Peter Baker, the intrepid New York Times reporter lately covering his third president of the United States, has achieved the unthinkable — a vivid page-turner on the ultimately divided not-co-presidency of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
“Days of Fire” surprises, showing it’s both possible and necessary to look back immediately on trying recent history — and it can be done without snark.
This work’s punch line is that as much as the experienced and elder vice president held sway during Bush’s first term (heck, Brownie, he chose himself), he lost influence, sometimes precipitously, in term two.
Heavyweight examples abound. But Baker rolls in ample small-picture stuff such as the fact that Cheney reacted to technical difficulties the morning of 9/11 by demanding to see CNN to keep up with events. After an aide complained that a videoconference connection was so fouled up, it was like listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks at the bottom of a swimming pool, Cheney sensibly said: Then hang up.
Want misjudgments? They’re here.
Days after 9/11, while Osama “bin Laden was escaping” in the mountains of Afghanistan, Baker notes, White House honchos were misguidedly focused on Iraq.
Bush soon told visitors: “Write this down. Afghanistan and Iraq will lead that part of the world to democracy. They are going to be the catalyst to change the Middle East and the world.”
At one meeting, House Minority Leader Dick Armey fretted the U.S. would “get mired” in Iraq. Cheney replied: “It’ll be like the American troops going through Paris.”
Blame goes fully around, though. Only six senators and a handful of U.S. House members went to a secure room made available for members of Congress to read the full intelligence estimate used to justify the Iraq war, the Washington Post reported. Bush, too, conceded he never read the full review; he’d heard the contents in briefings.
Even as the Iraq war bogged down, Bush-Cheney won re-election, partly by provoking the Democratic presidential nominee to admit he’d taken opposite positions on the war, Baker says. He describes bereted Bush adviser Mark McKinnon (of Austin) screaming with delight at word that John Kerry had told a crowd that he voted for the war spending before voting against it.
“Game, set and match,” Baker describes McKinnon as thinking.
A simplistic calculation fed the initial (deadly) failure to dispatch more troops to Iraq. Administration officials assumed a substantial portion of the Iraqi army would remain intact, Baker writes, and that other Arab countries would contribute troops as they had to the Gulf War. After both assumptions “proved false, no one ever thought to compensate for the missing forces.” Various aides later said that if Bush had known Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, he would not have sought the invasion.
Baker reveals, too, that Bush was not as sure, or beguiled, in private as he could seem in public. Informed that a bomb had killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Bush did not join in general giddiness. “I’m not sure how to take good news anymore,” he said. Another time, he wearied of Russia’s Putin, recalling with astonishment that Putin had inquired into why Bush didn’t change the U.S. Constitution so he could seek a third term.
Bush, described as reading 14 biographies of Lincoln while president, told aides as he reached the decision to push for the critical troop surge in Iraq that he was no Lincoln, but “I am in the same boat.” And, he said, America still needs to lead.
After his presidency, Bush told friends he had no desire to re-engage in that way.
Not that he was abashed. After an aide noted that Bush ended up one of the most unpopular presidents, Bush replied: “I also was the most popular president,” a reference to the days after 9/11.
By the way, Baker gently observes, President Obama largely preserved Bush initiatives, with the exception of the fight for the Affordable Care Act and Obama’s backing of marriage and military service for gays and lesbians.
Baker end-notes that his son urged him to make his book compelling. Mission accomplished.
Days of Fire