"Axis of evil" authorship settled!

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Jan. 9 2003 4:44 PM

"Axis of Evil" Authorship Settled!

It was Frum and Gerson, and definitely not Bush.

Chatterbox has previously expressed uncertainty about who in the Bush administration changed speechwriter David Frum's phrase "axis of hatred" to the now-famous "axis of evil." In an interview last year with the Toronto Globe & Mail, Frum was quoted saying, "I think it was actually the president." But Robert Novak had reported that chief speechwriter Mike Gerson made the change. Chatterbox voiced the suspicion that Frum's comment to the Globe & Mail was a "gracious fib" meant to soothe Dubya after Chatterbox (and subsequently, the Washington Post) made public an e-mail that Frum's wife had sent out to friends bragging that her husband had coined "axis of evil." (The Toronto Sun's editorial pagehad also attributed "axis of evil" to Frum, probably after Sun columnist Peter Worthington, who is Frum's father-in-law, blabbed about it.)

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Now Frum confirms Chatterbox's suspicion in his new book, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush. "Gerson wanted to use the theological language that Bush had made his own since Sept. 11," Frum writes, "so 'axis of hatred' became 'axis of evil.' " Bush had nothing to do with it. Frum does allow, however, that once Bush "uttered it, 'axis of evil' ceased to be a speechwriter's phrase and became his own."

Frum argues that "there was nothing very unusual" about his wife writing an e-mail "to some family and some of her friends" boasting about Frum's rhetorical contribution to the war on terrorism:

The Bush speechwriting department was discreet, but hardly anonymous: Karen Hughes talked to the New York Times Magazine and the Wall Street Journal about the September 20 speech, pointing out the individual lines that were her handiwork. Mike Gerson had spoken with Bob Woodward and Dan Balz of the Washington Post about his contributions to the National Cathedral and joint session speeches. From time to time, other colleagues would e-mail friends the texts of speeches on which they had worked.

But Frum himself provides evidence a few paragraphs later that the White House perceived in Frum an elevated self-regard. Shortly after the e-mail became public, it was announced that Frum was leaving government and returning to journalism. Novak had said on CNN that there was "suspicion [Frum's] been kicked out" because of his wife's e-mail, which apparently wasn't true:

I walked over to the press office and asked them to issue some kind of statement that Novak's story was fabricated, that I had not in fact been fired. "This makes me look kind of bad, you know?"

"You," the press officer said scornfully. "It makes the president look bad—petty and vindictive.

"Oh yes, well, I hadn't thought of that," I said.

"You're not even out of the building yet," she said with ironic mock regret, "and you're already forgetting what's important." But she obliged, issuing a statement that pointed out I had resigned in writing a month before.

Frum tells this story on himself in good humor, but there's no mistaking that he's looking out for No. 1.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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