David Frum
David Frum
Dead Right
ISBN: 0465098207
Dead Right
Mr. Frum talked about his recently published book, Dead Right, which deals with the problems of the Republican conservatism stemming from the intellectual and political malaise of the late 1980s and its chances for revival against the current power of the Democratic party.
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TRANSCRIPT
Dead Right
Program Air Date: October 30, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Frum, where did you get the title “Dead Right?”
DAVID FRUM, AUTHOR, "DEAD RIGHT" I have to admit I didn't get it. The publisher made it up. We were locked in combat for weeks over this, and I think the clinching issue was that the book's jacket we knew was going to be small, so we needed something quite short.
LAMB: Why were you locked in combat? What was the reason?
FRUM: It's a complicated book, and it's a little hard to sum up exactly what its message is -- that old Sam Goldwyn line, "A good movie script, you should be able to write its message on the inside of a matchbox cover." So we were trying to come up with something that said, look, this is a book about, first, the problems that the conservative movement and the Republican Party have had, the reasons that they seem so intellectually stagnant and then a way out, a correct way out. That's the pun that the title plays on.
LAMB: What was it like to have your book held up on "Meet the Press" by Tim Russert on the same day it was reviewed, I think, in the New York Times?
FRUM: That's right. It's been pretty thrilling. One of the things that happens when you write a political book is you say, "I'm pretty confident my relatives will read it and many of my friends and perhaps some of my old high school teachers, but who else?" The response to it has been overwhelming. Oprah's cook doesn't have to worry about competition from me, but it's been talked about and that's been very gratifying.
LAMB: What was the purpose of the book?
FRUM: The book began in the terrible morass of the late Bush years. It's hard to describe now how incredibly depressing it was to be a young, active conservative Republican at that time.
LAMB: That's you.
FRUM: Yes.
LAMB: Where were you?
FRUM: I was, I guess, at the Wall Street Journal -- at the crucial moments I was at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and I was deciding to do this. What was so depressing was we felt great residual loyalty to the institution of the Republican Party. We couldn't simply walk away and say, "That's it. This guy's hopeless," because Bush wasn't completely hopeless. He did a lot of things we really liked, not just the Gulf War and what we now see as a very skillful handling of the crackup of the Soviet Union, allowing that regime to crumble without stirring nationalist reaction against the United States, but also there were a number of domestic initiatives that we liked, at least some things that he proposed. So we felt residual loyalty to the institution, and yet it was just so dreary and life seemed so dull and we all seemed so bored with everything. I was trying to explain where that feeling came from, what had happened to our ‚lan. It was an attempt to describe, I think, a mood, and the reason the book has had the response it's had is that so many people involved in conservative politics recognize that mood in themselves, that they had felt that and are interested to have an explanation of where it came from.
LAMB: Excuse me, I hear an accent, a tiny little accent. Are you a Canadian?
FRUM: I am indeed a Canadian.
LAMB: Born and raised there?
FRUM: I was born there and grew up there. I lived in the United States most of my life since the age of 18. I'm from one of those strange border families. My grandmother commuted to work every day -- she lived in Niagara Falls, Ontario. She was an American who worked in Niagara Falls, N.Y., teaching school and commuted across the border. So I guess I've always been condemned to be a cosmopolitan ever since then.
LAMB: So what town were you born in?
FRUM: I was born in Toronto, lived there till I was 18, went to college here, law school.
LAMB: Where did you go?
FRUM: Yale and Harvard Law; then with some little detours, worked at the Wall Street Journal editorial page for three years, then at Forbes magazine as their law columnist, then published the book. Since then I've been doing a lot of other writing and starting work on the second book.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
FRUM: Live in Toronto now.
LAMB: Are you a Canadian citizen?
FRUM: Yes.
LAMB: Is this hard to do, come back and forth across the border and get involved in American politics?
FRUM: I have my grandmother's example to make it easier for me, that she commuted. I don't find it hard. As I said, because I've lived most of my life here, I follow Canadian politics also very closely. But there has been an information revolution, and it's I don't think any harder to follow in Europe. Anyone who's not in Washington has a disadvantage as compared to people who are. On the other hand, there's certain advantages to not being in Washington, too, which is that this is a town of tremendous short-lived enthusiasms. People here are always saying, "We need three new ideas for Thursday to put into the president's speech." Being anywhere outside of Washington allows you to step away from those periodic excitements and to pay attention to some deeper, deeper trends. You also can study people and the way they feel in a more detached way. Of course, you have fewer obligations and commitments than some of the people who live here, who are in one way or another caught up in party politics and make their living from it. That inhibits freedom of speech, I think, a great deal.
LAMB: What's your second book?
FRUM: It's going to be a history book of the recent past.
LAMB: OK, so you're in Toronto. How much time do you spend there?
FRUM: I've been there since February, and I spend about three weeks out of four there.
LAMB: How do you plug into American politics on a daily basis?
