On Political Books

November/ December 2013 Dark Sidekick

How Dick Cheney controlled, and lost control of, George W. Bush.

By Eleanor Clift

The episode had a lasting impact, transforming the way Cheney was regarded in the White House from all-knowing guru to something of a joke. The elevation of Rice to secretary of state, and then, after the 2006 midterms, the replacement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—about which Cheney was informed, not consulted, despite his close friendship with Rumsfeld—signaled the emergence of a more confident Bush, less reliant on Cheney’s singularly dark view of the world. Bush’s second-term “freedom agenda,” with the goal of “ending tyranny in our world,” was just as unrealistic, though less bloody than the regime change of his first term.

The New York Times is the paper of record, and Baker writes in that tradition. Most of the book is drawn from his reporting, and the rest he documents in detailed footnotes. The access he gets to White House officials rivals that granted to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward for his books, but unlike Woodward, Baker doesn’t rely on anonymous sourcing. Just about everything is attributed, a feat in itself when reporting on the White House.

Now that Baker is covering the Obama White House, the giblets in Days of Fire about Russian President Vladimir Putin are especially illuminating. Remember, Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. They bonded over their shared Christianity, but then in a trade dispute, Russia cut off imports of American chicken drumsticks; Putin accused the U.S. of having separate and unequal plants for the “Bush legs” sent to Russia. Bush was astounded by his Cold War paranoia, telling a visitor to Camp David that negotiating with Putin was “like arguing with an eighth grader with his facts wrong.” When the Russian president began closing down media outlets, Bush would confide that he didn’t think Putin was a democrat anymore: “He’s a tsar. I think we’ve lost him.”

Days of Fire is less about bold-faced headlines and more about a nuanced portrait of the series of events and personal interactions that go into the scoreboard of a consequential presidency. Baker gives it his all in this book, with color detail worthy of a play-by-play account. A sampling: Bush once showed up in a purple Gremlin at the Richard Nixon White House for a date with the first daughter, Tricia. He was more confident than his advisers that he would win reelection, “because John Kerry is an asshole.” And for aides who accompanied Bush to his Texas ranch, there was a hierarchy for clearing brush, according to Bush’s trip director:

When you start, your job is basically, after someone cuts down a tree, to drag it out of there and put it wherever it is going to go. Then, if you really did good at that, the next level up was you could be in charge of making a pile of all the things that had been dragged over so that it burned well when you lit it on fire. If you were really good at that, you might be able to, one day, get to use a chain saw.

If there’s an analogy there, Baker wisely leaves it up to the reader to find it.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House

Eleanor Clift is a contributor to the Daily Beast Web site and a panelist on the McLaughlin Group.

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