By Chet Yarbrough
Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House
By: Peter Baker
It is too soon to be writing about the Bush/Cheney administration. The pain of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are too raw for most Americans. Peter Baker’s exploration of George Walker Bush’s administration offers interesting historical information. But perspective requires more time.
Baker’s book will not change minds about the success or failure of George W. Bush’s administration. It offers details to supporters and detractors of Bush’s tenure as President. Supporters will admire Bush’s tenacious spirit. Detractors will decry Bush’s obstinate belief in “experts”. Supporters will admire Cheney’s toughness in the face of unexpected consequences. Detractors will vilify Cheney for not foreseeing consequences.
Baker shows Bush’s tenacity in following the lead of people hired to do a job. However, Baker infers Bush does not provide enough vetting or oversight of “experts” he hires. President Bush is shown to minimize serious concern about candidate’ fault after vetting is completed. When “experts” are hired, Bush prizes loyalty over results in sticking with the chosen. Baker leaves little doubt about President “W’s” role as decider but the public will measure success and failure of his administration based on world history, viewed with 20/20 hindsight.
Baker shows Cheney as a tough-minded–defense oriented protector of American freedom. At the same time Baker reflects on Cheney’s five heart attacks, lack of respect for differing opinions, and single-minded pursuit of simple solutions for complicated problems. Baker suggests multiple heart attacks may have affected Cheney’s view of life; may have made Cheney’s actions more problematic as medical condition compromised his health.
Baker notes that former associates of pre-VP Cheney feel that he changed. Pre-VP Cheney was conservative but more open to others opinions and easier to get along with. Pre-VP Cheney served in the Nixon, Ford, and George H. W. Bush administrations. He also served as a 5 time elected representative of the State of Wyoming. Cheney left a long public life to become CEO of Halliburton, a multinational oil field services company. Baker suggests that heart attacks and Halliburton experience affected Cheney’s personality, demeanor, and actions as Vice President of the United States.
Many details of W’s and Cheney’s lives are reported in Baker’s book. The data compilation offers color, if not insight, to Bush’s and Cheney’s characters. Baker’s choices of details endear readers to Bush more often than Cheney.
Bush interactions with the public after 9/11; his bravado in flying to
Iraq to meet with troops, and Baker’s description of Bush’s love for his dying 15-year-old dog (incorrectly identified as a Springer Spaniel), Barney, tug at a reader’s heart.
In contrast, detail of Cheney’s emotional life is limited to descriptive interactions with family. Baker infers Cheney’s reactions to the twin tower terror, heart attacks, and the invasion of Iraq, are fatalistically analyzed incidents in life rather than emotionally charged events.
Baker links Bush and Cheney’s early life experiences. He exposes different consequences of their linked experience. Both men are shown to be smart but Bush’s rebelliousness seems parentally sheltered while Cheney’s seems singular and unprotected. Bush graduates from Yale and Harvard while Cheney drops out of Yale. Cheney goes to work as a power lineman. He returns to Yale, flunks, and eventually graduates from University of Wyoming with BA and MA political science degrees.
Bush’s silver spooned life is contrasted with Cheney’s stainless steel life. Bush’s parental-rebellion is contrasted with Cheney’s “don’t give a damn”’ wilding. Because Bush and Cheney both attended Yale, they had some common experience but Bush graduated; Cheney did not. This detail reinforces the argument that Bush may have respected Cheney but felt more qualified to be the decider; not only by virtue of position but by virtue of accomplishment. Baker identifies or infers Bush’s independence of Cheney’s influence; particularly in the second term.
Cheney offers his resignation before the second election campaign. The decision to invade Iraq is perceived to be hugely influenced by Vice President Cheney and Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense. The mistaken intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is a potential re-election killer. Bush considers Cheney’s resignation but chooses not to accept.
Baker reports that some Cheney’ colleagues felt resignation was a Machiavellian’ gesture to keep his position; others suggest it was a fall-on-his-sword move to protect the leader; a needed act to get Bush re-elected.
