The Bush administration opened with a second Pearl Harbor, ended with a second Great Crash and contained a second Vietnam in the middle.
The story of those eight years would seem far too vast to contain inside a single volume. Yet here that volume is. Peter Baker (who covered the Bush White House first for The Washington Post, then for The New York Times) neither accuses nor excuses. He writes with a measure and balance that seem transported backward in time from some more dispassionate future. Yet “Days of Fire” is not a dispassionate book. Its mood might rather be described as poignant: sympathetic to its subjects, generous to their accomplishments and extenuating none of their errors.
“Bush was not one given to reflection, at least not out loud. Yet one day,” in the summer of 2008, “he seemed in a rare introspective mood. Sitting in the Situation Room while waiting for another meeting to begin, the president looked at Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, who had succeeded Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and harked back to the critical days in 2003 before he launched the war that had become so problematic. ‘You know,’ he recalled, ‘when I made the decision on Iraq, I went around the room to everybody at that table, every principal. “You in? Any doubts?” Nothing from anybody.’ For Bush, it was a rare moment of doubt. Was he ruing his own flawed judgment? Bitter that he had been led off track by advisers? Or both?”
That story is sourced to an interview with a “senior official”—your guess whether it was Mullen, Gates or somebody else. Baker’s book is informed by remarkable access to its main characters, including Vice President Dick Cheney. (I’ll note here that I am one of those interviewed for and quoted in Baker’s book.) Yet “Days of Fire” is something more than the reporter’s “first rough draft of history.” Almost every leading figure in the Bush White House, including Bush and Cheney, has now published his or her version of events, and Baker has painstakingly worked through them all. The result is what you might call a polished second draft of history, most likely the most polished draft we’ll have until the archives are opened and the academics can get to work.
An Italian historian once wryly observed that Italy is a country of many secrets but no mysteries. That line may now be applied to the Bush administration in reverse. One by one, the administration’s secrets have been revealed. Yet its central mysteries continue to haunt us.
Baker is haunted above all by the mystery of the Bush-Cheney relationship—and beyond that, by the mystery of George W. Bush. Did Bush truly lead his administration, or was he really led by others, and especially by his forceful vice president?
Baker accumulates many stories of imperious officials imposing their will during the Bush years: not only Cheney, but also Donald Rumsfeld; L. Paul Bremer, the Iraqi occupation administrator; and Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff. The crucial decisions in postwar Iraq—to demobilize the army, to de-Baathify the country—were made by Bremer with barely a glance to his superiors back in Washington. In 2008, Henry Paulson, the secretary of the Treasury, would exercise even more control over the administration’s response to the financial crisis. Yet when all is said and done, Baker concludes: The “decider” really did decide.
“His successes and his failures through all the days of fire were his own. ‘He’s his own man,’ said Joe O’Neill, his life-long friend. ‘He’s got the mistakes to prove it, as we always say. He was his own man.’”
If Bush relied heavily on Cheney at the outset of his administration, that was a choice too. As Baker points out, back in 1992 Bush had promoted Cheney to run on the Republican ticket as a replacement for Vice President Dan Quayle. Cheney did not have to scheme his way onto the ticket in 2000; Bush had “Bush-Cheney” in mind for nearly a decade.
In 2004, Cheney volunteered to step down from the ticket. Bush refused him. Yet even as Bush confirmed Cheney in office, he began to reduce his vice president’s role. Baker minutely describes the rise of a new power constellation in the second Bush term. In foreign affairs, Cheney lost fight after fight to Condoleezza Rice. At home, the response to the financial crisis of 2008 was led by Paulson at Treasury and Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve.
White House management in the first term could be summed up by the formula Dick Cheney > Karl Rove > Andy Card, with Bush a sometimes amused, sometimes frustrated observer of his administration’s internal power struggles. In the second administration, Bush replaced Card as chief of staff with a steely enforcer of presidential supremacy, the quiet policy wonk Josh Bolten.
A story from 2007 shows the Bolten method in operation. The Supreme Court had decided to hear an important case on gun rights. Cheney discovered that Solicitor General Paul Clement planned to file a brief that fell short of Cheney’s own views. In protest, he signed his name to a much stronger brief filed by 55 pro-gun senators and 250 members of the House of Representatives.
Bolten was appalled. He warned Cheney there could be only one administration position. “I did it in my capacity as president of the Senate,” Cheney answered. (Cheney made ingenious use of the constitutional quirk that makes the vice president both an executive and a legislative officer.) Cheney’s top aide, David Addington, reminded Bolten that he, Addington, was paid by the Senate, not the White House.
“‘Understood,’ Bolten replied, ‘but if we have another episode like this, I will make sure that all of your belongings and your mail are forwarded to your tiny office in the Senate and you won’t be welcome back inside the gates of the White House.’”
Bush offered his own, strikingly nuanced, reply to the mystery that fascinates Baker. In the summer of 2008, an aide asked Bush what one thing had surprised him most about the presidency. “Bush answered without hesitation. ‘How little authority I have,’ he said with a laugh.” That’s an assessment that might be shared by all his predecessors in office, but that usually goes unrecognized in comment about the presidency. In a moment of crisis, the powers of the White House expand, but normal politics soon reassert themselves. Then a president finds his job has shrunk to cajoling a recalcitrant Congress, exhorting an indifferent public and reconciling warring factions within an administration, where he takes the blame for actions over which he had no control and that he probably would have opposed had he been given any advance notice of them.
George Bush faced an unusual number of moments of crisis. In December 2008, Morgan Freeman attended a reception at the White House. Bush “cited the actor’s many credits, including ‘Deep Impact,’ in which Freeman played a president confronted by a civilization-ending comet-strike against the earth. . . . ‘About the only thing that hasn’t happened in the last eight years,’ he ad-libbed. . . . When he took his seat again, Rice leaned over. ‘Don’t tempt fate,’ she said. ‘We’ve still got a few weeks left.’”
From the N.S.A. to TARP, many of the most bitterly controversial achievements of the Bush-Cheney administration have been quietly adopted and followed by its successor. It’s within his own party that the Bush record is repudiated and rejected, in favor of a more radical brand of conservatism that cannot win national elections and could not govern if it did. Someday, and maybe someday soon, Bush’s party will have to do what Peter Baker has so exhaustively done in “Days of Fire”: come to a full and fair reckoning with the legacy of the 43rd president.