How different would the world be if George W. Bush had picked John Danforth instead of Dick Cheney to be his vice president? Danforth, a moderate three-term senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopal minister nicknamed St. Jack, met for more than three hours with Bush. Karl Rove favored him over Cheney, as did Joshua Bolten, the campaign policy director. And only at Cheney's insistence did Bush interview Danforth.
In Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, Peter Baker paints the choice of Cheney as both inevitable and a testament to Bush's persistence. The chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, Baker demolishes any lingering myth that Cheney engineered his own selection for what he once called "a cruddy job." Bush had his eye on Cheney since 1992, when he urged his father to can Dan Quayle and pick Cheney, then the secretary of defense, as his running mate.
Baker's main thesis is not groundbreaking: that Bush and Cheney created the most influential White House partnership since Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, and that, "for good or ill, theirs was a deeply consequential administration that would test a country and play out long after the two men at its center exited the public stage."
Baker, as he generously acknowledges, leans heavily on the memoirs of Bush, Cheney and other administration officials, not to mention books by journalists such as Bob Woodward and Barton Gellman. He says he interviewed about 275 people (Cheney cooperated; Bush declined), and where previously published accounts conflict, he tries to resolve them. Filled with enlivening detail and judicious analysis, Days of Fire is the most reliable, comprehensive history of the Bush years yet.
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What made the Bush-Cheney team work, Baker asserts, was that each knew what the other brought to the partnership. Bush had the political smarts; Cheney had the Washington Rolodex. Bush was the realist, Cheney the ideologue.
For the first time in modern history, the vice president had zero desire to run for president after his boss's tenure ended, which meant Bush could rely on his unvarnished advice. It also meant that the second in command had scant interest in currying favor with anyone but the boss, including voters.
This worked reasonably well during the first term, although Baker argues that, by stocking his Cabinet with other sharp-elbowed players, like Donald H. Rumsfeld at defense, and Colin L. Powell at state, Bush was setting the stage for ruinous turf battles. Cheney seeded the White House with his own people, ensuring that two of his staff members enjoyed the same rank (assistant to the president) as the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the chief of staff, Andrew Card.
After 9/11, Cheney became the administration's most muscular advocate for bolstering domestic intelligence gathering and ousting Saddam Hussein, along the way marginalizing Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Baker contends Cheney did only what the president wanted, but he also shows that Cheney shaped the conversation on what the president wanted. He sometimes cut other players out of the loop in presenting proposals to Bush.
Once, Baker implies, the vice president and his camp tried to do an end run around the Oval Office (the dispute involved the reauthorization of a surveillance program), and only by stepping in at the last minute did Bush prevent the resignations of FBI director Robert S. Mueller III and James B. Comey, the acting attorney general.
"I made clear to my advisers that I never wanted to be blindsided like that again," Bush wrote in his memoirs.
According to Baker, Cheney got his revenge by blocking a request to make a Comey aide deputy solicitor general.
Cheney shocked Bush by offering to step aside as his running mate in 2004, and the vice president was unpopular enough that Bush considered replacing him with Sen. Bill Frist. Cheney saw his offer as an act of statesmanship, but Baker portrays it as a shrewd play to Bush's insecurity, manifested as an ever-present need to show that he was boss, including of the man viewed as the most powerful vice president in history.
Baker argues that Bush could be quite effective salvaging messes that he helped create, and he cites the dispatch of more troops to Iraq in 2007 as evidence. But Baker also makes clear that until then, the disastrous post-invasion strategy reflected Bush's tendency to set policy but not keep tabs on its execution. The reader emerges from Baker's book with a keener sense of just how much, for better and for worse, Bush was his own man.
'Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House'
By Peter Baker
Doubleday. 800 pp. $35.