Internal conflicts in “W’s” administration show politics at its best and worst. When Bush pushes for a revision in the Medicare prescription plan for senior citizens, he is stonewalled by his own party on a vote for approval. Baker suggests passage was dead in the water. Bush meets with an Arizona Republican congressman (Trent Franks) to tacitly agree to fight any attempt to appoint a Supreme Court Justice who supports women’s rights to abortion. The Medicare prescription plan barely passes, after the meeting.
Bush’s judgment is called into question when he tries to get Harriet Miers appointed to the Supreme Court. Bush believes Miers is qualified without fully vetting her background and education. Ms. Miers, though a lawyer, is shown to be ignorant of basic legal interpretations of practiced law.
Rumsfeld mentored Cheney but was dismissed by President Bush in his second term; in part, because of Abu Ghraib but largely because of pentagon and secret service chafing under Rumsfeld management style.
Baker explores hard feelings between Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Condoleeszza Rice. Rice succeeds Colin Powell as Secretary of State in the second administration. Bush felt Powell was not a team player and that he used the media to get around disagreements with Rumsfeld’s military defense decisions. Rice steers the State Department back to diplomacy from being an adjunct of defense. Baker suggests that Rice replaces Cheney as Bush’s go-to person for opinion about Administration policy.
Baker reflects on the “torture” memoranda approval by John Yoo, Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General, during “W’s” first administration. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” were approved for the CIA by Bush with Yoo’s tortured legal reasoning. Dick Cheney insists torture saved lives after 9/11.
Senator McCain, an exemplar of the inhumanity of torture, derides the Bush Administration’s endorsement of torture. McCain forms a Republican and Democratic majority that legislates a challenge to the policy. Cheney thwarts approved legislation by bending its interpretation but Supreme Court ruling and public outcry mitigate further use of torture.
Bush’s second term also replaces John Ashcroft with Alberto Gonzales as U. S. Attorney General. Baker infers the change is due to Ashcroft’s refusal to reverse a Justice Department ruling on a part of the Patriot Act regarding privacy. On the other hand, it could have been Ashcroft’s health. With Ashcroft’s refusal to sign Bush’s reaffirmation of the law, Bush chooses to overrule Ashcroft and the Justice Department by Executive Order.
Perhaps one of the most negative judgments of Bush’s tenure comes with the federal response to the Gulf Coast Katrina disaster. Baker suggests a frazzled Democratic State governor in Louisiana and an incompetent, and later accused and convicted (for taking money from favored contractors) Mayor in New Orleans, magnified Bush’s errors in judgement. Over 1,800 deaths from Katrina weigh heavily on the Federal Government’s failure to protect its citizens.
The last chapters of Baker’s book deal with the financial crises and the pragmatic actions taken by Bush to avoid America’s financial collapse. Bush acted on the financial crises with the same fierce and unflinching tenacity shown when a Troop surge in Iraq was roundly rejected by public polls, most Democrats, and Republican colleagues. Neither ideology, politics, nor popular polls deter Bush’s single-minded pragmatism. Bush decides a government bail-out is needed to save America’s economy. He backs his Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, despite Republican objection. TARP is born.
Baker offers a number of examples of how and why Americans have become so closely divided over Bush’s war on terror. President Bush seems to naively believe democracy is a guarantee of freedom, while his acts infer privacy is a privilege, not a right. Many believe use of torture by America after 9/11 controverts the Geneva Convention. Cheney denies that torture is used despite exposed incidents of water boarding, sleep deprivation, and incidents of extraordinary rendition by Bush administration’ personnel.
Bush’ decisions on war, foreign, and domestic policy will be second-guessed for generations. Though it is too soon to write an unbiased history of “W’s” time in office, Baker reports some interesting details about the George W. Bush’ years. Both Bush and Cheney survive the days of fire but Cheney appears more scorched than Bush at the end of Baker’s tale.