As a conservative thinker, Canadian-born David Frum was supposed to have the perfect credentials: by 29 he was on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal; by 34 his first book, Dead Right, had been praised by author William Buckley as a fresh voice; and in 2001 he became a speechwriter for the Bush White House, famously coining the phrase “axis of evil” to describe the alleged triple threats from North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Yet in March 2010, Frum abruptly left his long-time job at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative Washington think-tank. According to Frum, key Republican operatives had been unhappy with him for some time: “I was at an event where I was taken aside and reprimanded for criticising Rush Limbaugh ... With the election of 2008, the Republican party moved in a sharply radical direction.”
When Frum, 51, packed up his office at AEI, he decamped to new quarters – in his own backyard. In one respect, he traded up, from a concrete building on 17th and M Streets to a converted carriage house by a large cherry tree. “We use the carriage house for the headquarters of FrumForum,” he says, of the online site he founded in 2009 to become an “alternative community for conservatives ... I wanted to create a forum where people who believed in markets and limited government could also stand up for a different kind of Republicanism that was socially modern, environmentally responsible and economically inclusive. We get 600,000 visitors per month.”
Now Frum splits his work time between a study in his main house, “where I do my writing and thinking”, and the carriage house, “where we put my managing editor and three interns. That’s where we produce the site.”
Frum and his wife, fellow Canadian and conservative columnist Danielle Crittenden, bought their house in 1996. They started remodelling in 2007, hiring an architect who also “built us a super-modernist cottage on the shores of Lake Ontario, Canada”, says Crittenden. It was important to the Frums, who have three children, to retain its character. Built in 1905 as a “summer cottage” with a clapboard exterior, the house has gone through many additions and deletions. A wrap-around porch was “ripped out in the 1930s”, while the front door, complete with pillars, was put in during the fashion for “pseudo-colonialism”. The Frums restored a fireplace by consulting old photographs of the house.
The Frums gutted rooms, stripped floors and refitted the living room in beige, with custom-made furniture shipped from Canada. Only the colour of the dining room walls, painted in a high-gloss “oxblood” was retained from the previous owner. “He’d seen it in a castle in Ireland and replicated it.” The “art deco-inspired” dining room chairs were also custom-made. The table, though, is an antique, bought with Washington dinner parties in mind, although Crittenden notes that “in this political culture, people of polar parties cannot be in the same room”. A valued piece is a Vienna Secession movement sideboard from Frum’s parents. A breakfast room overlooks a garden that was once a driveway, and a screened porch has been decorated with spray-painted chairs from a Canadian flea market and Frum’s grandmother’s wrought-iron furniture from Niagara Falls.
In the renovated kitchen, a zinc-topped island with high metal stools plays host to Frum’s office staff: “At the end of the day, FrumForum people come in and hang out at the bar. We have cocktail hour,” says Crittenden.
Frum’s first-floor study is a handsome corner room with high ceilings. An art deco desk, Frum says, was “a present from my sister”. There are family photographs on the desk. And lining the wall are a slew of framed political photographs: Frum with former boss George W. Bush – and several Republican activists.
While he approved of President Bush’s foreign policy and invasion of Iraq, Frum became frustrated with domestic policy during the second term. “I became more and more convinced that the Republican party was not meeting the needs of the country. Conservatives were not taking into account ordinary people and standard of living or healthcare problems.” Among conservatives, the book was “controversial”, along with Frum’s critiques of Fox News and talk-radio: “Cable news foments conflict. And on talk-radio, the host is the star and the guests become props.”
So was he fired from AEI? Frum admits that a blog he wrote blasting hardline conservatives for trying to block the Obama healthcare bill may have been the last straw. “I’ll give you the facts,” says Frum. “The final vote on the president’s [healthcare] proposal was on a Sunday; I posted my blog on Sunday afternoon. That night, the Wall Street Journal denounced me in its main editorial. The next day I get the call that it’s time to talk. On Thursday, I’m told the jig is up.”
Isn’t it surprising, then, to find some of the same political figures who have broken ranks with Frum up on his wall? “They were friends. People take politics very seriously here. But political relationships can often crowd out human relationships.”
Out in the backyard, the headquarters of FrumForum looks out over a clump of bushes and a pool. The carriage house originally housed horses and chickens. “It had a little hay barn on top,” says Frum. He hopes that his forum will provide a base for “a modern Republicanism”. He adds: “The definitions of what is acceptable in the conservative world have narrowed. I don’t accept the jurisdiction of those who claim to be the membership committee ... We’ve created our own little political movement.”
“I’ve chosen this Canadian postage stamp of my mother,” says Frum, pointing to a case in his study where he keeps a sheet of the originals. The stamp honours Barbara Frum, an iconic Canadian broadcaster and media figure who died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 54. “She hosted a Canadian show called ‘As It Happens.’ It’s a radio call-out show, part news, part public affairs and some light items. They took advantage of the cheap technology of long-distance rates to do interviews around the world. Back in the ‘70’s, television was not mobile but the phone could go anywhere. What was revolutionary was the immediacy and the force of her personality. She both created and represented a media culture which is very different from the media culture today.
She had strong views but her main concern was to get people to tell the truth on air. She became a star because she never let herself become the star.” Frum notes that his mother secretly battled illness for twenty years. “I learned from her never to be afraid. You live in a free country. What can people do to you?”