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

Thu, Oct 24, 2013 - Page 11

How different would the world be if George W. Bush had picked John Danforth instead of Dick Cheney to be his vice president? Danforth, a moderate three-term senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopal minister nicknamed St. Jack, met for more than three hours with Bush. Karl Rove favored him over Cheney, as did Joshua Bolten, the campaign policy director. And only at Cheney’s insistence did Bush interview Danforth.

In Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, Peter Baker paints the choice of Cheney as both inevitable and a testament to Bush’s persistence.

The chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, Baker demolishes any lingering myth that Cheney engineered his own selection for what he once called “a cruddy job.” Bush had his eye on Cheney since 1992, when he urged his father to can Dan Quayle and pick Cheney, then the secretary of defense, as his running mate.

Baker’s main thesis is not exactly groundbreaking: that Bush and Cheney created the most influential White House partnership since Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, and that, “for good or ill, theirs was a deeply consequential administration that would test a country and play out long after the two men at its center exited the public stage.”

Baker, as he generously acknowledges, leans heavily on the memoirs of Bush, Cheney and other administration officials, not to mention books by journalists like Bob Woodward and Barton Gellman. He says he interviewed about 275 people (Cheney cooperated, but Bush declined), and where previously published accounts conflict, he tries to resolve them. Filled with enlivening detail and judicious analysis, Days of Fire is the most reliable, comprehensive history of the Bush years yet.

What made the Bush-Cheney team work, Baker asserts, was that each knew what the other brought to the partnership. Bush had the political smarts; Cheney had the Washington Rolodex. Bush was the realist, Cheney the ideologue.

For the first time in modern history, the vice president had zero desire to run for president after his boss’ tenure ended, which meant that Bush could rely on his unvarnished advice. It also meant that the second in command had scant interest in currying favor with anyone but the boss, including voters.

This worked reasonably well during the first term, although Baker argues that, by stocking his Cabinet with other sharp-elbowed players, like Donald H. Rumsfeld, at defense, and Colin L. Powell at state, Bush was setting the stage for ruinous turf battles later. Cheney seeded the White House with his own people, ensuring that two of his staff members enjoyed the same rank (assistant to the president) as the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the chief of staff, Andrew Card.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Cheney became the administration’s most muscular advocate for bolstering domestic intelligence gathering and ousting Saddam Hussein, along the way marginalizing Attorney General John Ashcroft and Powell. Baker contends that Cheney did only what the president wanted, but he also shows that Cheney shaped the conversation on what the president wanted. He sometimes cut other players out of the loop in presenting proposals to Bush.

Once, Baker implies, the vice president and his camp tried to do an end run around the Oval Office (the dispute involved the reauthorization of a surveillance program), and only by stepping in at the last minute did Bush prevent the resignations of FBI director Robert S. Mueller III and James B. Comey, the acting attorney general.

“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.