David Frum: On Second Thought, I Didn't Coin "Axis of Evil"
But now he can take credit for whatever he wants.
David Frum has left the White House speechwriting staff, reports Robert Stacy McCain in the Feb. 26 Washington Times. Robert Novak said yesterday on CNN's Inside Politics that "there's a lot of suspicion" that Frum was "kicked out" because of the e-mail his wife, writer Danielle Crittenden, sent out to friends announcing that Frum was the author of the phrase, "axis of evil." (There's strong circumstantial evidence that Crittenden's father, Toronto Sun columnist and former editor Peter Worthington, planted a reference to Frum's authorship of the phrase in a Sun editorial published four days before Crittenden's e-mail leaked to Chatterbox. For details, click here and scroll down to the updates.) But Frum says he submitted his letter of resignation on Jan. 24, which would have been before Frum's authorship claim had leaked out anywhere, and the White House press office backs him up. Even Novak admits that all his unnamed White House sources say Frum was not ejected. (The "lot of suspicion" Novak referred to is clearly his own.) Chatterbox has a hard time believing that the Bush White House is such a ghastly place that a gifted writer like Frum would get the boot for something so trivial as this.
More interesting than whether Frum jumped or was pushed is Frum's assertion to John Ibbitson in the Feb. 26 Toronto Globe and Mail that the phrase he coined was not "axis of evil," but "axis of hate," and that someone changed "hate" to "evil." In a Feb. 10 column, Novak reported that it was White House chief speechwriter Michael Gerson who made the change. That would lend credence to Time magazine's version of events, which is that Frum and Gerson coined "axis of evil." In the Globe and Mail interview, Frum now says, "I think it was actually the president" who scratched out "hate" and scribbled in "evil." Is this a gracious fib? Quite possibly.
Regardless of who coined it, "axis of evil" is superior in terms of meter because the two syllables in "axis" match the two syllables in "evil." Two syllables are a particular necessity for Bush because he tends to bite off one-syllable words in a very awkward and unpleasant manner. But why not "axis of hatred"? That would have been more precise. We can argue all day about the nature of evil, but hatred is pretty easy to identify, and there's no denying that Iraq and Iran harbor a lot of it. (North Korea is more of a cipher, but its inclusion in this trio has always been awkward.) "Axis of hatred" also would have gone down more easily with U.S. allies because it's less jingoistic. One can imagine nonviolent or minimally violent ways to reduce or eliminate hatred, but there's no mollifying evil. The "axis" part, however, would remain problematic, both because the word is an inadvertent homage to Benito Mussolini, who first applied it to the World War II fascist alliance, and because Iran, Iraq, and North Korea aren't an alliance at all.
[Update, Feb. 27: In the Feb. 27 Toronto Sun, Frum father-in-law Worthington manages to write an entire column about this affair without mentioning that the Sun was the first to report, almost certainly at Worthington's instigation, that Frum had coined "axis of evil." Worthington provides additional corroboration to Frum's version of events--he, Worthington, heard Frum say he was leaving the White House before the State of the Union address was delivered.]
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.