The Reinvention of David Frum
Why do discredited neocon talking heads just keep talking – and why does anyone listen?
David "Axis of Evil" Frum first gained notoriety as one of George W. Bush’s more polemical speechwriters. During the run-up to the Iraq war, he was all over the media, agitating for the invasion and viciously denouncing anyone who questioned the wisdom of such a course. In an infamous article for National Review, entitled "Unpatriotic Conservatives," he attacked those conservatives and libertarians who counseled caution, smearing Robert Novak, Pat Buchanan, Llewellyn Rockwell, Samuel Francis, Thomas Fleming, Scott McConnell, Joe Sobran, Charley Reese, Jude Wanniski, Eric Margolis, Taki Theodoracopulos, and myself as, variously, "defeatist," "conspiracy theorists," and "anti-Semitic." Here is Frum, in March of 2003:
"They have made common cause with the left-wing and Islamist antiwar movements in this country and in Europe. They deny and excuse terror. They espouse a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism. They publicize wild conspiracy theories. And some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies."
Frum went on for at least three thousand words, attacking his enemies as traitors and terrorist-sympathizers. It was all lies, of course, and I answered them here. Yet now we see Frum has reinvented himself as a "moderate" Republican, and has carved out a new career for himself as the kind of conservative who gets invited on NPR and CNN to snark at his former comrades. In a recent interview with Politico, he was asked: "What do you know now that you wish someone had told you 10 years ago?" His answer:
"That the Iraq War would be a disaster. Come to think of it, they did tell me."
In the accompanying photo, Frum is sitting on a patio somewhere, smiling and petting his golden retriever. Who, me worry? Such a blithe spirit, that Frum, who is wearing white pants with no socks. Deaf to the bitter cries of the dead and the maimed, not to mention those he accused of treason, he puts his feet up in a pose of summery relaxation. The memory of his hysterical smears – "They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country" – seems to have dissipated into the stratosphere. He’s put it out of his mind.
This is the New David Frum, the moderate, measured, wonkish would-be charmer, who only loses his soft edges when the subject of foreign policy is raised. After a well-publicized break with the American Enterprise Institute over his supposed opposition to Republican orthodoxy, he also broke with National Review, where he had once taken on the role of ideological enforcer, and underwent a makeover. He set up the "Frum Forum" as the online headquarters of the Frummian Republicans, a small but extremely self-satisfied gaggle of online bloviators, who sneered at the Tea Party and cheered as Frum announced the GOP was in danger of being taken over by anti-government "extremists."
This was just what the Obama-ite media wanted to hear, and in spite of the minuscule numbers of the Frum Republicans, their Leader was soon all over the idiot box, spreading the gospel of what can only be called the Scoop Jackson wing of the GOP. A Republican with "conservative" credentials talking trash about the Tea Party? Bring it on!
It isn’t surprising that a neoconservative would go renegade: after all, neoconservatism is itself a renegade ideology, whose partisans originated on the far left, and, in the process of moving rightward, continuously red-baited and smeared their former comrades. Frum is an exemplar of the species. Just as he pontificated about the rightness of the "liberation" of Iraq, today he pontificates, certitude unabated, on any and all subjects, with a pulpit at the Daily Beast and a regular gig on CNN. Whenever the "mainstream" media requires a "moderate" conservative, the New Frum is on call.
For those who are wondering why commentators who have been consistently wrong about practically everything can still market their alleged expertise, it’s instructive to go back and see what the Old Frum had to say about the particulars of my alleged treason:
"The week after the fall of Kabul, Raimondo acknowledged that though the Afghan war seemed to have succeeded, disaster lurked around the corner: ‘The real quagmire awaits us. . . . When the history books are written, Operation Enduring Freedom will be hailed as a great success – provided it doesn’t endure much more than a few weeks longer.’"
Today’s treason is tomorrow’s reality, it seems. Yet Frum has never acknowledged the utter wrongness of his smears, let alone apologized, and I just don’t mean to me personally.
Bob Novak was a great guy, one of the last of the old school of rough-and-ready journalists who really deserved to be treated with a lot more respect, especially by his fellow conservatives, than he ever got. When Novak questioned the Iraq war, and our Israeli-centric policy in the Middle East was when they really began to turn on him, Frum leading the charge. What were Novak’s sins, according to the Old Frum?
