Neocon of the Year
I never expected my work for LewRockwell.com to get me invited to ritzy parties on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but that’s exactly what happened. I spent this past weekend in New York being feted first by the Fabiani Society and then, at the Big Event, by the Manhattan Institute itself. No, I wasn’t the guest of honor, just the recipient of all the goodwill and charity — to say nothing of refreshments and hors d’oeuvre — that goes with being on the selection committee for the 2003 Norman Podhoretz award, the prestigious "Poddy."
Needless to say, the fact that I was on the committee at all seems to have been something of a misunderstanding. Last August I received a call from a staffer at the Manhattan Institute — let’s call him "Alex" — asking me whether I would be the "student representative" on the panel judging the finalists for the Poddy. "Alex," I said to him, "are you sure you haven’t got the wrong number? I’m not a big fan of any Podhoretzes and I thought that was pretty well known." My name, Daniel McCarthy, is a fairly common one, as any Google search will show. I was convinced this was a case of mistaken identity.
And maybe it was. Alex told me that I had been invited because I was considered something of a budding expert on neoconservatives, and because I had run into one of the Manhattan Institute’s top donors at CPAC, the official conservative pep-rally, the year before and had made a good impression. I didn’t recall any such meeting, but it was possible. My colleagues on the selection committee were to be William Bennett (AVOT, former Drug Czar and Education Secretary), Jessica Gavora (Independent Women’s Forum), John Fund (Wall Street Journal) and John Podhoretz (son of Norman). And I, apparently, was "Daniel McCarthy, University of Washington." Whether this was a typo — Washington University, which I attend, is in St. Louis and is not the same as the University of Washington — or whether in fact they had mixed me up with another Daniel McCarthy wasn’t clear, and I wasn’t going to raise the issue. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a look inside the neocon world with my own two eyes.
The committee deliberated by email between August and November, then met in person on December 20th to make the final decision. We were all sworn to secrecy at that meeting, just after we’d said the pledge and offered up a non-denominational prayer, so I can’t reveal too many details. I can say that Bill Bennett was not there in person: he had appointed some flunky from AVOT to be his proxy. I can also tell you that Jessica Gavora’s presence on the committee in no way biased its considerations, even though she’s married to one of the finalists for the prize (Jonah Goldberg). Goldberg had won the last two years in a row, so no one expected him to win again, especially considering his fall from grace at National Review Online. The other finalists who didn’t win were Max Boot (didn’t have a high enough profile) and David Brooks (too risqu; John Podhoretz wanted only someone completely above board to win the award that bore his family name). So who won?
It won’t come as a surprise. The press releases haven’t gone out yet, but I think I’m safe in telling you who it was that we’d gathered to honor last weekend in Manhattan. The recipient of the 2003 Norman Podhoretz award and official "Neoconservative of the Year" was David Frum.
He wasn’t my first choice — one of the criteria for the Poddy is that the recipient must champion American values. I expressed to the committee some doubt about Frum’s qualifications in that regard, since he’s a Canadian. I pointed out, rather mischievously, that National Review had just run a major article by Jonah Goldberg bashing Canada and threatening to blow up the CN Tower. Should the neocon of the year really be a Canadian? Well, I was told in no uncertain terms that my xenophobia was not appreciated: Frum was the perfect choice, because as an immigrant he embodies the American ideal better than any native American ever could. What’s more, it was darkly hinted that if I had a problem with Canadians I should talk to Conrad Black , or ask Jonah Goldberg why he’s no longer editor of National Review Online. I was only joking in the first place, but this shut me up. I didn’t want to blow my cover, so to speak, by saying anything that might reveal me for a "paleo."
That’s more than enough about me; David Frum is the man of the hour and he’s got a little gold statue of Norman Podhoretz to prove it. Frum is kind of a low-key guy; sometimes he gets confused with David Brooks, or with one of the other Canadian or British expats who write for National Review. He doesn’t attract attention the way Jonah Goldberg does. But make no mistake about it, he’s earned his title. This is the man who coined the phrase "Axis of Evil," in so doing polarizing this country, and the whole world, into neoconservatives on the one hand (including Tony Blair) and "evil doers" on the other. "Moral clarity" is Frum’s middle name.
And why do you think Frum’s now appearing on the back page of the print version of National Review? That’s the prestigious slot formerly held by Florence King (who never won any kind of neoconservative award). Frum is so prolific, such a powerful thinker that he’s marked out his own territory on National Review Online as well, where his blog, David Frum’s Diary, runs. And he’s the author of several critically acclaimed books — his latest, The Right Man, the first insider’s account of the Bush White House, is already making waves. He’s also the author of How We Got Here, the 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life — For Better or Worse, and Dead Right, which no less an eminence than Frank Rich of the New York Times declared to be "the smartest book written from the inside about the American conservative movement." That a Canadian could write the smartest book from the inside of the American conservative movement only goes to show how special Frum really is. Joseph de Maistre once said that he’d met Frenchmen and he’s met Russians but he’d never met the generic, deracinated man. He’d obviously never met David Frum.
Maistre may never have met Frum, but Frum has met the latter-day likes of Maistre and he’s booted them out of the American conservative movement. Frum is the scourge of the paleos; he’s not fooled by Paul Gottfried or any talk about Murray Rothbard. He knows what paleos are really all about.
