David Frum at FrumForum:
I have been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute since 2003. At lunch today, AEI President Arthur Brooks and I came to a termination of that relationship.
Below is the text of my letter of resignation.
This will memorialize our conversation at lunch today. Effective immediately, my position as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute is terminated. I appreciate the consideration that delays my emptying of my office until after my return from travel next week. Premises will be vacated no later than April 9.
I have had many fruitful years at the American Enterprise Institute, and I do regret this abrupt and unexpected conclusion of our relationship.
Very truly yours,
Frances Martel at Mediaite:
The announcement comes shortly after Frum received a rush of criticism for a column suggesting that the passing of health care reform was the Republicans’ “Waterloo,” and that they “suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s.”
The “Waterloo” piece, as well as subsequent criticism of the Republicans, was a deviation for Frum, who had been reliably supportive of the conservative cause throughout his career. While he received plenty of criticism from many on the right– most prone to dismiss him as a relic of the neo-conservative 2000s– and even got his old bosses in hot water with Rep. Darrell Issa, he managed to get the increasingly mellow Bill O’Reilly on his side despite saying the only people on the right who would benefit were those in the “conservative entertainment industry.”
I just got off the phone with writer David Frum, and he says the conservative American Enterprise Institute assured him today that he isn’t being fired because of his recent blistering criticism of the GOP, as has been widely speculated this afternoon.
But Frum says AEI president Brooks at lunch today actually lauded him for making so much noise with that post.
“He said the thought might occur to me that this had to do with that,” Frum says. “He wanted to ally my anxieties on that score. He was very empatic.” Frum adds that Brooks said he “welcomed and celebrated” the debate he’d stirred up.
“He asked me if I’d like to work for AEI on a non salary basis,” Frum added. “He said it had nothing to do with my work and that after all these are hard times.”
“Big bad conservative think tank axes writer for criticizing GOP intransigence” is a seductive storyline for our times, but it may not be true.
Michael Scherer at Swampland at Time:
I caught up with Frum after the meeting. “Arthur Brooks insisted that this had nothing to do with my writings,” Frum said, adding that Brooks also did not challenge Frum’s fealty to AEI’s three core principles, which are described on the AEI website as, “expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise.”
An AEI spokeswoman, Veronique Rodman, sends over this statement: “While AEI makes it a practice not to discuss personnel matters, I can say that David Frum is an original thinker and a friend to many at AEI. We are pleased to have welcomed him as a colleague for seven years, and his decision to leave in no way diminishes our respect for him.”
So it goes. Is the timing a coincidence? Hard to tell. I guess one can take Arthur Brooks at his word. Or not.
As irritating as Frum can be — and he can be very irritating — most of his policy positions, as far as I know, are reliably conservative. True, he’s a fan of RomneyCare, but then, er, so is the guy who’s at or near the top of the polls right now for the GOP nomination in 2012. And yes, I know, it’s predictable that a Chamberlain-esque RINO candy ass such as myself would defend a guy who whines about Rush Limbaugh at every opportunity, but Bartlett’s point about rigid conformity is well taken. Frum’s still a hawk, at last check; he was a McCain voter in 2008 and prefers market solutions in most cases, from what I know. He’s wrong about the GOP having mishandled O-Care and he’s annoying with his endless scolding of right-wing media, but hopefully it’s still possible to be a conservative who’s wrong (occasionally) and annoying (frequently) and nonetheless employable by a conservative think tank. Currently AEI has as a fellow one of the geniuses who helped craft McCain-Feingold. Ornstein’s conservative enough, but not David Frum?And yes, of course, AEI should be free to employ whomever it wants. Doesn’t mean they should be free from criticism, though, assuming that the suspicions about their motive here are confirmed. Oh, and a reminder to the media, which is surely polishing Frum’s new halo as I write this: When it comes to excommunicating conservatives, he knows whereof he speaks.
As some readers of this blog may know, I was fired by a right wing think tank called the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing a book critical of George W. Bush’s policies, especially his support for Medicare Part D. In the years since, I have lost a great many friends and been shunned by conservative society in Washington, DC.
Now the same thing has happened to David Frum, who has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute. I don’t know all the details, but I presume that his Waterloo post on Sunday condemning Republicans for failing to work with Democrats on healthcare reform was the final straw.
Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI “scholars” on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.
It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn’t already.
To sum up: The implication in Mr. Bartlett’s piece is that lots of people at AEI favored most aspects Obamacare — so many people, in fact, that AEI scholars were ordered against commenting on the subject at all. But lots of people at AEI did write publicly on the subject. Put another way, even if a few pro-Obamacare scholars had been silenced, Mr. Bartlett’s piece would be inaccurate as written. Perhaps he misheard Mr. Frum, or else Mr. Frum was mistaken or speaking imprecisely. I’ve followed the work of both men, and I’ve never known either to lie, so I presume there is some good explanation for the mistake.
Were any AEI scholars told to shut up about health care? Was there unspoken pressure? I sent an e-mail to all the folks listed on the think tank’s Web site, offering anonymity to anyone who requested it. I remain willing to expose even a partial vindication of Mr. Bartlett’s charge.
As yet, however, I’ve gotten only a lot of replies like this one from Charles Calomiris:
In all the years of my association with AEI no one ever suggested, much less ordered, that I say or not say anything. Quite the opposite; I was specifically told never to expect any guidance and I was guaranteed it in advance, which is why I was comfortable being involved with AEI for many years. The culture of AEI is completely contrary to attempts at control of academic thinking or speech. Freedom of thought is sacrosanct. I can tell you from personal knowledge that in many other think tanks in Washington that is not the case. At AEI, however, it is hard to imagine that these accusations could be true.
Or this one from Jack Calfee:
I have long admired Frum’s work, although I confess to not having paid much attention to his critiques of Republicans and conservatives. Speaking as one of the AEI health policy scholars, however, the notion that we have been muzzled on health care reform is bizarre. So many op-eds, so many AEI pubs, so many media appearances and interviews and quotes . . . I have to wonder whether David was quoted correctly on this point.
Or this one from Sally Satel:
I have never, ever been instructed/hinted/cajoled on what to say or write.
Or this from Edward Blum:
It has been my experience that AEI does not censor, discourage, or micromanage the work of its scholars and fellows or how they communicate with the press.
Or this from Rick Hess:
i’m curious about the sourcing of the Bartlett claim. i certainly never heard any such thing.
i do know that in my own field (K-12 and higher education), no one at AEI has ever attempted to steer, stifle, or influence my writing or speaking. this is particularly relevant, as much of my own work has been flagged over the years as heartburn-inducing by Bush administration proponents of No Child Left Behind and conservative proponents of school choice. indeed, AEI scholars writing on questions of education– including Charles Murray, Lynne Cheney, Christina Hoff Sommers, Mark Schneider, Andy Smarick, and myself have consistently reflected diverging and oft-contradictory views regarding policy, practice, and aims in our written and spoken work.
indeed, i’ll simply say that in my eight years at AEI I have felt far less intellectually constrained (through formal clearance mechansims or informal social norms) than i did in my previous role as a professor of education and government at the University of Virginia.
Does anyone at AEI have a different experience to relate? The offer of anonymity remains, even if you’re someone who already wrote me expressing a different opinion on the record. Meanwhile, all the folks who ran with the Bruce Bartlett angle — I’m looking at you, Howard Kurtz — should note that whatever else happens at AEI, good or bad, it is undeniably the case that various folks there have been commenting on health care.
Incidentally, the think tank is foolish to lose the talents of David Frum.
To begin with, I think the important thing about what David told me is that I believed it instantly because it seemed very plausible for two reasons. First, I know from personal experience and from private comments by people I know in the conservative think tank community that there is enormous pressure to follow the Republican Party line. Those that dissent keep their mouths shut lest it cost them their job, a promotion, friendships or just because they don’t like to be hassled by those they work with. I’ve known people who shifted their specialties so they wouldn’t have to work in areas where they had objections to the party line that may have only involved tactics.
Second, I knew that there were a great many conservative health analysts who have long accepted the idea that universal coverage without a single-payer system basically requires some sort of individual mandate. Here
, for example, is some testimony that Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation gave on this topic a few years ago before the party line changed. Sensible conservatives understand that you can’t cover preexisting conditions without a mandate and you can’t have a mandate without subsidies that have to be paid for. That leads logically to the system Mitt Romney enacted in Massachusetts that is virtually identical to the legislation that has just passed Congress.
