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Former Speechwriter Provides an Inside Look at President Bush - 2003-01-14

A new CNN/USA Today Gallup poll shows President Bush's job approval has dipped to 58 percent, its lowest level since the September 11 terrorist attacks. While still high by modern presidential standards, the poll suggests the president's approval may be declining because of the sluggish U.S. economy and growing concern over confrontations with Iraq and North Korea. One of the president's former speechwriters has written a book that paints a complex picture of the 43rd president.

You have probably never heard of David Frum. But you probably have heard some of the words he wrote when he was a speechwriter for President Bush. Among the most famous are these lines about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in last year's State of the Union Address (read by President Bush): "States likes these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."

The so-called Axis of Evil speech brought David Frum notoriety. He has now written a book about his brief White House experience entitled "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush."

Mr. Frum said he is an admirer of the president and while his book is generally positive about Mr. Bush, it does include some criticisms.

For example, Mr. Frum writes that while the president conveys a commanding presence, he is often impatient and, according to Mr. Frum, "intellectually uncurious"

"He has a great sense of who he is and what he is, and where his strengths are and where his weaknesses are. George Bush is a commanding personality and he is a person who knows his own mind and is not afraid of decisions. It is true that no one will enter him in a quiz show. He does not have a good memory for facts and figures," Mr. Frum said.

David Frum said the administration got off to a slow start in the early days following the divisive election controversy in 2000. But he said the September 11 terrorist attacks transformed the president into an effective national leader.

"You had a man, you had a moment, and the moment and the man did not match. After September 11, suddenly they matched. And the things in Bush, the virtues, the strengths that the country [appeared], I think, not to be so interested in before September 11, suddenly came to matter a lot. It really came to matter a lot that the president was a man of solid character," Mr. Frum said.

Mr. Frum said the president is not always interested in or versed in the details of public policy. But he also said the president is more imaginative, more tenacious, and more courageous than his critics give him credit for. "When I come to that final sort of summing up of strengths and weaknesses, my verdict is, on balance, a strongly positive one. So I think he is a successful president. Take him as a whole, his virtues and his vices," he said.

Karlyn Bowman is a political expert who has written about U.S. presidents at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. She said the Frum book on George W. Bush offers some valuable insights. "David Frum describes George W. Bush as impatient, often uncurious, decent, honest, and courageous. David suggests that President Bush is a politician of conservative instincts and not conservative principles. He tells us that Bush knows in a general way what he believes and what he does not. But on any specific issue, he says, nobody can ever be sure where the line is beyond which Bush cannot be pushed," Ms. Bowman said.

David Frum's book is getting a lot of attention because those who work in the Bush White House are notoriously tight-lipped about its inner workings. His candid assessment of the president's strengths and weaknesses provides fresh material for Bush supporters and critics alike.