Frum is everything that Jonah Goldberg ever wanted to be and more. Even Goldberg’s characteristic comparison of the old, continental Right to the postmodern lunatic Left is prefigured in a more relevant context in Frum’s Dead Right. In chapter six of Dead Right, "Nationalists: Whose Country Is It Anyway?", Frum tells us that Pat Buchanan, Thomas Fleming, Lew Rockwell, Murray Rothbard and other paleos "believe what Donna Shalala and David Dinkins and Henry Louis Gates believe: that American really is — or is becoming — a mosaic; that it is — or is coming to be — characterized by a u2018diversity’ that cannot be reduced to a common Americanism of recognizably English origin. Nationalist conservatives accept the truth of everything that America’s most advance liberals propound. They just don’t like it." Such outspokenness has made Frum the target of slings and arrows from the likes of Thomas Fleming and Justin Raimondo, but he remains undaunted.
All that is in the past. The David Frum who bounded onto the stage this weekend to accept his Poddy was a man who knew his time had come. Sadly I didn’t have a notepad with me to take down his speech, but what he had to say was similar enough to what he wrote in Sunday’s New York Times (that Frank Rich connection is obviously helping Frum out), an article called "It’s His Party." Appraising the latest stage of neoconservatism under President Bush, Frum writes "For those of us who believed in the more radical conservatism espoused by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, Mr. Bush’s softer Republicanism can often be difficult to adjust to." But Frum himself has adapted quite well, and eagerly. Here are a few more choice selections from his Times op-ed. First, on economics:
George Bush’s party is less economically libertarian than the Republican Party of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Mr. Bush’s tax cut, for example, was only one-third as large as Ronald Reagan’s, relative to the size of the United States economy. And while Mr. Reagan’s cut took effect in only three years, Mr. Bush’s won’t be complete for 10….
….Ronald Reagan fought an unending, and ultimately unsuccessful, struggle against the growth of entitlements. Mr. Bush is presiding over the expansion of Medicaid into something that is coming to look more and more like a universal health insurance program. He uncomplainingly signed the biggest farm bill in history, jettisoned school vouchers to win his education bill and let his Social Security reform commission quietly expire.
So much for libertarianism and economic conservatism. Frum next presents his take on Bush’s social policies:
Many Republicans offer the pro-life movement rhetorical tributes. Mr. Bush has brought the concerns of religious conservatives in from the periphery of American politics to its center. His stem-cell policy is the biggest political victory the pro-life movement has had in years. More significantly, he delivered that victory without alienating or frightening those Americans who are not pro-life.
No doubt this is stirring stuff for those who want to believe that George W. Bush is a conservative of some kind but Frum’s facts are not quite in order. Bush didn’t ban embryonic stem-cell research; on the contrary, he approved federal funding for some embryonic stem-cell research. But never mind the facts; that’s not where Frum is coming from. Just look at the thoughts on foreign policy with which he concludes his Times op-ed:
It sometimes seemed to me, as I watched the debate between the administration’s hawks and doves from the inside, that I was witnessing a reprise of the great strategic debates of the Civil War. Back then, official Washington was divided between the realists, who wanted to fight the smallest possible war in order (as they said) to save the Union as it was, and the idealists, who sought the biggest possible victory, even if it meant smashing the old order in the South forever. Today’s realists, like their 19th-century counterparts, are more frightened of change than they are of defeat. At every step, President Bush has opted for the course that offers the hope of a bigger victory – even at the price of a wider war. Surprisingly, the Republican Party has followed. And so the president who once talked of scaling back America’s overseas commitments now finds himself crusading for democracy not only in Iraq, but also for the entire Arab world. Republicans usually like to see themselves as steely realists. Foreign-policy realism is the tradition from which President Bush and his top foreign-policy advisers have come. But under the pressure of war, Mr. Bush has found what the great American presidents have believed: that American principles are as “real” as ships and armies and wealth. It’s not just Mr. Bush’s party that is changing. It is Mr. Bush himself.
Like I said, Frum’s acceptance speech at the Podhoretz awards was along the same lines. I dozed off for a while — Frum can’t quite hold an audience like Goldberg — until a fidgeting John Podhoretz jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow. Poddy Jr told me that one day there’d be an award inspired by him; I told him there already is. Before Mini-Me Podhoretz could figure out what I was getting at, though, Frum had hit his crescendo, the part of his speech corresponding to the foreign policy part of the Times op-ed. Frum was ready for World War IV, as it’s called in Pod-speak, and if he and his chicken-hawk friends don’t actually plan to fight in the war, you can be sure they’ll make up for it with their zeal to foment it. So inspiring was this patriotic peroration that I rose to my feet just before the final applause line, raised my right arm in the appropriate Roman salute and cried out a hearty Nos morituri te salutamus, O Frum! The Neocon of the Year seemed a little shaken up by this.
I don’t think I’ll be asked to judge next year’s Poddy.
P.S. As the reader may have guessed, there isn’t really any such thing as the Norman Podhoretz award; I made it up. Everything about the selection committee and ceremony — wildly untrue, all of it, and intended for satirical purposes only. Sadly, David Frum is for real, and ought to get some kind of booby prize for being the indisputable Neocon of the Year.
Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.