IT IS A TESTAMENT to the degree to which presentation overshadows practice in modern political life that 49 percent of Americans approve of George W. Bush. Here is a President not only on the wrong side of history in almost every particular, but one whose misjudgments continue to constrain the country in measurable ways into the present. He is the author of two wars, one entered into based on faulty information, that have cost thousands of American, Iraqi and Afghani lives and further destabilized the Middle East, delivering it to the machinations of Islamic militants and increasing threats to our national security. To fund these wars, he employed deficit spending that could have been used to grow human and material capital through investments in infrastructure, education, clean energy and scientific research, among other areas. In the process of ballooning the deficit, he put further pressure on entitlement programs that were already moving toward unsustainability, helping precipitate a political crisis 20 years earlier than necessary. His concrete domestic innovation is a sprawling and convoluted defense bureaucracy lacking adequate oversight. His signature domestic initiative, a stillborn plan to privatize social security and create an “ownership society,” appears, five years into an economic downturn precipitated by unwise investments, astonishingly ill-conceived. His two most successful decisions, the 2007 “surge” and the 2008 bailout, were reversals of errors that he either caused or compounded. This would not, in sum, seem to be a politician who merits much affection from the electorate based on his policies. Yet here he is enjoying a 49 percent approval rating, the result of a successful rebranding in which his professed purity of motives have come to count for more than the quality of his actual performance.
This rebranding had several sources. The first was historical logic: the dissatisfaction that Bush helped precipitate among Republicans ended up empowering figures so radical that he appeared prudent by comparison. The second was Bush’s own canny performance once he was out of office: unlike, say, Dick Cheney, he stayed on the political sidelines and devoted himself to benign initiatives helping African AIDs victims and US veterans. The third, and most instrumental, was a Washington press corps habitually focused on stark narrative contrasts, which helped publicize the benign storyline that the former president was quietly crafting (Bush vs. the Tea Partiers, Bush vs. Cheney). The opening of the Bush Presidential Library in April functioned as the opportunity for this process to go public, and, specifically, for longtime Bush supporters to press their case for redemption in a newly receptive environment. Against the backdrop of partisan logjam in Washington, the event was portrayed in the rosy hues of reunion: in Peggy Noonan’s unabashed rendering, “What was nice was that all of them — the Bush family, the Carters and Clintons — seemed like the old days. ‘The way we were.’” The exhibition itself included prominent places for Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley and Andrew Card, those figures marginally less tarnished by the Administration’s blunders, and none at all for the reviled troika of Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove. Political commentary tended to revolve around the President’s charitable initiatives or, more insistently, his “character.”
Writing in The Washington Post, with the rather elaborate caveat that “[Bush’s] two terms defy summary, just as a snapshot can’t capture Niagara Falls during a lightning storm,” Michael Gerson proceeded to offer up a summary of the president himself as a man of “principle” and “undivided sentiments.” Under the headline “Bush’s Legacy is More than Iraq,” Kathleen Parker generously conceded that “what a president says and does is fair game for criticism” but put forward for “the public record” a recounting of a private act of kindness Bush had once done her, a hug followed by a personal note. Stephen F. Knott attacked the issue of Bush’s standing among historians, which he portrayed as a product of personal animosity, noting that “[Bush] may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and […] the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.” Richard Cohen devoted a column to praising, in strikingly unembarrassed terms, Bush’s lack of introspection: “Among the many things [Bush] lacks is self-doubt. It is a gift.” The common tactic, in other words, was not so much to defend or engage but to redirect focus, largely toward the personal. The man of the hour put in an arresting performance that dovetailed smoothly with these commentaries: “It was the honor of a lifetime to lead a country as brave and as noble as the United States,” Bush said in closing, eyes welling, “Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation’s best days lie ahead.” In her Wall Street Journal column the next day, Peggy Noonan reliably hit the ball he’d teed up for her:
At the end Mr. Bush wept, and not only because the Bush men are weepers but because he means every word of what he says, and because he loves his country, and was moved. John Boehner weeps too when he speaks about what America means to him. You know why they do that? Because their hearts are engaged. And really, that's not the worst thing.