So it didn’t surprise me at all that some AEI health specialists would have agreed with much of what Obama was proposing. Nor did it surprise me that the media and fundraising people at AEI might have suggested that they avoid making public comments supportive of the Democrats’ health plan. Before I was fired by NCPA I was often told that my comments critical of George W. Bush were unhelpful to fundraising even though they agreed that I was right on the substance.
I don’t have access to Nexis to check and see what comments AEI fellows might have said in the months before David made his comment to me and things may have changed afterwards. I have no way of knowing what things AEI people may have avoided saying or said off the record or on background to a reporter and were identified as a conservative health expert or whatever. Perhaps David was just wrong and that every AEI health expert was in fact opposed to every provision of the Democratic health plan and completely agreed with the Republican Party line that it was a huge step on the road to socialism that would completely destroy the American health system. I only know what he told me and that it rang true at the time he said it.
If it turns out that I misheard or misunderstood what David told me I promise a full retraction and public apology to AEI. In the meantime, my inclination is to believe anything David tells me and treat with deep skepticism anything I hear from AEI to the contrary. The organization has lost an enormous amount of credibility by firing him and hiring Republican political hacks like Marc Thiessen. That’s a statement I will never need to retract.
Jacob Heilbrunn at Huffington Post:
The banishment of David Frum from the American Enterprise Institute may be one of the best things that’s happened to him. He’s become a cause celebre. As a newly hot commodity, he’ll get gobs of publicity — a New Yorker profile must now be in the offing — and website hits for his fledgling FrumForum. But it’s not good for the conservative movement, which has regarded his efforts to drag it into modernity with increasing consternation.
Frum has long had the right stuff for the right, working at the Wall Street Journal and for the Bush administration. In recent months he’s been staking out somewhat heterodox stands, at least in the context of the conservative movement. Even mild dissent, however, is apparently too much for it to swallow. It has reached the point where, in Bolshevik fashion, it’s devouring its own children.
Is Frum really an apostate, a ranks-breaker? No, he isn’t. I haven’t seen any evidence that Frum, a vigorous polemicist, has fundamentally deviated from traditional conservative positions when it comes to Israel or tax rates. What he has argued for is a more modern Republican party that doesn’t stage a gadarene rush to the far right, but tries to come to terms with environmental issues, health care, and so on. Writing in the Washington Post on Thursday, Anne Applebaum observed that much of what Frum represents is a no-brainer for conservatives, who, like the British Tories, may well find themselves in the wilderness for many years if they refuse to acknowledge new realities.
It is not like we are in love with David Frum, coiner of “Axis of Evil,” and general lover of war. But at least you can have a conversation with the guy, hypothetically!
Whenever we see an article or book from a Reasonable Conservative saying, “We need to tone down the rhetoric and stop following Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh,” though, it never takes the next step: how? Where is the implementation plan? These terrible scourges don’t come out of nowhere; everything follows a system of incentives, the biggest of which would have to be money, followed by short-term power. How do you make the exploitation of fear and constant outright lying and insanity less profitable, and less able to deliver short-term gains? The only solutions seem to be ones that would have the Republican party concede they’re following a failed ideology and must fold permanently or accept general minority party status for the next 25 years.
DO IT, FRUM.
On the subject of David Frum, I’ve got a lot to say, and I’ll begin by disclosing a personal story. In January 2009, I had a particularly bad day: the Washington DC based web magazine where I worked folded; and immediately afterward, I got a call informing me that my mom had been diagnosed with cancer, and would soon undergo a significant surgery. I am unsure how Mr. Frum heard about the magazine closing, but he e-mailed to ask if I would call him. On doing so, he offered condolences on a professional disappointment — a nice gesture, especially since I had precious little to offer him as a professional contact, and wasn’t a friend — and when I revealed why the lost job hadn’t been much on my mind, he spoke to me for perhaps twenty minutes longer, conducting himself in a most gentlemanly fashion.
