In April, the five living American presidents gathered in Dallas for the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library. Sitting on an outdoor stage under a bright Texas sun, they addressed an assembly of dignitaries, journalists, and former Bush-administration officials, including Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. When it was Bush’s turn to speak, his description of his former vice president was gracious and kind. “From the day I asked Dick to run with me, he served with loyalty, principle, and strength,” he said. “Proud to call you friend.” Cheney, relaxed and healthy thanks to a successful heart transplant, and wearing dark sunglasses and a ten-gallon hat, smiled coolly.
The relationship between the 43rd president and the 46th vice president is the main topic of Peter Baker’s mammoth book. Baker says Days of Fire is “the most documented history of the Bush-Cheney White House to date” and “a neutral history of a White House about which no one is neutral.” He’s right on both counts. It’s also the latest episode in an ongoing reconsideration of Bush that began as soon as he departed Washington, D.C., for Texas on January 20, 2009.
When Bush is viewed from the perspective of the present, and in contrast to his successor, even a New York Times reporter such as Baker is able to appreciate his virtues. Baker acknowledges the former president’s humility, compassion, idealism, and decisiveness. He notes that President Obama has preserved many of Bush’s initiatives, from counterterrorism policies to No Child Left Behind to Medicare Part D to the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief to most of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. And he concludes that the measures Bush adopted in times of emergency, from his response to 9/11 to the surge in Iraq to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, were necessary and successful.
But don’t get your hopes up. Baker hasn’t written an apologia for Bush, nor has he written a revisionist history that challenges the conventional wisdom. While he is clearly trying to be fair-minded, his story is all too familiar. It’s the same thing you’ve heard from the chorus of pundits, journalists, and political hands: George W. Bush was an inexperienced chief executive whose heavy reliance on Dick Cheney gave us waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay, NSA surveillance, and quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only in the later years of his presidency, when Bush grew in confidence and command, did he sideline Cheney in favor of secretary of state Condi Rice and a multilateral foreign policy. By then, however, it was too late. Bush had gone from being the most popular president in history to one of the least popular, and “unnecessary controversies combined with the devastating misjudgments in Iraq ended up detracting from what otherwise might have been a solid record.” Cue violins, and fade to black.
Mentioned during the course of this narrative are all of the major news events, celebrities, and scandals that appeared on the front page of Baker’s newspaper from 2001 to 2009: stem-cell research, Cheney’s energy task force, Halliburton, Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, David Kay and the Duelfer report on Iraqi WMD, Paul O’Neill, Abu Ghraib, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Social Security reform, Hurricane Katrina, Harriet Miers, Dubai Ports, comprehensive immigration reform, the loss of Congress, the firing of Donald Rumsfeld, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and — finally — the rise of Barack Obama. Baker somehow mentions every major decision, policy, controversy, and personality of the first decade of the 21st century. Reading his book can be exhausting.
As good as the reporting and research may be, Baker’s prose is not strong enough to sustain an 800-page narrative. (George R. R. Martin he’s not.) His judgments are too boring to leave the reader wondering what he’ll say next. And yet, while Days of Fire is too long, it also feels too short: Baker attempts to cover so much ground that significant aspects of the Bush presidency, such as judicial, housing, education, energy, and trade policies, are mentioned only in passing or in relation to major events. Other trends, such as U.S. economic integration with China, the resurgence of an unapologetic, tech-savvy liberalism, and the changing demographics and beliefs of American society, are hardly mentioned at all. This is the rough draft of history — with emphasis on the rough. A shorter book focusing exclusively on the interactions and tensions between Bush and Cheney would have been far more readable.
#page#Another weakness of the book is its narrative frame. The relationship between Bush and Cheney is far less interesting than Baker suggests. Baker’s reporting undermines his thesis that for eight years the president and vice president were “partners in an ambitious joint venture to remake the country and the world.” For sure, Cheney was influential. But the final decisions always were Bush’s. “Even in the first term,” Baker says, “Bush rebuffed Cheney on more than one occasion.” That’s an understatement. In his first term, Bush promoted compassionate conservatism, sided with Colin Powell in the debate over how to respond to the EP-3 aircraft incident over China, waited to attack Iraq, went to the U.N., rejected a plan to put exiles in charge of post-Saddam Iraq, promoted democracy as a way to combat the root causes of Islamic extremism, and called for a Federal Marriage Amendment. Cheney dissented in every case.
“By the time Bush and Cheney stepped out of the White House for the final time,” Baker says, “they had disagreed on North Korea, gun rights, same-sex marriage, tax cuts, Guantanamo Bay, interrogation practices, surveillance policy, Iran, the auto-industry bailout, climate change, the Lebanon War, Harriet Miers, Donald Rumsfeld, Middle East peace, Syria, Russia, and federal spending.” So Bush’s 2009 decision not to fully pardon former Cheney adviser Scooter Libby, whose sentence Bush had commuted in 2007, looks less like Cheney’s “fight for redemption from a president who had turned away from him” than like just another choice the president made over the vice president’s objections. Baker’s 800 pages show that the conventional story is flawed: Cheney never called the shots. Bush did.
Many of those calls were made in extremis. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 provoked a massive reorientation of national-security and counterterrorism policy, all directed by Bush. America was on the verge of losing the Iraq War when Bush sided with Cheney and ordered a surge of troops and the adoption of a counterinsurgency strategy. And the financial crisis of 2008 shook the world economy to such an extent that Bush famously told advisers he was abandoning free-market principles to save the free-market system.
David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, says he sees similarities between the surge and the crash. “In both cases there was a long period of antecedent neglect out of which the crisis came, to which the president heroically responded,” he tells Baker. “Bush made crises through neglect and then resolved crises through courage.” Saying Bush alone “made” these crises is overstating things, to say the least. But the point about neglect and courage is a good one. It also applies to 9/11: America looked the other way during the 1990s as radical Islam solidified its control over Afghanistan and attacked Americans in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen. But, when the crisis of 9/11 arrived, Bush implemented policies that have prevented a major attack on U.S. soil for over a decade.
What is Bush’s legacy? For Baker, it’s mostly negative. “If history is a defense to an extent,” he writes, “it is also an indictment.” A “broader reevaluation in years to come” of the Bush presidency “seems uncertain.” The Bush years will remain tarnished by the mistakes made in Iraq. “It may be hard for Bush to shift the narrative as much as he would like.” Still, Bush won’t be the one to “shift the narrative” of his presidency. That will be the job of historians.
There’s a precedent here. For years, Harry Truman was seen as a hapless machine politician who waged an unpopular war in Korea and left office unloved and unlamented. Then a new generation of historians rehabilitated Truman by showing how he established the policy of containment against the Soviet Union. Baker’s account supplies the raw material for the historians of the future.
And his account has competition. Bush may be silent about current politics, but he is vocal about his accomplishments and beliefs. “When future generations come to this library and study this administration,” he said in April, “they’re going to find that we stayed true to our convictions, that we expanded freedom at home by raising standards in schools and lowering taxes for everybody, that we liberated nations from dictatorship and freed people from AIDS, and that when our freedom came under attack, we made the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe.” The rehabilitation of George W. Bush is just beginning.
– Mr. Continetti is editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon.