David Frum

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David Frum: Popular entertainment isn't reflecting the human damage of Great Recession

He says that's why he decided to write his first novel, "Patriots"

Frum: I wanted to show and explain how wealth buys power in Washington

Editor’s Note: David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor. He is the author of seven books, including his first novel, “Patriots,” published this month.

Washington CNN  — 

Blogger Kathleen Geier observes:

“We are now several years into what has been one of the deepest, most sustained, and catastrophic economic downturns in U.S. history. One notable feature of this downturn is how relatively infrequently our current hard times are finding representation in popular culture. … Even amongst the abundance of fluff and escapist fair that Hollywood produced in the 1930s, filmmakers then frequently and directly acknowledged the role of the Great Depression on people’s lives, in a way that films and television don’t often do today.”

Geier seems to me exactly correct. The logical follow-up question: Why? How can such an overwhelming experience go so unnoted?

I’d suggest two answers.

Unlike in the Depression, we’re not “all in this together.” The United States of the 2010s is a much more stratified society than the United States of the 1930s. The media executives who oversee our popular culture lead lives far removed from those of less-advantaged Americans. They sell into a market more internally segmented and subdivided than the market of the 1930s.

And also unlike the Depression, we cannot agree on what has happened to us. The U.S. is polarized, as well as stratified, and even the most basic facts become ideologically charged. The political right and the political left each have their own histories of the Great Recession, with almost no points in common. And you’ll tell a very different story about the severity and duration of the recession if you blame it on President Obama than if you blame it on reckless banking.

Yet the economic disaster around us is too big a story to go untold – or to be left only to the news columns and the op-ed pages.

That was my thought, anyway, a year and a half ago, when I set out to do what Geier laments has gone undone.

In my day job as a political pundit, I talk a lot about the dysfunction of the American political system. That dysfunction is not a new fact, but it has taken on new importance in these hard economic times.

So I took on a second challenge: to write a story in which the recession appears just as it does in the lives of so many Americans, an unremitting reality.

“Patriots” is a comic novel, a satire about Washington and Washington politics. It tells the story of an aimless young man, dropped into Washington because he has failed at everything else, who finds himself in the middle of the political machinations that render the U.S. government so useless to its people.

In the story, a new president is about to take office. He’s got big plans to turn things around. But his plans threaten the power and position of important people, and they set out to destroy him. My aimless young man accidentally becomes a central figure in the plot – and he must make some big decisions about what side to take.

Political ambition pushes him one way. A nameless feeling of … something else … pushes him the other.

What I wanted to show and explain was why your government has gone AWOL at exactly the moment when decisive action was most needed.

I wanted to show and explain how wealth buys powers in Washington and how power is used to gain wealth.

I wanted to show and explain that, despite all the reasons for cynicism, the right person can make a difference for the better.

Did I succeed? I await Geier’s verdict – and yours.

Here’s an excerpt from David Frum’s “Patriots”:

We had an event to get to: a 6 o’clock reception hosted by regional electrical power distributors for the New York-New England congressional delegation.

It took only a few minutes to reach the venue: Capitol Hill’s favorite restaurant, John Henry’s Steakhouse. The name was kind of a joke. John Henry’s occupied the ground floor of a marble-faced building erected in the late 1970s as the headquarters of a union, the International Brotherhood of Railway Workers. Dwindling numbers had long ago forced the union, like most unions, to abandon its palatial former headquarters. The only reminder of the building’s original purpose were the carved scenes in the building’s lobby of muscular men working on the railroad.

The restaurant name spoofed the old railwaymen. But the interior of John Henry’s owed nothing to the age of steam. It was all aquamarine glass, shiny chrome, and butterscotch leather – very different from Washington’s usual drab style.

Frum book cover

As soon as we entered, Senator Hazen was greeted by a pleasant-faced middle-aged woman in a functional office hairdo and bright red suit jacket. “Senator Hazen! So delighted you could join us!” She hurried the senator deeper into the room.

