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Absorb the ideas

Axis of evil redux

Much dark hilarity is ensuing after Vanity Fair’s article featuring prominent administration advisers turning their backs on George W. Bush. One of them is speechwriter David Frum, who offers this sorrowful analysis:

I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything.

Famously, or notoriously, Frum was responsible for the phrase “axis of evil” as a rhetorical lasso for Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. What might it mean to complain that, although Bush “said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas”? Well, the idea behind the dizzying masterstroke “axis of evil” was that these three countries were apparently, despite all appearances and fact, allied in an axis, like the Nazis and their chums, drawing up evil plans for world domination etc. And what did Bush do with this “idea”? He only invaded one of the countries. And that is the root of maybe everything. Like, duh. Hello, Mr President? You were supposed to invade Iran and North Korea too . . .

The Vanity Fair piece has also prompted an impressive display of lying by another of its interviewees, National Review editor Michael Ledeen, who now claims that he “opposed the military invasion of Iraq before it took place”. In response to the forensic refutation of this lie using Ledeen’s own published words by Glenn Greenwald and others, Ledeen posted another response:

As for the Scowcroft excoriation left bloggers are pointing to, I never address military action in it.

In fact, in the 2002 article to which he refers smugly as his “excoriation” of Scowcroft, Ledeen speaks of “the desperately-needed and long overdue war against Saddam Hussein”. Uh . . . dude. If you call a proposed “war” both “desperately-needed” and “long overdue”, that does actually count as “address[ing] military action”. (Another blizzard of proof from the archives is dug up by Jonathan Schwarz.) Perhaps this prominent magazine editor has the same problem that David Frum diagnoses in George W. Bush: he mouths the words, but he just can’t absorb the ideas.

For myself, I’m trying to absorb the idea of absorbing ideas. Are ideas like little puddles of liquid? Is your brain like a paper towel, which if not sufficiently thick and fluffy, won’t be able to mop up all the ideas that your speechwriter has generously spilled across the table? Were the “ideas” that David Frum fondly remembers offering to his president actually worthy of the name? Or is the problem really that George W. Bush has a mind so fine no idea could violate it? That phrase of T S Eliot’s about Henry James, sometimes recalled as a put-down, was meant as complicated praise:

James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it…. In England, ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought…. Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation.

Frum should not worry so much at the fact that his president’s mind remains gloriously inviolate despite the flood of ideas lapping around his chin. Eliot would doubtless have agreed that George W. Bush, too, is like the best French critics. No one can accuse him of not maintaining a point of view till the bitter end.

  1. 1  Graham Giblin  November 7, 2006, 1:39 am 

    I think you are right about Bush’s “fine mind”. Stephen Colbert put it eloquently at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner ( for a transcript):

    “The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.”

    And Colbert confirms that George Bush thinks with his feelings:

    “We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.”

  2. 2  Steven  November 7, 2006, 7:02 pm 

    Colbert’s performance was indeed magnificent, at once spitting in the King’s eye and spewing contempt at the assembled courtier-journalists. If there were any justice he would get a Pulitzer and an Oscar simultaneously.

  3. 3 » links for 2006-11-07  November 7, 2006, 8:18 pm 

    […] Unspeak » Absorb the ideas Much dark hilarity is ensuing after Vanity Fair’s article featuring prominent administration advisers turning their backs on George W. (tags: neocons david-frum richard-perle michael-ledeen politics iraq war) […]

  4. […] David Frum explains: Consider the hypothetical case of two men. Both are inclined toward homosexuality. Both from time to time hire the services of male prostitutes. Both have occasionally succumbed to drug abuse. […]

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