FRUM: On the telephone -- telephone, faxes and newspapers, but mostly the telephone and gossip. The kinds of things I'm interested in, too -- I'm not so interested in who's going to be elected to the state legislature in Nebraska. The kinds of close almanac-of-American-politics type politics, that's not my topic. A lot of the radio interviews that I've done, they will say, "Give us a prediction. Will our congressman win reelection here in Grand Rapids?" -- or wherever it is. You're asking the wrong guy. I have some views on that, but that's not what's so important to me. What I'm interested in is trying to track the way conservatives think about things and the reason they do. I don't think it's contradictory to say that, like everyone, I expect a big Republican victory in November, and yet I still think the Republican Party is plagued by some internal intellectual problems. I don't doubt that the Republicans are an electorally powerful party; I think that the past two years have made it clear that, in fact, at the national level the Republicans have much more power in many ways than Democrats do. The failures of the Clinton administration's agenda in Congress, I think, show that. What I'm interested in is, given that electoral power, why do Republicans and conservatives have so much trouble translating their successes into real changes in the way the country is governed? That is less the kind of thing you see on the "Hot Line." That's the kind of thing that requires a lot of thought. In some ways, being outside the Beltway is helpful for reflection.
LAMB: Page 84, "Robert Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal, who probably ranks as the single most powerful man in American journalism since the death of Walter Lippmann."
FRUM: Yeah. That is not written because he was my former boss and a very good boss. That was written, I think, because it's true, that it's not very often that a newspaper changes the way, sets a political agenda. With the fracturing of the mass media because of inventions like the one that brings you C-SPAN, it is not true anymore, often, that single journalistic voices have a lot of power in setting a national agenda. But the Wall Street Journal in the late 1970s did, and to this day its ability to mobilize public reaction is incredible -- things like the discharge petition and term limits, never mind the Reagan tax cut, you wonder whether they would have happened at all had it not been for that voice and had it not been for Bartley's decision to fight for them.
LAMB: What's he like?
FRUM: What's he like? He's a very soft-spoken man. People imagine the Wall Street Journal as sort of a raucous place because the editorial page is so fierce, but Bartley is a very gentlemanly character, very restrained -- never seen him lose his temper, not even with Democrats -- and he knows everything. If you were to say to him something like, "So do you think the French did a good job running their monetary policy in the early 1920s?" he'd have an answer.
LAMB: You also write, and I just scribbled kind of a paraphrase, that William F. Buckley, as much as any man can, has changed politics.
FRUM: Yes. I'm an enormous admirer of his. I think that it is unusual for someone to be as important as he is and also to be such a good person, and that maybe distorts a little bit my view of him. But the historic significance of him was that he as much as anybody is responsible for taking the Republican Party by the scruff of the neck and making it a party that was committed to the military defense of Europe. His first contribution was to say -- remember that he was the champion of the people that had previously supported Taft, and Robert Taft lost the presidency in 1952 very largely because of his refusal to endorse NATO. There was a meeting between him and Eisenhower in the summer of 52 or the spring, and Eisenhower said, "Look, I'll drop out of the race if you will endorse NATO." And Taft wouldn't; Eisenhower came in, blasted him out of the water. Taft died soon after, and the Taftites were left kind of helpless. That was the stronger and larger segment of the institutional Republican Party, and it was Buckley who first persuaded them through National Review that they had to attend to the defense of Europe and then 10 years later repeated the service by persuading them that they had to reconcile themselves to the civil rights revolution. He transformed the character of what then became the stronger of the two political forces in the United States.
LAMB: You say that Alexis de Tocqueville was or is a conservative hero. Does that mean liberals don't like him?
FRUM: I think everybody likes him, but the things that -- he's such a prophetic character. He gave a speech, I think in January of 1848, saying, "Gentlemen, don't you see you're sitting on a volcano? A revolution could explode at any moment." One showed up; the Orleans monarchy was overthrown a month later. He later said he had no idea it would happen so fast, but his awestruck colleagues in the Parliament said to him, "If you had lived 300 years ago, you would have been burnt at the stake as a witch." So there's something there for everybody. He is especially important to conservatives because conservatives, much more than liberals, are worried about the problem of how do you reconcile democracy, and not just institutional democracy but the real feeling that the mass of the people should rule, with other values that are important. That is a thing that conservatives worry about a lot: How do you reconcile it with liberty and respect for property and respect for traditional religious values? Tocqueville both demonstrated that that was happening in the America of his day and then gave some suggestions as to how to ensure that it could continue to happen, which is something that conservatives worry about a lot.
LAMB: If you had Tocqueville, Bartley and Buckley sitting around a table, what would they agree about and what would they disagree about in today's world?
FRUM: It would be an interesting discussion, but Buckley would have to translate. He's the only one there who would speak both English and French. Gee, I think everybody would agree that the job of political thinkers is to try to figure out some way to make sure that our democratic impulses and our respect for popular rule don't conflict with other things that are important and in today's politics that we have a real problem with setting these limits because there's a curious situation where conservatives are nowadays very often the champions of more radical democracy. It's conservatives who tend to be most suspicious of judicial review, conservatives who are keenest on initiative and referendums, conservatives who want to -- Lamar Alexander is going around the country calling for the sending of Congress home for half the year and much more direct democracy. These are things that conservatives have endorsed, and yet they raise a lot of problems from a conservative point of view.
LAMB: What would the three men think of Ronald Reagan?
FRUM: I know what two of them think; what Tocqueville would think about him is a little mysterious to me. I think Bartley more than Buckley would be an unqualified admirer of the Reagan achievement, which is interesting because Buckley was personally, I believe, closer to Reagan. They were friends, which I don't think you would say of Bartley and Reagan. Buckley said some very kind things about the book, and I think one reason he did -- he wrote an article soon after Reagan left office saying that conservatives in the post-Reagan era really had to think about new things, that it was not going to be good enough to say, "Our job now is to defend Reagan's legacy." There was more work that needed to be done, and one thing he suggested was that conservatives would have to be less enthusiastic than they had been about the prerogatives of the presidency.
