lurk within. Frum doesn't say what the speech was about, and he doesn't specify what Bush cut from the text--this is only a tell-some memoir. But one can assume that Bush has cut the details of the policy. And that fits too: there has been a vaporous quality to Bush's boldness. He traffics in headlines. The policies themselves are often not entirely baked. A case in point: Frum's "axis of evil" and its accompanying doctrine of pre-emption, which Bush announced at West Point last June and discarded in Korea this January. The revised doctrine: Caveat Pre-Emptors. We have the moral responsibility to pre-empt evildoers...unless they have the ability to empt back (as North Korea does). This is an embarrassment, and a rather dangerous one at that. There should be a lesson in it for the President. A diplomacy of quiet strength and careful words, and the rigorous parsing of nuances--the latter, a word the President is said to despise--is the only way for a grown-up superpower to behave.