Understand that I hardly knew Mr. Frum. I’d met him perhaps thrice in person, always in a room full of people. Even now I’ve met him perhaps six times. Upon calling me that day, I am certain he didn’t expect me to say that my mother had cancer — what does one even say to a professional acquaintance in that situation, beyond a mumbled, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” I still don’t know, because I can’t remember what Mr. Frum said, except that it consoled me greatly at the time, reassuring without being prying or presumptive: It was a polite, well-mannered, graceful, kind-hearted gesture, and it demonstrates two things. 1) The way Mr. Frum conducts himself isn’t intended to ingratiate himself to Washington DC’s liberal elite — he regularly demonstrates social graces on all sorts of occasions utterly unconnected with politics. 2) Probably Mr. Frum isn’t aware of how much he raised my spirits that day, which is another way of saying that being a gentleman — and striving to avoid shrillness, intolerance and boorishness — are commendable virtues and bedrocks of civil society. It is execrable to make civility into a vice, let alone an ideological signifier, as if most Americans don’t value these things regardless of their political beliefs, or benefit from a world where they are practiced.
Of course, David Frum is uncivil sometimes. I recall a line in Newsweek about Rush Limbaugh’s dimensions and manifold personal flaws that he phrased somewhat more harshly than was necessary (talk radio hosts bring out the worst in all of us), I’ve seen him scrap in the blogosphere, as so many of us sometimes do, and I object strongly to some of his rhetoric during the Bush era, when he questioned the motives of Iraq War opponents. But it is to his credit that he tries and usually succeeds in tempering the bad impulses that shadow us all in political argument. And it speaks poorly of anyone who criticizes not his rare failures, but his constant effort to resist them. What normal person wants to be like a boorish, mercenary talk radio host, for goodness sake? Since when are these qualities how conservatives define themselves “aesthetically”?
Other critics say that Mr. Frum is egotistical, disloyal, arrogant, self-important. Beyond the fact that these same people unselfconsciously laud Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity — self-important folks with out-sized egos if ever there were any — it is noteworthy that these criticisms are always offered as though they refute the arguments Mr. Frum is making about a given issue, or a politician, or conservatism, or the future of the Republican Party. It is an intellectual coward or a fraud who tries to discredit ideas by pointing out the alleged, totally irrelevant personality flaws of their advocates.
Love him or hate him, Mr. Frum has been around Washington DC a long time. He possesses knowledge on political history, policy, and politics that is broad and deep. He has an especially curious mind, and a willingness to flout the conventional wisdom, which influences him less than most people. Were movement conservatives less childish, irrational, and defensive in the face of dissidents, they’d learn something — even when he is wrong, he often raises worthwhile points that inform my thinking, much as I might disagree with his ultimate conclusions.
David Frum* has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute; one has to assume that this is a response to his outspokenness about the Republican failure on health reform.
In discussing the Frum firing, Bruce Bartlett asserts that AEI has muzzled its health-care experts, because the truth is that they agree with a lot of what Obama is proposing. I find this quite believable; back in 2003 Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, which is supposedly harder-right than AEI, proposed a health care reform consisting of … drumroll … an individual mandate coupled with subsidies to make insurance affordable. In short, Obamacare.
*I’m informed, by family members, that Frum is a distant cousin of yours truly.
Mike Allen at Politico:
EXCLUSIVE: David Frum told us last night that he believes his axing from his $100,000-a-year “resident scholar” gig at the conservative American Enterprise Institute was related to DONOR PRESSURE following his viral blog post arguing Republicans had suffered a devastating, generational “Waterloo” in their loss to President Obama on health reform. “There’s a lot about the story I don’t really understand,” Frum said from his iPhone. “But the core of the story is the kind of economic pressure that intellectual conservatives are under. AEI represents the best of the conservative world. [AEI President] Arthur Brooks is a brilliant man, and his books are fantastic. But the elite isn’t leading anymore. It’s trapped. Partly because of the desperate economic situation in the country, what were once the leading institutions of conservatism are constrained. I think Arthur took no pleasure in this. I think he was embarrassed. I think he would have avoided it if he possibly could, but he couldn’t.”