LAMB: Your last sentence in this book is, "Conservative intellectuals should learn to care a little less about the electoral prospects of the Republican Party, indulge less in policy cleverness and ethnic demagoguery, and do what intellectuals of all descriptions are obliged to do: practice honesty, and pay the price." What's that all about?
FRUM: That's about me and my friends. In many ways this is a very critical book, but attentive readers will notice that wherever the book is at its most critical that I switch from using the third person to describe conservatives -- "they," "them" -- to using the first person -- "we," "us" -- because a lot of the things I'm most unhappy about are things that I participated in myself, and where I blame myself for excessive partisanship, for policy cleverness, for getting very excited about new ways to sell off the federal lands using land-banking techniques -- I got caught up in a lot of this too, and I think that one took one's eye off the main ball. There was a tendency in the 1980s and during the Bush administration for people like me and my friends, who became what the British call "ministerial," that although we weren't in government ourselves, we began to look at every problem from the point of view of people in government. We were constantly self-censoring ourselves and saying -- you would have an idea and then you'd say, "Ah, well, that probably won't be popular, and so I won't even write an article about it." Of course, your problem is to say what seems to you to be right and to publish your articles; the politicians can then ignore them if they like. But there does need to be within the conservative world much more of a sense of the people who aren't in politics aren't in fact in politics and therefore have more freedom of speech than they've often been inclined to give themselves.
LAMB: You say there is no liberal Rush Limbaugh. I would first ask you what importance you see in him, and why is there no liberal Rush Limbaugh?
FRUM: Well, the importance of him is anybody who can persuade -- we hear so much about how Americans are sick of politics, that people don't want to discuss it, and yet 13 million people tune in at a very inconvenient hour every day to listen to somebody talk about politics -- in a lighthearted way, I grant you, but still it's all politics -- that he is someone who has mastered something that many of us would like to master, which is the ability to talk about public affairs, complicated issues in a way that makes sense to colossal, television-scale numbers of people. There is no liberal equivalent of that; there is no one who is speaking on the issues that he is talking about, that is, on true public affairs issues . . .
LAMB: Why not?
FRUM: I think it indicates the lack of popularity of contemporary liberalism, that my book, which argues that conservatism has some problems at its core, it does not mean and therefore the liberals can walk into power. I am speaking about the stronger and more dynamic of America's political groupings, that what you had in the 1970s as a result of the failure of things that they tried was the collapse of liberalism, that so long as there are people who have lived through the inflation of the 1970s, the rapid runup in tax burdens of the 1970s, the sense of international insecurity we all lived through in the 1970s. What I think is also important is the racial politics of the 1970s, the affirmative action. As long as people remember that and so long as liberals are still committed to many of those things, they're cooked geese.
LAMB: You don't call him by name, but you suggest in a sentence that a man who got, I think, one-fifth of the American vote last time is a sinister demagogue.
FRUM: Yes, I'm not a big admirer of Ross Perot's. I don't like authoritarian politics; I don't like idealist politics. This is someone who collected grievances and repackaged them. We often talk about the dangers of ideology, but the fact is that one thing idealogy is, is a tremendous intellectual discipliner that prevents you from saying contradictory things all the time. It prevents you from saying anything at all in order to pick up a vote, that it disciplines you. Perot was someone who would grab at every grievance he could find and in a formless way try to say, "Any feeling of resentment, any grievance -- we don't examine whether it's well-founded or ill-founded -- you do what I tell you, and I will redress it." Vice President Quayle said it correctly: "This was a man whose spirit was not compatible with the ideas and ideals of American constitutional government."
LAMB: In your book Dead Right you talk about bourgeoisie values.
FRUM: This is something that has been an enthusiasm of a lot of the type of conservative writers who are often called neo-conservative, and there's a sense that what is really wrong with America is some widespread sense of the country's in decay. I think this is something that a lot of people think and worry about. I came here by Metroliner from New York City, and I stayed overnight in Princeton on the way at one of the nicest spots in America. As you park your car in the parking lot and head out into the lush Princeton countryside full of these extraordinary, expensive houses, you notice on one of the road overpasses that someone has taken a spray can and written gang graffiti all over the overpass. I think that a lot of Americans feel that their country is crumbling, and it is, therefore, that the restoration of bourgeois values should be somehow the touchstone of national politics. That would be a good thing, obviously, but I am skeptical of attempts to do it by government directly acting on the character of the people.
LAMB: I have what you call bourgeoisie values written down, so everybody knows what we're talking about: "thrift, diligence, sobriety, fidelity, procedure and orderliness." What is a bourgeoisie value? Who's a bourgeoisie?
FRUM: These are some of the once much mocked middle-class values. What they are a list of are sort of the small virtues of everyday life, not the grand, heroic passions that opera composers write about, but the civic and familial virtues that make for the ordinarily decent person. What conservatives worry about a lot is making sure that the ordinary person lives up to a certain standard of decency, and we don't set the standard of decency too high. We don't ask everybody to be a hero; that, I think, is a lot of the conservative critique of what's wrong with leftism and socialism, that by asking people to share all their belongings with everybody else, you set a standard of morality nobody can live up to and if we want a moral society we have to give people moral requirements that are feasible.