I was distracted by a waiter carrying a tray of lamb chops. Soon followed another tray: miniature crab cakes. Senator Hazen did not like me to drink on the job, but he surely would not wish me to go hungry.

Grilled vegetables on skewers with goat cheese! I love goat cheese.

Duck spring rolls!

Tiny tacos stuffed with shrimp and guacamole!

Sliced marinated steak!

The steak looked too messy for a napkin, so I asked a server for a plate and a fork. She looked at me as if at an utter newbie. “No plates or forks tonight, it’s a congressional function.”

I did my best with the steak anyway, then headed to the bar for a sparkling water. Through the throng, I spotted Mac Kohlberg. He looked anxious and distracted.

“Hey Dr. Kohlberg.”

“Hello,” he grunted.

“Do you know why I can’t have a plate here?”

“Ethics rules,” he said to a place in space somewhere over my shoulder. “Lobbyists are not allowed to buy meals for members of Congress dinner. And dinner is defined as anything eaten with a plate and cutlery.”

“But they can eat appetizers all night?”

“Oh yes, nothing corrupting about appetizers.” His eyes darted around the room, looking for somebody. I didn’t see her either.

“I have to go,” he said abruptly. He left too early. The next waiter presented porcini-stuffed quail.

As I wiped the quail juice off my fingers, I was approached by the red-suited woman who had met us at the door. “You’re with Senator Hazen, yes?”

“Yes, indeed.”

“This is for him.” She handed me an unsealed envelope. I couldn’t help peeking inside: a stack of checks, probably thirty altogether, each in the amount of $5,000, each inscribed to Hazen’s campaign fund. That pleasant smile again. “We thought it would save trouble if we gathered all the contributions in one place.”

The senator had a private dinner scheduled at eight at an apartment in the Ritz Carlton on West M Street. I glanced at my watch: 7:30 already. Time to go. I pushed my way through the now almost impassable crowd of suited men and women. I found Hazen sipping mineral water abstemiously. No quail for him. I escorted him past the valet parkers to Mehtab and the car. “Shall I come with you sir?”

“No need,” he answered. “That’s the end of the working day. Get yourself some rest. Oh” – he glanced at my feet – “and get yourself a shoeshine. We have a meeting in the Oval Office tomorrow.”

The senator closed the car door behind him.

Well, that was a surprise.

The restaurant faced the parking lot at the foot of the Capitol Hill in which the truckers had made their camp. Through the cold night sky I could see huge fields of white light for the TV cameras and small dots of orange light: the truckers’ heating panels. They cast a bizarre glow on the monument to sad President Garfield, first assassinated, then forgotten. The smell of the diesel exhaust from the generator that powered the heaters tainted the air.

I’d never actually seen these truckers who had caused so much mayhem. I stepped toward the fumes.

* * *

The trucker encampment was surrounded by a thin cordon of police. My Senate staff badge persuaded them to allow me through.

Inside the cordon, you felt the weight of the huge mass of surrounding equipment: the trucks themselves, the police cars beyond the trucks, the TV sound trucks beyond the police cars. You smelled diesel fuel and Port-a-Potties and heard the echoes of talk radio and Patriot News.

As I approached the center of the action, suspicious faces scrutinized me. The protesters, maybe three dozen of them, were sitting in clusters. I approached one of the clusters: four men, one woman. Three of the men and the woman were seated in lawn chairs. The fourth man was kneeling on the pavement fiddling with a bunch of wires leading from one of the trucks to a small TV set on a rickety little plastic table facing the chairs. Except for the unhappy expressions on their faces, they looked like they had settled in for a tailgate party. But maybe the unhappy expressions expressed a reaction to me. In my staffer’s suit and badge, I must have looked like everything they had come to Washington to protest.

I introduced myself. “I’m with Senator Hazen’s office.” The name did not seem to mean much to them, but the title did.

“U.S. Senator?” asked one of the seated men, a man in perhaps his early sixties wearing an orange parka overtop blue jeans. The parka, obviously once expensive, now showed wear at the elbows and rips at the cuffs.

“Yes, sir.”

“Which state?” queried Orange Parka.

