Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, by Peter Baker (Doubleday, 816 pp., $35)
The Wizard of Id— Johnny Hart and Brant Parker’s syndicated comic about a quirky and oppressed medieval kingdom whose peasants declare, “The king is a fink!”—debuted in 1964, at a turning point in American political culture. The end of the New Frontier and the beginning of American escalation in Vietnam, 1964 was the year the sixties became the sixties—when the counterculture got going and the first signs appeared of a shift in political decorum that would make it not only acceptable, but cool, to find a soapbox, a Hanoi turret, or a lower Manhattan park, from which to yell, “The president is a fink!”
Anyone below retirement age will barely remember a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable to lambaste the president in this way. From 1964 to about 1998, if you voted for the other guy, then you generally scorned the White House occupant and didn’t mind saying so, just as you didn’t mind giving credit occasionally when it was due. Sometime between Watergate and Whitewater, however, things changed. We left the era of president as fink and entered the era of president as criminal. Our political culture careens from mortal charge to mortal charge: Clinton lied under oath; Bush stole the election and launched an illegal war; Obama faked his birth certificate and governs by decree. (All three, of course, shredded the Constitution.) Let’s not forget the counter charges. Clinton’s critics were engaged in a vast right-wing conspiracy. Bush’s foes were East Coast snobs. Obama’s faultfinders are selfish “tea baggers” or racists. This trend toward slander is reflected in the oft-heard commandment that critics should “respect the office of the presidency,” even as they run down the current president’s reputation or impugn his integrity. Consider some best-selling titles about recent presidencies: Imposter, Fiasco, Fraud, Catastrophe.
How refreshing it is, then, to have a book about an American president that plays it down the middle. Especially since the conceit of Peter Baker’s Days of Fire—ostensibly a look at the George W. Bush administration through Bush’s relationship with his vice president, Dick Cheney—lends itself to the type of partisan hysteria that has become so common. You haven’t heard that Bush was Cheney’s puppet? You don’t remember the cabal that installed this C-student in the Oval Office so they could plant the flag in Baghdad? You didn’t know that Bush napped at Camp David while Cheney conspired with Wolfowitz and the Saudis to plot the future of American empire?
Baker doesn’t trade in such nonsense. As a longtime White House correspondent for both the Washington Post and the New York Times, where he currently works, Baker is a card-carrying member of what is sometimes called the “elite liberal media.” He has observed the last two decades of presidential scandals and outrages at close range. Yet, his Days of Fire, which stretches from the Florida recount in 2000 to the housing collapse in 2008, is a masterpiece of objectivity. Baker reports on the most divisive episodes of these divisive years with the professional care for truth and context that exited the journalistic enterprise about the time The Wizard of Id first arrived in newspapers.
The Bush that emerges from Days of Fire is a decent man, a thoughtful executive with a knack for facilitating debate and an unfailing devotion to the trust placed in him by the American people. He feels the weight of his office, and the many impossible decisions he must make, deeply. His capacity for self-reflection and self-correction—though never self-pity—is on full display. “There’s a great pressure not to lead—not to act,” Bush tells his demoralized national security team during the internal administration debate over the 2007 troop surge into Iraq. “There’s pressure to say, ‘Oh, well, this is too damn hard, too risky, let’s not do it.’” Baker’s Bush is a man with a surprisingly well-tuned moral compass, willing to make unpopular choices and suffer the consequent dips in his approval rating. He’s not, as the popular bumper sticker had it, the village idiot from Texas who somehow wound up in the White House. “People say Bush needs to see the world as it is,” he laments. “Well, I’ve been here six years now and I see the world as it is, maybe better than most.”
Baker’s Cheney comes across not as the Darth Vader of caricature, but as a valued foreign policy and defense counselor in the administration’s first term and an increasingly peripheral figure in the second. In the summer of 2007, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert visits Washington, pressing the administration to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor. Stung by the failure to find WMD in Iraq and told that intelligence officials can’t confirm the site is part of a weapons program, Bush won’t commit to a strike. Olmert turns instead to Cheney, whom Baker calls “a receptive audience.” Cheney is gung-ho, making an impassioned case before the president and his advisers. “It would rock the North Koreans back on their haunches in terms of thinking they could peddle their nuclear technology and get away with it,” he says. Bush remains disinclined, but opens the questions to a vote. “Does anyone here agree with the vice president?” he asks. According to Baker, “not a single hand went up.” The Israelis bombed the site anyway, but Cheney was humiliated, and you get the sense that Bush knew he would be.
Days of Fire scatters many other revealing anecdotes. In a briefing with the president during the panicked response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA director Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown tells Bush that harried New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin is behaving like a “crack head.” Early in the battle for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Bush is convinced that Hillary Clinton will triumph over Obama. “Wait ’til her fat ass is sitting at this desk,” he tells his aides. Baker reveals that Bush has told friends that he is no fan of the Tea Party.
Though Baker gives Bush more credit than most, his treatment falls well short of hagiography. Bush was great in crises, Baker notes, but he was often responsible for causing them. He devastated Iraq before stabilizing it with the surge. He fumbled the Katrina response before ultimately getting it right (eventually earning praise even from Democrats, such as Al Gore’s campaign manager, Donna Brazile). He presided over financial collapse before stabilizing the economy with the Troubled Asset Relief Program. “In other words,” Baker writes, Bush “was at his best when he was cleaning up his worst.”
The honest reader will see in the Bush/Cheney partnership, as described here, no hint of either the nefarious criminal conspiracy or the cartoonish master-servant dynamic that the administration’s fiercest critics continue to imagine. Rather, Baker’s book illuminates a political partnership of highly capable people whose abilities, stamina, and courage are tested almost daily during an eight-year arc encompassing stem cells, 9/11, Abu Ghraib, Plamegate, Fallujah, “Mission Accomplished,” Katrina, the surge, and a nearly catastrophic economic collapse. Being president, according to Baker, requires “distinguishing between what [is] real and what [is] not, tracking down where threats began, figuring out the right response, and finding a balance between acknowledging danger and projecting confidence.” Days of Fire proves that the Oval Office is no place for a fink. No fink could survive it.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images