"Here is Robert Novak again, this time on September 17, 2001, predicting that any campaign in Afghanistan would be a futile slaughter: ‘The CIA, in its present state, is viewed by its Capitol Hill overseers as incapable of targeting bin Laden. That leads to an irresistible impulse to satisfy Americans by pulverizing Afghanistan.’"
Novak, wherever he is, must be having quite a laugh: I can hear his mordant chuckle, which used to delight me so, and see the twinkle in his eye as his ghostly voice remarks: "And wasn’t I right?"
The problem with today’s television talking heads is that there’s too many Frums and no more Novaks. Our media culture is the complete inversion of a meritocracy, a weird Bizarro World alternate universe where value is measured by how many times you’ve been dead wrong. Frum is the perfect product of this upside-down system, rivaled only by Bill Kristol, whose record as a prognosticator is even worse than Frum’s.
The point is not that I expect Frum to acknowledge let alone apologize for his viciously untrue and malicious accusations: he hasn’t got the cojones to admit he was wrong. That’s the real difference between a babbler and a commentator who deserves to be taken seriously. The latter will always acknowledge when and where they’ve been wrong. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve tried to make this my consistent policy over the ten or so years this column has run. That isn’t because I’m noble or even willingly honest – because, after all, this is the internet, and there’s this thing called "Google." That’s what keeps us honest, the generation of amateur-turned-professional journalist-opinionators who reached a wide audience for the first time online. Because, as someone once said, "We can fact-check your ass" – and your record.
The lack of accountability, and not only in the media but in politics and in everyday life, is one of the more depressing aspects of today’s culture. I strive every day to make Antiwar.com a notable exception to that execrable trend, along with our dedicated staff: we are constantly checking and rechecking our sources, and accuracy always trumps ideology.
Although we make no bones about having a point of view – the casual visitor to this space is bound to pick up on my libertarianism – our method puts the facts first; the analysis comes later. Our mission is providing those interested in the subject of American foreign policy and how it impacts the world with an indispensable resource: timely information coupled with analysis from a non-interventionist perspective.
We didn’t really have much of an audience until after September 11, 2001. Ever since that day our daily unique visitors have rarely numbered less than 50,000. Our growth is really the story of how the post-9/11 foreign policy debate in this country developed. Amid the hysteria of the early years of that decade, when the Frums of this world thought they could intimidate and marginalize us, it was sometimes hard to see that we would be vindicated, in the end, although – as in the above citation shows – I had my moments of clarity.
While we are very far from perfect, I’m proud of our record for accuracy – nay, sheer prescience! We’ve been right from the beginning, from our critique of the Balkan wars and their eventual outcome to our early identification of Osama bin Laden as a major player on the world stage. This space sported the first comprehensive online analysis of 9/11 and its meaning, written and posted hours after the event. We have continued to not just analyze but also to report what is actually happening overseas in circumstances where truth is often obscured by the fog of war propaganda.
There’s just one problem: our Bizarro World media culture. The "mainstream" media, being a meritocracy-in-reverse, doesn’t reward prescience: the big corporate money behind the Daily Beast and CNN, for example, look at Frum’s record of misguided opinions and flat out wrong predictions, and their eyes light up with dollar signs. Holy moley, this loser is a real winner – that’s life in Bizarro World.
In a world of amnesiacs, the Frums are media royalty, and so they are treated. We, on the other hand, having the disability of being proven right time after time – we here at Antiwar.com are the beggars of the online media world. Lacking the benefits of corporate philanthropy, we must go to our readers, dunning them for financial support. We are forced to do this four times a year — as punishment for our prescience.
As I write this, we are well into the third day of our late summer fundraising drive, and even though it isn’t as bad as I thought it would be I still have the nagging suspicion that everyone else but me is on vacation, sitting on a beach somewhere like Hawaii, while I slave away at my desk this bright California day.
Well, if you’re sitting on a beach somewhere, more power to you. However, when you get back, could you please take the time to wonder why you turn to Antiwar.com even when you’re sitting on a beach supposedly enjoying yourself – and isn’t that worth a contribution?
Okay, I’ve made my pitch, and I’ll leave it to my readers to judge whether our fifteen year history of standing up to the Empire merits a tax-deductible donation. These are "interesting times," as an old Chinese proverb would have it, and working at Antiwar.com is certainly a challenging job. My own view is that we’ve been mostly up to the challenge, but it would sure be nice to see that confirmed with a surge of donations from our readers.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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- America, the Helpless ‘Superpower’ – September 18th, 2016