David Frum Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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David, welcome to Berkeley.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
That's a hard question in many ways, because ours was such an intimate family. It's hard to know where your thoughts stopped and your parents' thoughts started. My mother was a very prominent journalist in Canada. She's dead now, alas; died in '54. My father is a successful businessman. They were very involved in ideas and in politics, and they're children of the great immigration that came to North America. My father's family came to the continent in 1930, and my mother was an American citizen who moved to Canada. They were very much caught up in the ideas that the children of immigrants, especially Jewish immigrants, had. They were children of the New Deal. They believed in the government and what it could do. They had seen what government could do; they had seen it win wars. They weren't radicals, but they had seen that government can work for people. But what they also were creatures of the Cold War, and what they also understood was that evil is a real thing in the world and goodwill and fine words aren't enough to stop it.
I came of age in the 1970s, a very different time. Just as my parents had lived through the failure of markets and capitalism in the thirties and forties, we, in the Great Inflation, saw the failure of government. What we also saw, and this is where my parents and I were very much on the same wavelength, was the seemingly unstoppable advance of communism in the late seventies, and the seeming failure of nerve of the democratic societies. If there was one thing that I took away from that background that was relevant to what I did later, it was the idea that justice without power is doomed; that justice must be backed by power.
Where were you educated after growing up in Canada?
I went to school at Yale. I was in the Class of '82. I did a couple of degrees in history, a B.A. and an M.A. I worked for a little bit as a journalist. I went to law school -- that didn't take -- and have been working as a journalist since 1987.
How did you become a speechwriter in the White House of George W. Bush?
Well, that's the most bizarre story, and I really cannot, even to this day, answer the question. I had written a lot about politics. I had worked on a lot of articles and so on, written a number of books. After the election, I got a call from the chief speechwriter, Mike Gerson, inviting me to meet with him. I was sort of surprised, because I had written a lot of critical stuff about the president during the campaign, and I knew that the Bush people didn't like that. They didn't like journalists who wrote positive things, and they especially didn't like journalists who wrote critical things. But we had two meetings -- one just before the inauguration, and one just after. The second one was in the White House mess. As you know, no one turns down that invitation. And they put the lean on me. What they said was, "This is your chance to see how things really are, to make a contribution. We're showing confidence in you; you have to show a little confidence in us." I still don't know why they picked me, but they did; I'm glad. And I said yes.
Your portfolio was really economic speechwriting, right?
It was. What I was hired to do was ... What we all "knew" in 2001 was that the great achievement of the Bush presidency was going to be the reform of Social Security and Medicare. That's what the next four years were going to be about. So I was hired to work on that. The idea was that there was going to be a big communications effort and messaging, and explaining this to the country. All of that, of course, was turned upside down by 9/11.
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