LAMB: You put labels on three politicians that everybody I'm sure has heard of. You call Jack Kemp an optimist, Bill Bennett a moralist and Pat Buchanan a nationalist. Explain more of that. Why do you call Jack Kemp an optimist?
FRUM: The central argument of the book is that conservative politicians, by and large, have lost a lot of their enthusiasm for controlling the overall size of government and are spending much more of their efforts saying, "Look, big government is a permanent fact of life; it is here to stay; let us use it to promote conservative ends." Jack Kemp and people like him, people who are strong in Congress, say, "Let's use government; let's change the way it works; let's make it more market oriented. Then let us use new incentives to elicit good behavior from people at the bottom of society." This is optimistic both because it is a sunny and happy message. It says that really America's social problems are readily fixable, but it's also optimistic because it makes very heroic assumptions about what happens when you change the incentives that poor people face, that Kemp really does believe that poorest people in America are people that, if they faced slightly different tax rates and ownership structures, would be completely different. What moralists such as Bill Bennett think -- I actually spoke to him recently, and he claims now to be rethinking a lot of this and to be himself moving in a more anti-statist direction, but certainly at the time I was writing the book what they think is, look, the problem is a perverse elite at the top of American society that is spreading poisonous values into the American people. We should create a new elite that will use the state to strengthen values in the American population. The third group, the nationalists, are people who say our real problem is the changing character of the American country, not character in the moral sense but character in a demographic sense. The country's becoming less European; it is becoming less like the country in which people like Buchanan grew up and that what we should do is use the power of the state to assert and defend the interests of the core Euro-American civilization through things like strict controls on immigration but also through a -- this is less programmatic -- but through a reassertion of who America belongs to.
LAMB: You interviewed Kemp and say you had a tough time getting hold of him.
FRUM: Obviously, he's a busy and important man, and it was very generous of him to make time for someone who's a freelance writer writing a book. He's a very dynamic figure. He is the one real conservative star. He is the one conservative in politics today, Reagan being retired, who when he walks through an airport, heads snap. He commands attention. I think there is much about him that is very admirable and impressive. He's a big-hearted man. He's a dynamic man.
LAMB: "A hugger, a squeezer and a kisser." You wrote that.
FRUM: If he were sitting here right now, he'd be slapping the instep of your foot for emphasis. On the way out he'd put his arm around your shoulder and give you a big bear hug.
LAMB: What did you think of that?
FRUM: Personally, I'm not so crazy about it, but most people like it.
LAMB: How do you know most people like it?
FRUM: I mean that generations of successful politicians have been doing it, and politicians who don't do it tend not to be so successful.
LAMB: But you pointed out that in 1988 -- was it? -- when he ran, he had 3 percent of the vote or something like that.
FRUM: It's a necessary, it doesn't seem to be sufficient condition of popularity. He didn't do that well in the 1988 primaries. I think a lot of his lack of political success so far is the result of his unwillingness to take risks earlier on in his career. I wonder whether he wouldn't have won the nomination in 1988 had he had been either senator from New York or governor of New York, both of which jobs had been at various points within his grasp. In 1990, again, he had an excellent opportunity to become governor of New York, and had he taken it and had he beaten Mario Cuomo in 90, which we now know is eminently doable -- at the time it looked risky; running against two very weak candidates, Cuomo did not at all well -- had Kemp beaten him in 90, done a good job as governor of New York, there would be just no question as to who would be the Republican nominee today, who would be the Republican nominee in 96.
LAMB: Is there any way you define your conservatism?
FRUM: First of all, I don't like modifiers. I do like to just call myself a conservative, but my conservatism is a very strongly anti-statist variety.
LAMB: Why?
FRUM: I am very skeptical of the ability to use government to achieve conservative ends. I think that tools often dictate the uses to which they are put, and the power of government, especially the power of the federal government, inherently has got a subversive cast that is subversive of traditional values, that is inherently centralizing, that is inherently collectivist. I support many of the things that social conservatives want. I'm not one of these new-paradigm conservatives who is very much in sympathy with the main trends of the way American culture is going right now. I'm not a big admirer of pop music -- I'm here wearing a necktie, after all -- but the way you get social conservatism, or the only available way to achieve social conservatism, is through a program of limiting the scope and cost of the central government -- state governments, too -- but first and foremost the central government.
LAMB: Which conservative makes you cringe?
FRUM: Buchanan, to a great extent, makes me cringe. Oliver North makes me cringe worse -- I think probably he more than anybody else.
LAMB: Who do you like the best?
FRUM: Up to a point, I like a lot of people. There are things about a lot of these people that I admire. The book is very critical of Ronald Reagan's failures to get control of spending, for example, and yet I think he was a great man and a very successful president on most counts. On most issues I'm very happy with his achievement, and I supported him enthusiastically and still would. I have a great deal of admiration for Kemp. I think a lot of his specific ideas are wrong, but I think that he has got a quality of heart that you would like to see more conservatives have. He's a dynamic and impressive guy.
LAMB: "A cruel joke of the 1980s went, It's not that Ronald Reagan lacks principles, it's that he does not understand the ones he has.'" Why did you put that in?