We talked at length afterward with an AEI official in an effort to get a specific response to Frum’s charge. But the group apparently doesn’t want to get into a back-and-forth with Frum, and stuck to this earlier statement from Brooks, blaming Frum for his departure: “David Frum is an original thinker and a friend to many at AEI. We are pleased to have welcomed him as a colleague for seven years, and his decision to leave in no way diminishes our respect for him.” Ask other AEI scholars how they felt about David’s mail and packages piling up outside his office. Frum, who will be 50 in June, had been on the payroll since leaving the Bush White House in 2003. He acknowledges he was very seldom at the office. But he maintains he developed and spread conservative ideas — AEI’s stated goal — with the 300,000 words a year that he writes for his blog, FrumForum.com; his weekly columns for CNN.com, The Week, and the National Post of Canada; his biweekly offerings for TIME and American Public Media’s “Marketplace”; and his three TV and three radio appearances in a typical week. He also landed Canadian Finance Minister James Flaherty for an AEI retreat last month that included donors. Frum tells us that regardless of his dismay with the party, he’ll stay registered GOP.
Charles Murray at The Corner:
I have known and liked David and Danielle Frum for many years, and what I am about to write will end that friendship. I regret that. But his statement goes beyond self-serving. It is a calumny against an organization that has treated him not just fairly but generously.
Regarding donor pressure: The idea that AEI donors sit down to talk with AEI’s president about who should and shouldn’t be on the staff, or what the staff should write, is fantasy. David has never seen the slightest sign of anything like that at AEI. He can’t have. He made it up. AEI has a culture, the scholars are fiercely proud of that culture, and at its heart is total intellectual freedom. As for the reality of that intellectual freedom, I think it’s fair to say I know what I’m talking about. I’ve pushed it to the limit. Arthur Brooks is just as adamant about preserving that culture as Chris DeMuth was, and Chris’s devotion to it was seamless.
I do not have any certain information to convey about David’s departure, except what Arthur Brooks has already said publicly: David resigned. He could have stayed. But I will tell what is common knowledge around AEI: David got a handsome salary but, for the last few years, has been invisible as a member of the institute. Being a scholar at a think tank (or any institution) is not just a matter of acknowledging your affiliation in your books and op-eds. It’s also a matter of blogging at the institute’s blog, not just your own blog (David had a grand total of 3 posts on AEI’s blog in the year since it began), reviewing colleagues’ drafts, reacting to their ideas, contributing chapters to their books, organizing scholarly events, participating on the institute’s panels, attending the institute’s conferences, helping out with fundraising, serving on in-house committees, giving in-house seminars, and mentoring junior staff. Different scholars are engaged in these activities to different degrees. Full disclosure: I’m on the left-hand side of that bell curve (I make the trek from Burkittsville so seldom that I don’t even have an office at AEI). But David was at the left-hand tail. If I had to guess — and that’s what I’m doing, guessing — David’s departure arose from something as simple as this: Management thinks that an employee is not as productive a member of the organization as management thinks he should be. The employee disagrees. They part company.
I think that’s what happened. I also think that for David to have leveled the charge that Arthur Brooks caved in to donor pressure, knowing that the charge would be picked up and spread beyond recall, knowing that such a charge strikes at the core of the Institute’s integrity, and making such a sensational charge without a shred of evidence, is despicable.
Andrew Sullivan has a round-up
Bill Scher and Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads
Danielle Crittenden at FrumForum:
We have both been part of the conservative movement for, as mentioned, the better part of half of our lives. And I can categorically state I’ve never seen such a hostile environment towards free thought and debate–the hallmarks of Reaganism, the politics with which we grew up–prevail in our movement as it does today. The thuggish demagoguery of the Limbaughs and Becks is a trait we once derided in the old socialist Left. Well boys, take a look in the mirror. It is us now.
David of course doesn’t need my defense–and a defense coming from his wife probably isn’t worth much (although I can categorically state this has been posted without his authorization, approval or even, um, knowledge–he’s flying somewhere over the country right now). My role right now is to pass him the flask in the trench.
But to return to Washington and dogs: Along with the bile, there has been an equally considerable outpouring of support and defense, from friends and foes alike, who–whether they agree with David or not–are horrified by the guillotine that is being set up in the public square of democratic debate. They understand that nothing good can come of this, for anyone of any political stripe.
For this support, we are both very grateful. And while I wouldn’t have thought it possible to admire David more than I do, I have to say he is still turning this old girl’s head–now more than ever.
UPDATE: Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner at Bloggingheads
Christopher Buckley at The Daily Beast
UPDATE #2: Anne Schroeder Mullins at Politico
Maggie Gallagher at The Corner
Mark Schmitt at The American Prospect
UPDATE #3: Henry Farrell and Brink Lindsey on Bloggingheads