“Rhode Island.”

“Not much of a state!”

“He’s one hell of a senator.”

That broke the ice.

Another of the seated protesters spoke up, the group’s one woman, in her early seventies maybe, little curls of a faded blond perm peeking from beneath a knit pink wooly cap. She was wearing a pink fleece stamped on its left side with the slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

“Where’s your senator on the Trucker Protest?”

The answer, “I don’t know” probably would not satisfy anyone. I improvised. “He’s always proud to see American citizens exercising their free-speech rights.”

“That’s good,” she said. Beside the woman sat a man of the same vintage, wearing khaki Dockers and a black fleece blazoned with the same “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan. His hair, where he still had it, was close-cropped in military style. He nodded in agreement with the woman’s words.

I asked, “Everything going OK with the police?”

“They’ve been sweethearts,” said Mrs. Don’t Tread on Me.

“Did they give you the Port-a-Potties?”

She shook her hand, “No, that was Barney’s idea,” pointing to the man on his hands and knees, fumbling with tangled cords. He was a tall, heavy man in his mid-fifties or so, which made him the baby of the group. A heavy golden watch on a metal link band protruded from beneath his lined windbreaker. “Barney loaded them in his truck when he heard about the protest.”

“You should have brought beer,” I said.

That made them all laugh. “No beer on federal property,” answered Orange Parka. Mrs. Don’t Tread on Me asked me my name.


Mrs. Don’t Tread on Me nudged Mr. Don’t Tread on Me. “Why don’t you get Walter a chair?”

A broken-down old lawn chair was produced. I was poured a cup of sweet milky coffee from a thermos.

Introductions were done. Orange Parka was named Bob. He had been a builder up in Minnesota until his contracting business went bust two years before. Mr. and Mrs. Don’t Tread on Me were a married couple from Alabama, named Mary Beth and Dale. Dale was a retired army major; Mary Beth, a retired Veterans Administration nurse. Barney, the man on his knees, owned a trucking company. The last member of the group, a slight, nervous-seeming man with a grey goatee had retired this past summer after 40 years of teaching math in a Fort Worth high school. He hesitated to give his name, but the others gave it away: “Dennis.”

“There!” announced Barney triumphantly, and the TV came to life.

He stood up and turned to shake my hand.

“Is that your truck?” I asked.

“Yep. I used to have six. The bank took the others, but I kept the one with the satellite dish.”

This time I was the one to laugh. “What are you watching?”

“I hope we’re going to watch Mark Dunn [the host of a 5 p.m. show on the “Patriot News Network”]. I DVRed his show, but we had a little trouble with the wiring. I think I’ve fixed everything though.”

“That seems a lot of trouble for one TV show.”

Dennis the retired math teacher spoke up softly. “No it isn’t. You have to watch Mark Dunn every day. Otherwise you miss the connections.”

“The connections?”

“Everything’s connected. It’s all linked up. The banks, the bailouts, the people selling us out in Mexico – you don’t understand it until you watch Mark.”

Mary Beth, the former nurse, caught my skeptical look. “So what are they saying about us up the Hill?”

“A lot of concern that you’re taking up so many parking spaces.”

“We’re all sorry about that. I’ve never even had a speeding ticket. But some things are more important.”

“Like what?”

Bob in the orange parka asked sarcastically, “Would you listen if we told you?”

“All ears.”

“We talk to people from the media all day long. If it’s not the media, it’s pollsters. If it’s not pollsters, it’s some smart-ass blogger trying to provoke us to say something against blacks or gays or Mexicans. But nobody seems to listen, not really. We’re not haters or crazies. We’re not even really a movement exactly. Most of us met for the first time when we parked here.”

“So what brought you?”

Dennis the math teacher inserted himself back into the conversation. “The US military is pretty much the only institution worth a damn in this sad country of ours. Now they’re being sold out the same way the politicians have sold out everything else.”

Bob added, “I’m here to do something to stop this crazy spending, all this debt. It’s wrecking this country. We’re going to be papering our walls with worthless dollars.”