FRUM: Because one of the things that people often said about Reagan is that Reagan would say, "Right. Our principle is no agriculture subsidy," supposing that were the principle, but if somebody sort of sidled into his office and said, "But Mr. President, don't you understand there's some farmer in Nebraska who will lose his farm because of this?" "Oh, my goodness. I had no idea that that could happen. Well, forget the whole thing." That the way you could always with Reagan get him to undercut his own policy was by telling him some sad story that moved his feelings. Of course, in a country of 250 million people and 90 million businesses, you could always find some sad story that will be caused by any policy change.
LAMB: Midway through the book you devote several pages to something called Chronicles and Sam Francis.
FRUM: Does he get several pages? I think just one or two.
LAMB: It's mentioned more than once, and there's page 133, 33, 34, 35 -- I can keep going. But what is Chronicles and where is it located?
FRUM: Chronicles is a small magazine located in a town called Rockford, which is just outside of Chicago. It's circulation is about 15,000 and that's obviously not a mass-market publication, but it was interesting because in the late 80s and early 90s it was the most rapidly growing of conservative periodicals and it developed a real constituency. It had a kind of sparkle and verve and liveliness; it was often demented, but you could see that something is going on. At the time when Patrick Buchanan was probably the most recognized conservative spokesman, this was a magazine that influenced his thinking a great deal. I cite Sam Francis because Francis was in many way's Buchanan's idea man, that a lot of things Francis wrote, even phrases and peculiarities about tone of voice would show up in Buchanan's writing and speaking with a lag of a couple of weeks or months.
LAMB: You say, "Thomas Fleming is a strange man." Who is he?
FRUM: Thomas Fleming is the editor of Chronicles, and I think a lot of his ideas would seem esoteric to a lot of listeners. Chronicles is so opposed to the civil rights movement that they go all the way back and reject Martin Luther King, whom they always speak in a way that I think a lot of people would find kind of shocking; totally opposed to non-white immigration to the United States, protectionist, still sore about America's entry into World War II. But there's no doubting that they've got a kind of editorial vitality and that they have been very influential with somebody as important as Pat Buchanan.
LAMB: Where does something like the Rockford Institute come from, and where do they get their money?
FRUM: The Rockford Institute has been around a long time; it's one of the most venerable of the conservative think tanks. Where do they get their money? They get it from some foundations, from some millionaires who give them money . . .
LAMB: Are they effective?
FRUM: As a foundation I don't think they're particularly effective, but they do publish this magazine which does get talked about -- we're talking about it right now.
LAMB: I mean, do conservatives read it?
FRUM: I think a number of them do. I think you can see that a lot of themes -- they're interesting not so much that they're directly influential, but they are sort of prophetic. A lot of the things they talked about have been spreading through the rest of the conservative movement; for instance, in 1989 when they began to talk a lot about immigration, the official conservative position was that we were all in favor of it. We saw no problem. Today I think you find a lot of skepticism and doubt about immigration in general and non-European immigration in particular very commonly expressed among conservatives. They were there first; they had some ability to anticipate where the conservative movement was going. I see them in many ways as a generator of the kinds of ideas that I call nationalist that I think do have potentially quite a big audience among conservatives.
LAMB: This line on the next page when you're talking about Chronicles: "Flamboyantly anti-Semitic writer, Gore Vidal." Does everybody know he's anti-Semitic?
FRUM: No, I might get a libel action from him -- or you might, actually, since you're the one who just repeated it on air.
LAMB: Thanks.
FRUM: But he is someone who does refer to anybody who's published articles sympathetic to Israel as fifth columnists, i.e., traitors. I mean there's something very, very unpleasant about that.
LAMB: Is this well-known in the Jewish community?
FRUM: Certainly this accusation against him has been floated in both the pages of Commentary magazine and also in the pages of the New Republic more recently when Hillary Clinton visited with him in Italy on her last trip there, that the New Republic editorialized that this was a shocking thing for her to have done.
LAMB: What are his politics?
FRUM: Gore, deeply peculiar.
LAMB: And why did you quote him?
FRUM: Did I quote him there? I pointed out that how Chronicles, although it was a very conservative magazine -- hero worship -- they have on many occasions singled him out for praise as an exemplar of the kind of thing they like. I do that as sort of a way of letting people know where Chronicles is coming from. This is a magazine where . . .
LAMB: Is Chronicles anti-Semitic?
FRUM: I don't like floating suggestions like that. I think Chronicles, the people there are deeply unhappy and suspicious with anybody who deviates from a certain kind of nationalist, particularist, almost chauvinist conservatism. As a result, I think they are very unhappy with people who are ethnically different from what they call the core values or core group of Euro-American civilization.
LAMB: Is there anyone who is deeply unhappy and suspicious of you and this book for whatever reason that you've heard of since it's been published?
FRUM: I'm not sure I understand the question.
LAMB: When a book like this comes out, there are people that are terribly happy with you and then there are those that I assume are not very happy with it.
FRUM: There's been criticism. The Washington Times criticized it; the Wall Street Journal review, overall favorable, had a number of quite tough criticisms. It would be completely unrealistic to expect that you could write a controversial book and have everyone say, "Terrific."
LAMB: Who likes it the most?
