Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House
By Peter Baker
Doubleday, 816 pages
In significant ways, we still live in the post-9/11 era. Islamic extremists plot against the United States, national-security policy dominates public debate, and foreign leaders wag their fingers at the American president. Yet while overseas threats and much of George W. Bush’s response to them are still with us, the war on terror in 2013 does not feel like it did in 2003. Why?
The answer can be found on nearly every page of Peter Baker’s splendid Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. The George W. Bush presidency was absorbed by the threat of real-world evil in a way that now—only five years into another administration—seems irretrievably remote. Three days after 9/11, as Baker recalls, Bush spoke at Washington National Cathedral: “Our responsibility to history is already clear,” he said, “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” If this was hyperbole, it was just barely so. Baker’s accomplishment is in evenly relating both the perils and the triumphs that came from mobilizing American power in service of such a grand mission. Indeed, that this book cannot be used as a partisan weapon is almost as foreign as Bush’s black-and-white response to terrorism.
Days of Fire, however, is not exclusively about the war on terror. It is an exhaustive account of the entire Bush presidency, starting with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney’s pre–White House lives and moving chronologically through everything from the 2000 Florida recount to the fight for No Child Left Behind to Hurricane Katrina to the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination to the 2008 bank bailouts, and much else. It is, at the same time, an unemotional examination of the relationship between Bush and Cheney.
But the 9/11 attacks and all that followed from them assume a central role in the book, just as they did in the Bush administration. Fittingly, Baker, a New York Times reporter, appropriated his title from a line about 9/11 in Bush’s second inaugural: “For a half a century, America defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders. After the shipwreck of Communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical. And then there came a day of fire.” That infernal day, as Baker implies, defined a presidency.
The attack on the United States shaped the administration’s purpose as a whole, even as it took the president and vice president in slightly different directions. Bush became increasingly focused on spreading freedom and democracy as a means of inoculation against violent extremism. For Cheney, the freedom agenda was well and good, but preventing a second attack was his round-the-clock preoccupation. Baker writes that “he remained as seized by the grim possibilities as he was the day after September 11.” And those possibilities looked far grimmer to hyper-vigilant leaders than to average citizens. “Mr. President, the White House biological detectors have registered the presence of botulinum toxin and there is no reliable antidote,” Cheney relayed to Bush via video-conference in late 2001. “Those of us who have been exposed to it could die.” It was a false alarm.
The contrast in the two men’s animating concerns did not come out of nowhere. Bush, in Baker’s believable account, is a man awash in feeling. We often read that “tears came down his face,” or that he “grew emotional, wiping tears from his eyes,” and so on. For Bush, most decisions corresponded to some gut instinct. Democracy promotion in the Arab world was not only a way of blunting terrorism; it also felt right. Cheney’s stoicism, on the other hand, is as well known as his tenacity. “I know you’re not a big fan of hugs,” Bush told him upon being reelected in 2004, “so we’ll just shake hands.”
For the most part, their temperaments, concerns, and styles were complementary. Cheney was a uniquely powerful vice president precisely because Bush had no interest in wasting the more seasoned man’s insights on the rote glad-handing that often comes with the second-in-command’s office. Instead, Bush charged him with handling the transition into the White House and then gave him primary standing on his foreign-policy team. In other words, Bush did not bow to Cheney’s strengths; he harnessed them. But their connection didn’t make it through the second term fully intact. One reason is that after his first four years as president and commander in chief during wartime, Bush himself had become the single most consequential leader and delegator in the world. He could rely on his own counsel. But beyond that, administration turf wars had played out and reshuffled alliances in a way that put Bush and Cheney at odds. During the first term, Cheney and his advisers continually butted heads with, and frustrated the efforts of, the less hawkish Colin Powell, who was secretary of state. When Powell left the administration, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice accepted Bush’s offer to replace him on the condition that administration voices like Cheney’s not override her advocacy for a diplomatic approach to world affairs. Bush, who had grown exceptionally close to Rice, agreed.
Throughout the book, Baker notes how some of Cheney’s longtime associates, such as Christine Todd Whitman, think he has become more right-wing and more assertive since his earlier days in politics. But this seems to be mostly a matter of myth. Baker quotes a National Security Council member who gets it right when he says that Cheney was “as much an idea as a person.” The person was a strong national-defense conservative in his younger days and a pro-gay-marriage conservative during the Bush years. As for his supposed unilateral approach to Bush administration co-workers, Colin Powell rightly observes that when Cheney worked in the Ford and George H.W. Bush administrations, he was then the younger man deferring to more experienced adults. In the George W. Bush administration, his role changed because his position relative to his now younger colleagues had changed. In this, Cheney was and is no different from anyone else who lives long enough to enjoy some sense of seniority.
While Bush and Cheney drifted apart in the second term, the American public was losing confidence in many of their first-term decisions. The war in Iraq moved toward a state of chaos, and questions about the intelligence behind the invasion were becoming a national obsession. What’s more, outrage over Iraq and domestic security policies like warrantless wiretapping were frustrating Bush’s ability to garner support among lawmakers in Washington. One-time partners from across the aisle, such as Ted Kennedy, who had worked with Bush on education policy, became fierce enemies.
By the time the administration saved the Iraq effort by authorizing the troop surge and strategy change of 2007, its approval ratings were falling too fast for this to translate into a political triumph. And when the financial crisis struck in 2008, it was all too easy for the public to link it, erroneously, to excessive and misguided war spending. That Bush, with Cheney’s support, bailed out big banks and kept the country from near unimaginable crisis would also be a mostly thankless decision.
Such are the wages of taking evil seriously, of setting the country on a course to vanquish its enemies. The single-mindedness of the effort makes for a slew of unforeseen consequences and, in the present age, ensures political backsliding. Which is not to say it shouldn’t be done. Take evil lightly and there will be days of fire. Capturing the no-win nature of national-security policy in the 21st century, Baker writes that “the lowest moments of Bush and Cheney’s tenure” are “the failure to adequately see the threat of al-Qaeda and move more expeditiously to counterterrorism in the months before September 11 and the fixation on Saddam Hussein that led them to disregard contrary evidence on the preordained path to war.” In other words, the administration was wrong not to attack during peacetime and wrong in being too vigilant during war. Perhaps there is a better way to assess the Bush-Cheney accomplishments: We weren’t hit again on their watch.