(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

This is the first inside account of the first year of the presidency of George W. Bush, by the speechwriter who coined the memorable phrase “axis of evil.” Author David Frum worked and traveled alongside the president during his one-year stay and was in a unique position to study Bush closely.

Early in his campaign for president, George W. Bush was the endless target of comments and jokes about his college and military record. People also questioned his overall intelligence and his ability to lead. As Frum observed, on television Bush did not look like a man ready to be president. Not since the days of Harry Truman did a man seem so unprepared for the rigors of being the chief executive. Starting his speechwriting job at the White House immediately after the inauguration, even Frum had serious doubts. Bush was aware of all of this and simply said that his critics misunderstood him.

Barely surviving the closest, most controversial, and most disputed presidential election in American history, Bush had little in the way of a political mandate, arriving in office politically crippled, Frum writes. In leaving under a cloud of moral miscues, President Bill Clinton had seriously weakened the credibility of the executive branch. Bush was determined to restore it.

It most certainly was a new day in the Oval Office when Bush arrived. Former President Clinton’s laid-back and informal style was quickly replaced by an atmosphere of jackets and ties on weekends and prayers at the beginning of cabinet meetings. Bush surrounded himself with, as Frum describes them, “very able, solid, and reliable people” but almost none who could be characterized as being exceptionally brilliant. The staff members were hardworking and loyal, and they understood and endorsed the president’s vision for the United States. Soon they would all be tested in ways no one could have imagined during the opening months of the new Bush administration.

The Bush presidency started with the threat of an economic recession. Frum’s first speech had to address this issue. “A warning light is flashing on the dashboard of our economy,” he wrote for Bush. It was the perfect sound bite and was quickly picked up and repeated by all the major news organizations. The president’s speech was very well received and set the stage for his forthcoming tax cut proposal.

Frum offers what is perhaps the best inside account of the workings of the Bush White House during the first year of Bush’s term. In addition, Frum provides a rare look at aspects of the president’s personality few have seen. Many newspapers and political talk shows, for example, believed that Bush was naïve when it came to foreign policy. They charged that the president was relying mostly upon the instructions of his advisers and lacked a personal vision. Nothing could be further from the truth, Frum says. “Bush was not a lightweight,” Frum states, but “rather, a very unfamiliar heavyweight.” Words sometimes failed him, but his vision was clear. The president had the ability to make good decisions based on the advice of his staff. A president who consistently makes good decisions, Frum observes, is certainly smart enough to do the job.

Frum also looks at the president’s strong religious convictions. Although he was born into wealth and privilege, Bush in his early life was no stranger to failure and, eventually, alcohol abuse. His “intense Christianity,” as Frum describes it, turned his life around. Bush is not afraid to acknowledge his checkered past; he uses the lessons learned from that time in his life to illustrate his amazing capacity for discipline, compassion, and growth.

Frum provides a fascinating look at the relationship between Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. The press portrayed Cheney as a shadowy figure who told the president what to do and say, but this was not the case. The relationship between the two men was one of loyalty and trust, and although Cheney is one of the smartest and most powerful men ever to become vice president, it was Bush who made the final decisions. Although Cheney had strong views on many subjects, Bush had no problem overriding him.

By the summer of 2001, the Bush agenda was on track. Faith-based initiatives, a sweeping tax plan, a national energy policy, and education reform were put forward. Then the president’s luck ran out. James Jeffords, a Republican senator from Vermont who often voted with the Democratic Party, became an Independent, thus upsetting...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)