FRUM: It's been actually very interesting that the people who've liked it have been conservatives who think of themselves as quite independent from the Republican Party. Buckley, in particular, will but also a number of liberals who are trying to understand the way conservatives think -- James Carville, apparently, whom I've never met but has been telling people that he thinks it's interesting and important.
LAMB: When did you know you had something that people were paying attention to?
FRUM: The day the Buckley blurb came in. We had sent the book out for blurbing, I think the publisher had planned to run a 5,000, and Buckley sent in a very friendly blurb . . .
LAMB: It's on the back of the book and it says, "Mr. Frum's book is the most refreshing ideological experience in a generation. His arrangement of the data is an artistic triumph, the wit fresh and illuminating. Dead Right reintroduces relish and perspective to political debate. A landmark."
FRUM: At that point the publisher said, "Hokey smoke," and they redesigned the cover. You see this bronze stuff they've got on it. That costs extra.
LAMB: The bronze stuff at the bottom?
FRUM: The bronze stuff at the bottom and top, the stars. That costs extra, but Buckley inspired them to spend the money to put a little bronze ink on the cover.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how much that cost?
FRUM: I have no idea.
LAMB: The other one is, you've got a blurb that says Robert Bartley, "David Frum sounds a warning on the future of the conservatives with his usual verve and clarity. It should be heeded, though some of us can remember when the very idea of a conservative future was an oxymoron." You say very good things about both of them in the book, and they say very good things about your book on the back. Do you talk to one another before you do these kinds of things?
FRUM: No, actually, in fairness, Bartley in particular -- that was a very generous act because, while I said something nice about him and I feel that he's an extraordinarily important man, this book is in many ways a criticism and a deviation from a number of things that the Wall Street Journal editorially has said. He was being very generous in saying that last sentence about "some of us remember" means that we come at this from different points of view so that he was being very fair-minded in saying, "Look, I found a lot here that's interesting even though in many ways we do see things very, very differently."
LAMB: You refer to the flag and the culture of the flag and that there are two countries in the world who feel secure enough not to have the cult of the flag -- not the culture. That would be France and Japan. Would you explain that?
FRUM: One of the things -- this is an interesting thing to single out -- one of the things in Canada we often talk about is how the American national identity is so cohesive and secure. Look at all the flags everywhere. This strikes me as -- and this is relevant to the sense that I have that Americans often feel very insecure about the cohesiveness of the country and its stability -- that the flag-flying is a kind of desperate assertion -- not desperate but an assertion that -- in France everyone knows what a Frenchman is and what it means to be a Frenchman, so on non-governmental buildings you don't see them. The Japanese, my goodness, they have no doubt about who is and who isn't a Japanese, what it means to be a Japanese. They have a whole language of adjectives meaning Japanese-like, truly Japanese, not-so-Japanese. You never see a flag there. In a way the great American achievement is to have taken people from all over the world and given them a common identity in a remarkably short period of time. People prove they that they accept that identity by flying the flag everywhere, over their gas station, over their cottage, over their boat; but it does indicate that a lot of Americans, including the most patriotic, have a sense that there are fault lines in this country and that there is a national identity that is not completely reliable under all circumstances and that holding the country together and preserving a sense of Americanness, that is a job politicians and statesmen have to worry about.
LAMB: When you're in Canada versus when you're here in the United States, do you think differently?
FRUM: No.
LAMB: Is there such a thing as thinking Canadian or thinking American, and do you find yourself in those shoes when you're in two different places?
FRUM: No. I mean, there are different problems the two countries confront, obviously, that in the short term Canada's economic problems are obviously much worse than they are in the United States and the solutions that we need there are in many ways more radical. Also, I think you can say that as a national experience, the Canadian has been much less successful. What we essentially have here are two brothers, family that settled across the continent, the descendants of the English in North America, and they then made slightly different arrangements. I think there's great kinship between them, but the arrangements of the people who live north of the 49th parallel made have obviously been much less successful in economic terms and in many other terms than those made by people south of the 49th parallel.
LAMB: Go back to your school -- Yale, Harvard. How did you get to Yale?
FRUM: Airplane -- "practice" is the old joke.
LAMB: You were in high school where?
FRUM: I was in high school in Toronto, and you write some tests and you . . .
LAMB: But why Yale? What was your interest in Yale?
FRUM: I think it would be a little embarrassing to reveal how frivolously some of these important decisions . . .
LAMB: Do it anyway.
FRUM: It seemed like a good idea at the time.
LAMB: Were there other schools you were interested in?
FRUM: Yes, the other Ivy League schools. My father and I got in a car and we flew to Boston and saw Harvard and then drove south, and I visited Yale and Princeton and then flew home. Actually, my father was very keen on Princeton. He thought it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen, but my mother put her foot down and said absolutely no child of hers was going to a place that F. Scott Fitzgerald had written about like that. So that's how I ended up at Yale.
LAMB: What was it like?
FRUM: It was wonderful.
LAMB: How important was it to your education? Were you a conservative going in?
FRUM: No, no, I wasn't, not in any political sense. That happened there, although that had a lot to do with events. I think events are much underestimated as a cause of the reasons that we think the way we do. I got there in fall of 1978, and that was a really frightening time. It was the beginning of a very serious inflation, it was in the middle but sort of the crescendoing moment of Russian imperial adventurism, and it was a nerve-racking time. We were young and perhaps more inclined to be excited about things, but I remember lots of people were very smart and very sensible on the faculty who were just terrified of the prospects of what would happen if Jimmy Carter were reelected. I had Eugene Rostow as a faculty adviser while I was there.