“It should mean something to be an American!” Barney said intently. “These people flood into our country. America means nothing to them, just a way to earn a few bucks. My mother’s father came here from Greece. He opened a restaurant and flew the flag every day! But now? You can’t recognize this country any more.”

“Mark Dunn says we’re losing our country piece by piece,” insisted Dennis. “And our government doesn’t do a damn thing about it.”

I had discreetly sloshed the muck in my Styrofoam cup onto the grass. I refused a refill as politely as I could. “The government seems to be doing a lot,” I said.

“Too much,” said Dennis.

Bob reclaimed my attention. “When I was your age, I never believed it myself when I heard an older person say this or that used to be better. Don’t older people always talk about the good old days? But the old days were good – better than now, anyways. My dad served in World War II. When he got out of the service, he found a job in an auto parts plant near Pittsburgh. Just like that. And him a man with an eighth-grade education! He became a supervisor, bought a nice house. He took us camping every summer. He retired to Florida and lived a comfortable life all the way to the end. He taught himself golf, even.

“Now look at me. I’m 55 and divorced. My ex-wife got the house. Who’s ever going to hire me again? And my kids? Loaded up with student debt. My son is working in a Starbucks. They call him an assistant manager. He makes the same as my dad made in the plant in the 1970s! I know because my dad kept all his old pay stubs in the attic. Now my daughter’s pregnant. The guy’s disappeared. And she doesn’t care! She says she never liked the guy that much anyway, she wants to raise the baby on her own!”

Dale – a man who apparently had long ago decided to let his wife do the talking – suddenly burst out: “And the drugs! God, they’re everywhere. I wanted my son to go into the military, straighten him out. He flunked the drug test. They wouldn’t give him a second chance. And now they’re covering up for all these Mexicans? Who the hell is selling us these drugs anyway?”

“And get this government off our backs,” said Bob from his orange parka.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Wasn’t Dennis a government employee?” I pointed to Mary Beth. “And you?” I turned to Dale. “And you, too?”

They shook their heads at my cluelessness.

“I taught math!” said Dennis. “I’m not some bureaucrat. You think we can stand up to the Chinese without math? My ex-wife, she was a big union activist. I said to her all the time, ‘You teach music, of course you need a union. But my work is the real deal.’”

“Sounds like your ex-wife needed to watch more Mark Dunn,” I said.

Dennis ignored the irony, assuming he even heard it. “Without Mark Dunn, I’d never have got through my divorce.”

“So, Walter,” Mary Beth said, “what’s this boss of yours going to do for us?”

I felt the weight of the envelope in my suit jacket pocket, stuffed with campaign checks. I thought: Maybe if you could write us some of these …

“I can reassure Bob a little. Senator Hazen wants to try to balance the budget, stop us getting so deep in debt.”

Barney laughed savagely. “Ha! They all say that!”

“You going to raise my taxes?” demanded Dennis.

“We’ll try not to.”

“Or cut my Medicare?”

“Or our veterans’ benefits?” added Mary Beth.

“I don’t know that we can balance the budget without any cuts to anything,” I said.

“Of course you have to cut things!” Mary Beth said cheerfully. “Welfare and foreign aid. And all those people who don’t pay any taxes at all – they should be paying something, even if it’s only $10 a month. I see them drinking frappa-dappa-chinos, they can afford contribute something. They’re riding in the wagon, they should get down out of it and help the rest of us pull the wagon. What I’m talking about are the benefits we’ve earned. Our veterans risked their lives for this country, they deserve everything they get. Dale did two tours in Vietnam. Medicare? Seniors have paid for it.”

“We’re not asking for anything we’re not entitled to,” said Dennis. “No handouts. We want our country back, that’s all. The way it used to be.”

“And we’ll raise hell if we don’t get it!” Barney boomed.

“I’ll tell the senator,” I promised.

I thanked them for the coffee and hoisted myself out of the lawn chair. I took a roundabout route home, through the Hotel Monaco. The shoeshine man was still on duty. He did a beautiful job too.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.