The new book with all the buzz is "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House," by Peter Baker. It is a magisterial study of the way these men influenced each other, waxing and then waning, during the fateful eight-year presidency of George W. Bush.
Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, does not miss much about Bush in 653 pages, down to his dog Spot's death. Bush took it hard. Baker paints a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the 43rd president, which I came to appreciate as I turned the pages.
At least, I said to myself, Bush was whole-heartedly wrong on just about everything, principally the Iraq War. There's another president that reminds me of the younger Bush: Andrew Jackson, a rough-hewn character who could be defiantly wrongheaded. But the American people liked the rugged simplicity and masculine confidence they saw in each.
The opposite is true of his Vice President Dick Cheney. The more I knew, the less I cared for the man, old when he was young and working in the Gerald Ford White House as chief of staff. Baker's skills are just as evenhanded here, yet Cheney emerges even worse in private than in public, the prince of darkness in every deed. He intrigued to get the job in the first place, when he was meant to be chairing the search for a running mate in 2000. He put himself on the ticket as a wise elder, a Washington adult, a chorus taken up on cue by wise elders in the Washington media. But, as this book reveals, rumors of his actual influence over Bush's have been greatly exaggerated. Bush made his own decisions and carried the burdens of them.
Once in the White House, Cheney built an alternative reality with his aggressive hires. Presidential executive privileges were zealously watched over. In the "war on terror," his fiefdom gave no quarter to the human rights of detainees arriving on Guantanamo's shores. "But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture," Cheney said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is especially well-observed in Baker's account, both her ability to hold her own with crafty alpha-males and her friendship ties to George and Laura Bush. Promoted to secretary of state in the second term, her influence over the president gained while Cheney's waned: "He was on defense more than offense in the second term," Baker writes. Growing policy differences between Bush and Cheney were underlined on the way out, when Cheney opposed Detroit's auto industry bailout.
The crucible of Bush's presidency was of course September 11, which defined and obsessed Bush and Cheney every day. Setting the dogs of war on Iraq in March 2003 with or without the world's support, plays out like a relentless tragedy. And it was. Was it to finish Bush's father's fight, a deeply personal thing? Or was it truly about finding Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction? The intelligence was sketchy, as we know in retrospect. Now, there's a real connection between Iraq and a branch of al-Qaida, years later, but we know Iraq had nothing to with 9/11. Shucks, just our luck.
It hurts to relive such history. Bush admits to Baker what a mistake it was to land on an aircraft carrier bearing the "Mission Accomplished" banner when the Iraq War was far from won. As for Cheney, he's not sure he ever made any mistakes in the White House and he carried this smug superiority into every meeting. But if you press him, shooting his good friend Harry Whittington while out hunting on Maryland's Eastern Shore – well, that was bad, he'd say out of the side of his mouth.
As Baker tells us, that was the point when Cheney started to lose his stature and street cred in the White House with Bush and the White House staff, everyone except his old Ford White House buddy, SecDef Donald Rumsfeld. Excuse me, I meant the best Secretary of Defense in our nation's history, as Cheney claimed when it was finally time to send Rumsfeld packing. He served for two years longer than met with the pleasure of the president, but Cheney protected him while Iraq and the Army were in shambles.
Cheney's daughter Mary, who is gay, is close to her father and sounds a lot like him. It irks me somehow that there is only one social issue on which he's progressive, gay rights, and that's because it's personal. I can't give him credit for that.
To win battles, Cheney has asserted that he was elected, too, along with Bush. I don't think so. The only thing he was ever elected to was congressman from Wyoming, and that was back in the ‘80s. He is not and never was a man of the American people, and gosh, did we dodge a bullet.
One thing Bush was right on in the bitter end: he refused to pardon I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Cheney, losing his deferential decorum in the last days, would not drop the issue. Bush studied the matter, talked to his lawyers and, contrary to Cheney's pressure, decided there would be no pardon. Cheney harshly told the president he was leaving a good man on the field of battle.
"It might have been the harshest thing Cheney had ever said to him, and in language designed to attack Bush's self-identity, his sense of loyalty to his own troops in a time of war," Baker wrote.
That was the breach. What a priceless moment. A comeuppance for Cheney, a bit late in the game, but we'll take it anyway.