LAMB: Who's he?
FRUM: He was assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs under Kennedy and Johnson, one of the people who helped run the Vietnam War in its early days. He was then Ronald Reagan's arms control ambassador in the early days of the Reagan administration, but one of the grand old men of the Eastern foreign policy establishment, a brilliant man, former dean of the Yale Law School. I remember seeing him on the day of the election, and he was going to go home and watch TV and pray for the future of Western civilization. That election seemed that important.
LAMB: So four years at Yale.
FRUM: Yes.
LAMB: When was it you said, "I am a conservative"?
FRUM: Freshman year -- that would mean 78-'79.
LAMB: Has that changed at all, your feelings about being a conservative and the kind of conservative you are?
FRUM: The kind of conservative I am has definitely shifted and fluctuated over time. I suspect my conservatism has moved in a more anti-statist direction since those days. I think in those days I was much more influenced by people like Russell Kirk and Leo Strauss than now. I didn't know as much about economics then as I like to think I do now.
LAMB: What year Harvard?
FRUM: I was there from 84 to 87.
LAMB: Law. How come? Why law?
FRUM: This is a deeply legalistic civilization, and one of the things that when you go to law school, it's like buying a color television for the first -- suddenly I realized I have a vantage point on how the society works, that everything in America is filtered through the legal system and you wonder -- it's like not knowing any theology in medieval Europe not to know law in America today. It is the central intellectual organizing mechanism of the society's life.
LAMB: Can you take a Harvard law degree back to Canada though?
FRUM: No.
LAMB: So it means nothing in Canada.
FRUM: They won't let you, you can't practice law. Well, you have to have additional education if you want to practice law.
LAMB: Do you ever want to practice law?
FRUM: If it is ever necessary to keep the wolf from the door, I'll do it, but short of the most grinding necessity, I don't think so.
LAMB: When are you the most happy in your work? You spent three years on the Wall Street Journal editorial board. You wrote this book. When is it you find yourself -- "This is what I always wanted to do"?
FRUM: I find myself seldom unhappy.
LAMB: What kind of work do you enjoy?
FRUM: I enjoy writing. I enjoy thinking. It is amazing to me that -- so many writers say this, but it's always true that the idea that I can go into a room, read things, think about them and then write about them and make a living doing that, that is a great thrill.
LAMB: You dedicated this book to your mother, in memory of your mother. Is she still alive?
FRUM: No, my mother died in March of 92, and she was an extraordinary public figure in Canada. She was probably the best known, best respected -- she was the best known, best respected journalist in the country and an extraordinarily prescient and profound person and one who had an immense impact not just on me but on everyone who came into contact with her.
LAMB: And where was she a journalist?
FRUM: She was the host of the main news program, main interview program on CBC TV in Canada.
LAMB: What was her name?
FRUM: Barbara Frum.
LAMB: And your father's still alive?
FRUM: Yes.
LAMB: Where is he?
FRUM: He's in Toronto. He's a businessman there and another very important influence on me, also a remarkable man.
LAMB: Do you have a family?
FRUM: I have two children.
LAMB: How old are they?
FRUM: Three and 10 months.
LAMB: Do you want them to become journalists some day?
FRUM: Let's put it this way, it's not on the list of things I would go ballistic about. I mean, if it's that or acting, yes, I'd prefer journalism.
LAMB: Do you want them to grow up in Canada or in America?
FRUM: Oh, I see. I think I would like to see them grow up in the United States, yes. I mean, they're both American citizens, so it would be sort of natural.
LAMB: Is your wife an American citizen?
FRUM: She's Canadian too.
LAMB: You wrote this: "People who do not have to work for a living, however, can indulge themselves in a hundred little peculiarities of behavior, one reason that the English upper class is so famously odd."
FRUM: This is a comment on one of the things that I know irks a lot of conservatives is the proliferation of unusual displays in public life -- you know, the kente cloths, the displays of sort of Third Worldism but also in the aggressive nonconformity that you see. It should be said, this is not a frivolous thing; this is the heart and soul of the liberal project, that when John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, which is really the book that kicks off modern liberalism, that what he wanted to do was to open up more freedom for people to behave in unconventional ways. Unconventionality is a central issue in the liberal project, and conservatives react against it. Mills most important contemporary critic, a man named Stephen, who was the uncle of Virginia Woolf, said that if Mill gets his way, that we will have as many eccentrics as there are men who wish to pass for men of genius. So conservatives don't like that, and what I'm arguing is, this is not just a social issue; this is connected to our economic system, that capitalism, as many of the social critics of the 1950s point out, has powerful conformity-inducing mechanisms. People want to behave and dress the way their bosses do because they are very alert to the need to retain the pleasure of the people who hire them and because people are fearful of taking undue risks. When you have, however, large numbers of people who work for the government where they are unfireable and can do more or less anything they want and gross, gross misconduct has to be proven against them before they can be dismissed or when they are living on the state in one way or another through direct transfers that in a way you've achieved the John Stuart Mill utopia and you have liberated people to explore all their eccentricities. I guess what the conservative's reacting is that we don't think the most valuable and important parts of the human personality are those that are expressed by eccentricity.
LAMB: If you had to go pick a book off the shelf that would be your favorite philosophical book about what you believe, what would that be?
FRUM: A philosophical work. I think I would pick two, if I could. One is Hayek's Constitution of Liberty, and the other is the book I just referred to by James Fitzjames Stephen called Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, which is, I think, still the most powerful critique of contemporary permissive liberalism that has been published.
LAMB: I just want to keep pulling these sentences that I underlined because I want to get you to explain more. "The children of a self-made man are different from their father, more optimistic, often more generous, more sensitive and more tolerant but less careful, less provident, less hard-working, less self-control."
FRUM: Yes. I use that as part of an analogy, and I'm trying to explain why we do see differences in the American character today as opposed to the World War II generation, that the tidal wave of affluence that has washed the country has created important changes in the way people behave and think and live, and I think Americans today, for example, like that analogy. They probably are more generous and more tolerant than they used to be, but they are also less provident and less careful in part because they just feel immune to the adversities of fate.
LAMB: "Every household connected to cable television received the 24-hour at home lubricity" -- is that how you pronounce it? So far so good -- "of MTV; pulsating sexual beats, gyrating near-naked bodies and gleefully Dionysiac lyrics. Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal to sexual desire, not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored." That's a quote by the late Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. What are you getting at?
FRUM: I remember -- this is actually my wife's observation -- bringing our daughter home from the hospital, and one of the ways this changes your life is you've got the newborn with you and you turn on the TV for the first time since the baby was born and suddenly you think, My God, there's a lot of filth on television; I never noticed it before. Now, of course, people who watch this show watch C-SPAN and nothing else, and so they're protected from this, . . .
LAMB: Sure.
FRUM: . . . but it's startling and what I'm saying here is that it is not as if -- people who debate these liberal-conservative issues all say, "Well, if you don't like something, you don't have to look at it," but in fact we create economic and social institutions that direct things at people, that it is very hard if you dislike some of the more permissive aspects of contemporary culture -- if you don't want to have MTV, you have to give up C-SPAN, and life without C-SPAN is barely worth living. So we have to tolerate MTV coming into our house.
LAMB: What's the difference in media flow in Canada than in the United States and the kind of things you can read? If you live in Toronto and you never came to the United States, what's there that's not here and vice versa?
FRUM: For one thing that isn't there is C-SPAN, so I have to get a lot of your shows on videotape, but broadcast media in Canada is heavily controlled by the state. They do try to keep out a lot of foreign programming, with decreasing success because of technological breakthroughs. All the print media are there, of course, but they're -- I get them -- but they're expensive. I mean, a subscription to the New York Times or the Washington Post in Canada can cost $500 a year, and so people who are not avid news junkies sort of don't go to the library a lot tend to rely on reporting from newspapers digested through the medium of the Canadian newspapers. I think that there is actually not as much awareness of the way the United States works as you would expect from a country so immediately close to so important and powerful a nation.
LAMB: I know it's early, but in 1996, based on what you see happening, what will the presidential election be like?
FRUM: It will be a lot closer, but here is one thing I would say confidently: It will be a lot closer than most Republicans think now.
LAMB: A lot closer on which side?
FRUM: Right now a lot of Republicans are saying, "Clinton -- he's finished. He's done for; he's imploding. He probably won't even be nominated by his own party. That's how dismal he's in. Maybe he'll be lucky enough to go to the penitentiary for Whitewater." I think this guy -- "this guy" meaning the president -- is a very powerful, capable politician. The damage he took in the 92 campaign and without letting it stop him was impressive. There are very few people who could have come through and coped with and explained away the things that he did. Now, it's unfortunate that he has so many of those things that he must explain away, but there it is. He does and he's able to do it. I think that he is a formidable, formidable politician, and Republicans who do not do him justice fail to do that at their peril. Also, I think there's going to be in the next two years a lot of slinging between a much more conservative and Republican Congress and the president, the Republicans in Congress will not be able to impose an agenda of their own, that you will have a lot of teetering and tottering between the two branches, and it will be possible for Clinton to mount a campaign running against the Republicans in Congress. So I look for a very close election.
LAMB: I promise to bring this clip back so everybody can see it in a couple of years. But what kind of a person will be nominated by the Republican Party?
FRUM: I suspect, what they will have to do is nominate someone who reconciles a lot of their factions. One of the reasons I think that someone like Dick Cheney gets such an extraordinary response is not because he obviously lacks the charisma and dynamism of Jack Kemp, but he is someone who is a neutral enough tone that all sorts of people can project onto him their hopes. If I were asked today -- and this is going to be on videotape -- but I suspect that you will find Jack Kemp fading even earlier than I suggested in the book and that you are going to find the conservatives gravitating to Dick Cheney, who will be the candidate of responsibility and calmness and who will run very much on foreign policy issues, moderates and liberals in the party gravitating to Pete Wilson of California, assuming he is reelected, which it looks like it will happen. He will have a lot of money, and he will able to do something very clever, which is go left on social issues like abortion while going right on national issues like immigration and crime. He will hope to do a double envelopment of the conservatives who will be around Cheney.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book, and our author is David Frum, and the name of the book is Dead Right: The great conservative revival of the 1980s is over. Government is bigger, taxes are higher, family values are weaker, and the Democrats are in power. What will the right do next? And we thank you.
FRUM: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.