Thu, Oct 24, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: DAYS OF FIRE: Bush and Cheney in the White House

Veteran reporter Peter Baker offers a behind-the-scenes look at the powerful yet conflicted political partnership of Bush and Cheney

By Jim Kelley  /  New York Times News Service

“I made clear to my advisers that I never wanted to be blindsided like that again,” Bush wrote in his memoirs.

According to Baker, Cheney got his revenge by blocking a request to make a Comey aide deputy solicitor general.

Cheney shocked Bush by offering to step aside as his running mate in 2004, and the vice president was unpopular enough that Bush considered replacing him with Senator Bill Frist. Cheney saw his offer as an act of statesmanship, but Baker portrays it as a shrewd play to Bush’s insecurity, manifested as an ever-present need to show that he was boss, including of the man viewed as the most powerful vice president in history.

Cheney’s influence declined during the second term, a fact that Cheney chalked up to Bush’s increased confidence. Other factors played a part. As secretary of state, Rice proved a wilier infighter than Powell had been, and Rumsfeld’s departure reduced Cheney’s influence at the Pentagon. Baker also credits Cheney’s maladroit handling of his Texas hunting accident in 2006 (he shot Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old lawyer, in the face, but didn’t release the news right away) as a turning point.

“Cheney increasingly came to be viewed after the shooting incident less as a sober and intimidating force and more as a political liability,” Baker writes. “He was even the butt of jokes that would never have been uttered aloud in the corridors of the White House in the first term.”

Bush never abandoned Cheney, although he was irritated that his vice president declined to oversee the Katrina recovery and joked privately to aides about Cheney’s tendency to fall asleep in meetings.

The failed nomination of Harriet Miers to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court could be cited as evidence that Bush really did make the decisions, since Cheney opposed her. “I tried to tell him,” Cheney told an aide.

Baker argues that Bush could be quite effective salvaging messes that he helped create, and he cites the dispatch of more troops to Iraq in 2007 as evidence. But Baker also makes clear that up until then the disastrous post-invasion strategy reflected his tendency to set policy but not keep tabs on its execution. The reader emerges from Baker’s book with a keener sense of just how much, for better and for worse, Bush was his own man.

Days of Fire begins and ends with an account of Bush’s refusal to grant a pardon to I. Lewis Libby Jr., Cheney’s closest aide, who was convicted of lying about his role in the leak of the identity of a CIA officer, Valerie Plame Wilson, to the media. The episode elicited the harshest words Cheney apparently ever directed at his boss (“You are leaving a good man wounded on the field of battle”) and created a rupture that Baker says has yet to heal.

Perhaps they know an Episcopal minister who could offer counseling.

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