Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House

Peter Baker's balanced history of the Bush years (2001-2009) recalls all those great journalistic "you are there" accounts of the presidency from yesteryear.  Baker contends Cheney's influence in the White House never had the cache the media placed upon it.  Most of the book deals with the aftermath of 9/11: a life changing day for Bush and one of grim determination for Cheney.  For what it lacks in historical perspective, Days of Fire explains with painstaking detail the inner workings of the Bush years although some crucial questions go unanswered.

Baker begins the book with a parallel biography of Bush and Cheney before they joined forces in the 2000 campaign.  A native of Wyoming, Cheney flunked out of Yale briefly worked as lineman for the electric company.  Like Bush, he enjoyed drinking, cleaned up his act, and dived into politics.  A protege of Donald Rumsfeld, hawkish Cold Warrior with presidential ambitions, Cheney rose quickly in the post-Watergate Ford administration.  A ruthless bureaucratic warrior, Cheney knew how to stifle dissent in the ranks.  During the Bush 41 administration he ran the defense department and oversaw the first Gulf War.  He opposed marching into Baghdad fearing it would create chaos in the Middle East.

Cheney's grim determination rattle America's saber at any country wore thin. He imagined himself as an American Churchill, evidenced by his personal library.  But Churchill knew about war at firsthand. Would Cheney have thought differently if he had been in the military?

Bush's path to the White House can be read as a natural outcome or a historical fluke.  The son of a President from a powerful political family rooted in the Eastern Establishment, the last name Bush carried weight among the power brokers.  Up until age 40, Bush worked for his father and dabbled in the oil business. He built his reputation as the popular owner of the Texas Rangers and defeated a popular incumbent governor. Bush popularized the term compassionate conservatism, a series of initiatives encouraging the private sector to bring about reforms in education and poverty.  Unlike his father, he declared himself a born again Christian and had a distaste for Washington politics.

Baker provides a dramatic account of September 11, 2001.  Bush appeared confused and indecisive at first, but regained his footing.  Cheney immediately set his sights on Iraq, convinced they were building nuclear weapons.  The war cabinet unleashed the CIA and pursued a policy of no quarter when it came to terrorism.  The initial invasion of Afghanistan went smoother than planned despite their failure to capture Bin Laden.  Meanwhile the administration passed the Patriot Act, a reversion to the bad old days where any form of dissent spelled social ostracism, even more ominous in age resembling 1984.

Baker never provides a satisfactory answer as to why Bush and Cheney decided to invade Iraq.  To a thinking observer, linking Iraq to 9/11 made no sense. Did Bush have a personal vendetta against Saddam?  A drive to right his father's mistakes? Isn't this armchair psychology?  Does history hinge on such interpersonal minutia?  Maybe?  

The immediate justification, to prevent the regime from attaining "weapons of mass destruction", came back to haunt them.  Were larger issues of geopolitics involved?  Great game diplomacy?  Later on, the administration's rhetoric linked the war to spreading democracy in the Middle East. Whatever the logic that went into their decision, the consequences were grave.

After Bush won reelection in 2004, Cheney's influence declined significantly. Condoleezza Rice, always close to Bush, took a more moderate approach to foreign policy.  The second term saw one disaster after another as Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, Hurricane Katrina, a more aggressive Russia, and the 2008 economic collapse.  

Bush admitted to feeling emotionally drained by the end.  Who can blame him?  In his final week in the office, Cheney requested a pardon for former aide "Scooter" Libby. Bush refused.  The image of Cheney groveling to his boss reads like something in The Godfather - Tessio begging Mike for one more favor before going to the chopping block.

Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days on JFK emphasized heroism and political leadership, I miss those types of histories.  Accounts of Bush and Cheney (and their successors) will focus on their corporate mindsets and overblown rhetoric of 2002-03.  But I digress, whether you agree or disagree, Days of Fire will shed light on Bush/Cheney years.