The Outsider

In the not-for-the-faint world of D.C., you do not exist politically if you are not loathed by at least one group. But David Frum is in an elite category – he is hated by both sides of the fence. A stalwart speechwriter of the W regime, no friends on the left. Then excommunicated by the right when he dared to suggest that Republicans were blowing it in their blind opposition to the healthcare bill, a posture he has maintained vociferously regarding the current Republican posture on the debt ceiling, “you don’t play chicken with default.”

“Yes, my views put me in a minority these days,” he admits bedecked in a blindingly white jacket befitting the tropics that have descended on D.C.

But what ATM was curious about is how Frum, lawyer-schooled-journalist-resumed-formerly-White-House-employed, turned being suddenly on the outside into something of a personal media empire. His website, Frum Forum, has become the voice of the less uncompromising (but not necessarily moderate) right, he is omnipresent as a political analyst for CNN, he gives about 20 speeches a year and he is finishing up his 7th book – this latest one a novel about D.C.

In the age of the new media, Frum has done what so many are trying unsuccessfully to do. He has created an identity on the web, attracted readers and kept people’s attention.

And he doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Media is the plural of medium. Medium is just the conduit. It is like wanting to talk about electricity – you want to talk about where it comes from and how; not about the poles and pylons. We are pylons.”

Instead, what Frum wants to talk about is his fear; his fear that well-meaning people in power are about to drive this nation off a cliff.

“Frum Forum is not about making money, it is not about me. It is about responsibility. My goal is to be heard. We have the responsibility to be heard. To be part of the conversation. And I think we are.”

For an hour, despite repeated determined ATM attempts to steer the conversation to his journalism pedigree (he worked as a freelance writer in Canada, as an editorial editor for the Wall Street Journal and is the son of one of Canada’s most famous journalists), Frum deflects the attention from himself to why he is doing all this media.

Each thrust at discussing his empire is parried into a guided tour of some of today’s most intransigent political issues adding shades of grey and the occasional primary color to the issues being hashed out in public in black and white. Global distribution of wealth is indeed skewing to the ultra-rich. That is wrong but just taxing the ultra rich will not work because they will always find a way around it. Rather than take away from one side let’s find a way to help the other – for example in the last 20 years we have reduced crime plaguing the poorest citizens. Today’s financial issues stem not from war but from the voracious leveraging a relatively few bad loans (multiple bets being made on the same few chips). Unfair to blame Obama for the economic woes even if you don’t like how he is handling them. The country is not as partisan as it seems – the current angry tone is rather the product of Congressional rule changing and gerrymandering. Our system of government cannot work if the “opposition” just exists to oppose. Party affiliation should play no role in local community politics; candidates should stand on their personal integrity.

For the self-made outsider (“I am still firmly a Republican”) who put the words into the mouth of a president so loathed by many, here was the surprisingly considered discourse that we all claim we pine for. In Frum’s world, those who disagree are not depicted as lepers to be despised or worse and hence banished to a desolate wilderness; rather their ideas might be viewed as wrong but not mean-spirited.

“Are you at least having fun?”

There is a pause on this. The thought of fun seems to have not occurred to Frum. A journalist turned pol who is now the journalist-pol, why wouldn’t this be fun? He has a website, a following, a voice that is being heard, if not always welcomed. The pause lasts a bit longer as he seems to search for something hidden in a corner.

“Our current situation is too perilous to be having fun.”

Frum seems to have forgotten that today’s evolving new media has reached a stage of the cult of personality where individual Twitter feeds, blogs and even by-lines are increasingly about the self. And his self has a higher profile today than ever before, partly because he seems to relish sticking his finger in so many eyes. Yes, that should be fun.

And yet there is the distinct sense that Frum would be just as happy, perhaps happier, if he didn’t think his voice was needed quite as much right now.

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