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[First published in Canadian Literature 156 (Spring 1998): 131-33, My title for the review was Hard Man of the Far Right, which
was meant as a mocking allusion to the Glasgow term for a street toughwee hard manbut may have been
understood by the book review editor in another sense; the review was published under the title of Man of the
Far Right.]

[Index: Canadian politics, US politics, media criticism]

[Date: April 1998]

Hard Man of the Far Right

Michael Keefer

Review of David Frum, What's Right: The New Conservatism and What It Means for
Canada (Toronto: Random House, 1997)
What kind of phenomenon exactly is David Frum? And what claim can he make
upon the readers of this journal? For although he produces books (first Dead Right, now
What's Right, a collection of articles dating from 1988 to 1995), Frum is not, in any sense
that counts, a writer.
David Frum's domain is current politics, and yet he has little in common with
political scientists, who reputedly feel some concern about verifying what they represent
as historical facts. Frum, in contrast, reprints here a piece written in 1994 in which he
complained that Ontarians have been cheated by an NDP government that has doubled
its spending in a decade. (Does he really think the Rae government was elected to office
in 1984?) And in October 1995, just before the Qubec referendum, he wrote in the
Financial Post that English Canadians have calmly agreed to be ruled by national
governments that the majority of English-speakers had voted against: without its Quebec
seats, the Liberal Party would have spent the forty years 1953-1993 in opposition. (Has
he never heard of the Tory governments of Diefenbaker, Clark, Mulroney and Campbell,
which ruled Canada for sixteen of those years, or forty percent of the total?)
Although Frum often adopts a prophetic tone, this is not a vein in which he has

been uniformly successful. In September 1995, for example, he wrote that unlike the
soon to be utterly forgotten Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich ... is poised to dominate
American politics for a generation. Well, now he's got Clinton to kick around for another
four years.
It's easy enough to be mistaken in that sort of way, but when Frum combines
sanctimony with prophecy the results can be less amusing. In 1988 he attacked Canadian
anti-apartheid campaigners in these terms: Political morality is a morality of
consequences, not intentions. You may intend to achieve a peaceful, non-racist South
Africabut if the predictable consequences of your actions is [sic] civil war and
dictatorship, then you are behaving immorally. Since he elsewhere signals his hostility
to what he calls the ANC view of South Africa, Frum must have found Nelson
Mandela's peaceful and democratic succession to powerdue in large part to mounting
international pressures against apartheida serious disappointment.
Yet if he is neither a political scientist nor altogether a prophet, Frum is more than
just a journalist. Most of the pieces reprinted in What's Right belong to the familiar
category of political punditry. Others, however, such as his address to the 1994
convention of the Ontario Conservative Party (which concludes with the exhortation,
You must not be intimidated. You must be of glad heart. You must not surrender. You
must win), are clearly something else. A person who serves as adviser to a political
party, speaks from the rostrum at its annual convention, and then analyzes and celebrates
its electoral victory in the mass media, is practising something more than traditional
journalism. George F. Will pioneered in this line when, after serving in 1980 as Ronald
Reagan's paid coach for his television debate with Jimmy Carter, he faked a pose of
journalistic neutrality in the Newsweek column which solemnly awarded his own man the
victory. But Frum is out in the openat least since achieving prominence as a marriagebroker with his 1996 Winds of Change conference, in which Conrad Black and other
media right-wingers, acting as shapers rather than mere analysts of Canada's political
destiny, were meant to agree in closed sessions upon a plan for pushing the Conservative
Party into the embrace of Preston Manning.
A means of describing Frum emerges in his own statement that It's the job of
political entrepreneurs to devise coherent messages, based in sincere conviction, and to
sell them. The message of this political entrepreneur is indeed coherent: Frum wants to
eliminate welfare, medicare, equity policies and programs designed to benefit visible

minorities, human rights commissions, student loans, government funding for the arts, the
humanities, and public broadcasting, as well as programs in support of advanced
technology, fuel efficiency, transportation, waste recycling, and exports. Government, he
believes, has no business monkeying around in the private economy: in his view there
is no other kind of economy. Frum also believesand he shared this wisdom with
Ontario's Conservative Party convention in 1994that The key to political courage is
knowing to whom to listen and whom to ignore. Thanks to advice of this kind, Ontario's
premier has turned the legislative buildings at Queen's Park into a fortress, and his
education minister, a grade 11 drop-out, shuts his door in the faces of university
presidents, though not those of corporate executives interested in profiting from the
privatizing of public institutions.
It may be significant that Frum's definition of the job of a political entrepreneur
contains no reference to truth. He does indeed state that he's a conservative because
conservatism is true. But like fundamentalists of all kinds, Frum finds that the
possession of one large Truth absolves him from any need to give serious attention to the
smaller but less simple truths that are bound up with the material realities of our social
being. In 1988, for example, he scoffed at opponents of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade
Agreement who warned that it would do irreparable damage to the industrial sectors of
the Canadian economy. In 1995, by which time their warnings had been borne out by the
slump of the Ontario and Qubec economies and by falling family incomes across
Canada, Frum found it expedient to blame these effects upon high taxes. If he weren't so
obviously sincere, one might be tempted to accuse him of intellectual dishonesty.
This book is littered with parallel examples of factual errors, statistical
manipulation, gross distortion, and those strategic lapses of memory that I have elsewhere
termed subtractive politicizing. Applied to his own work, Frum's claim that the ideas
with the most power are conservative ideas seems idiotically mistaken: in comparison
with opponents such as Linda McQuaig, John Ralston Saul, John Warnock, or Maud
Barlow, he is a water-spider.
But how, then, can we explain the accolades Frum receives from such American
right-wingers as William F. Buckley, Jr., Peggy Noonan and George Will? The answer
lies, I think, in his extremism. Where other neoconservatives call for budget cuts, Frum
says that $300 billion (one-fifth of the total expenditures of the US government) should
be chopped in a single day; where others propose to cut back welfare expenditures, he

wants to abolish welfare. Sub-Nietzschean posturing of this sort apparently has its
pleasures (the underclass resent the treatment it's getting? we'll show them ressentiment!),
as well as earning the admiration of one's neoconservative peers. There may also be
political benefits to it: as Frum says, People are tired of the constant moaning they hear
about the poor.... I don't think Republicans should go out of their way to be callous.
But ... [i]n the current environment, being accused of callousness might even be to the
party's advantage.
There is a sense, however, in which Frum's claim that the ideas with the most
power are conservative ideas is perfectly accurate. In John Ralston Saul's apt phrase, the
man is a courtier of an anti-democratic corporatismor, to be more blunt, a cat's paw
of Conrad Black. There is indeed power behind his ideas. If we owe it to ourselves to
expose the vacuity of David Frum's claims to moral or intellectual cogency, we also owe
it to whatever sense of collectivity, community or mutual sharing we wish to sustain in
this country to take himand his backersvery seriously indeed.