Modest David Frum.

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Jan. 29 2003 12:51 PM

David Frum Vanity Watch

Whoops, he did it again.

"Self-love," saith the Bard, "is not so vile a thing as self-neglecting." Fresh evidence that David Frum has taken Shakespeare's words very much to heart can be found in his comments about last night's State of the Union address. The previous State of the Union is best-remembered for the phrase "axis of evil," which was derived from the phrase "axis of hatred," which Frum coined while working as a White House speechwriter. Frum's wife sent out an e-mail boasting about this, and the rest is history. (Frum's authorship of the phrase also leaked to the Toronto Sun, almost certainly via his father-in-law, Sun columnist Peter Worthington.)

Now Frum has weighed in on Bush's first State of the Union to be written without Frum's assistance. The verdict:

The 2003 State of the Union speech was a fine speech, but not quite so fine as the speeches of September 20, 2001, or other speeches that this president has given. I suppose that step-down in quality was inevitable. When the decision was made to produce a more typical State of the Union address, with the usual long laundry list of priorities and ideas, the decision was also made, consciously or unconsciously, to produce a less brilliant piece of oratory—because unity and coherence are necessary to brilliant oratory. Oh well.

Frum's evaluation is essentially correct. (He's a smart guy.) But it's impossible to read these words without catching the subtext, "Apres moi le déluge." Some self-effacing aside about Frum's unusual perspective on the speech would have made him sound less obnoxious. Chatterbox is baffled by Frum's failure to provide one.

Readers of The Right Man, Frum's absorbing memoir of his White House sojourn, will likely spot another subtext: "Karen Hughes messed it up." In his book, Hughes is portrayed as a doltish enemy of bold action and eloquent speech. Although she no longer works in the White House, Hughes was heavily involved in preparing this year's State of the Union.

[Update, Jan. 30: "I don't know why I even bother with this," Frum tells "Reliable Source" columnist Lloyd Grove in today's Washington Post, "since Noah's malice is like one of those desert plants that grows regardless of lack of water or nourishment, but the principal author of the September 20 speech was Michael Gerson. The work I was praising on NRO was not my own." But Frum didn't compare the State of the Union unfavorably with only the Sept. 20 speech. He compared it unfavorably with that speech and "other speeches that this president has given," many of which were penned by ... David Frum.]

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