Peter Baker’s book Days of Fire is the first book-length treatment of the Bush Presidency since the Beltway Press began reminding us that, for all his faults, the former President is “not the worst thing,” and it takes its bearings from this recently minted wisdom of the Establishment. It is an exercise in a certain type of reportage: the type practiced by journalists close to the political action in Washington, DC, whose beat is the personalities and interactions that comprise the day-by-day of the governing of this country. Their position is a perilous one, where proximity and drama create a culture in which the Administration’s carrot of guaranteed access and the market’s stick of compelling narrative tend to edge out incentives for objectivity. It is this culture which the Bush Administration played expertly in its first term, especially during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the 2004 election, feeding the press stories emotionally pitched to sell copy while ruthlessly marginalizing reporters who deviated from the script. Baker’s treatment of the Bush Presidency is a latter-day study in the analytical perils of this kind of insiderism. Through relying on his legions of Administration sources and on a sharply reductive narrative schema, Baker manages to misconstrue both the Bush White House’s mode of operation and the figure at the center of the Administration.
The most immediately disconcerting aspect about this book is that it is mapping territory that has already been comprehensively explored. The mechanics of the Bush Administration’s disastrous tenure have been revealed by journalists and academics like Barton Gellman and Mark Danner: the former in a widely read 2007 Washington Post series on Dick Cheney’s influence that he later turned into a book, Angler; the latter through a series of articles in The New York Review of Books, most notably “Iraq: The War of the Imagination,” in 2006. Less analytically acute but equally damning in its cumulative and exacting portrait was Bob Woodward’s 2006 State of Denial and his 2008 The War Within. Seymour Hersh reported for the New Yorker on the Abu Ghraib scandals and the deficiencies in the chain of command that made them possible. In Against All Enemies, former Chief Counterterrorism Advisor Richard Clarke detailed the Administration’s unwillingness to heed agency warnings about either an upcoming attack in 2001 or the perils of the Iraq invasion in 2003. Ron Suskind and Robert Draper have contributed valuable studies of Bush’s character and its effect on the structure of governance. One commonality between these accounts is their reliance on exhaustive research about the Administration’s decision-making structure and the communications between key actors on different levels of bureaucracy. The other similarity is the portrait that emerges from them.
According to this portrait, the woes that the Bush Administration brought on itself and the country were the product of an inexperienced young president restless for transformational status and short on administrative savvy: someone whose yearnings and limitations created a vacuum close to the center of power in which radical fantasies could take root after 9/11. One of these fantasies was Dick Cheney’s: the need to protect the country at all costs, above any other value, famously expressed as “the one percent doctrine,” and the necessity of reposing unlimited power in the executive in order to do so. The closely aligned fantasy was Donald Rumsfeld’s, who wanted to make a military still lumbering in Cold War mindset fast on its feet, effective at the quick strikes he saw as the modus operandi of a unipolar world. What united Cheney and Rumsfeld was an idea of American power derived most obviously from Imperial Rome: the ability to punish those who would thwart America’s goals into submission through the brute application of military force. The third fantasy originated with several sources and made itself felt most forcefully through George W. Bush, particularly as the Iraq invasion begun in “shock and awe” bogged down into a bloody stalemate. This was the notion of a crusade for freedom, promoted by Bush’s evangelical base, by highly placed neoconservatives like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and by dissidents from abroad who served as personal inspirations to the President.
The shared assumption behind all of these fantasies was that the established bureaucracy of government — the one which has historically served as a conduit for the decisions of the executive branch, not only carrying out the President’s will but informing him of what is possible and what is not — had to be circumvented. The mentality behind this assumption was memorably expressed to Ron Suskind in 2004 by an anonymous official, later revealed to be Karl Rove:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' […] “That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.”
Crucial in insulating the President from the influence of those suspected of a commitment to the “judicious study of discernable reality” was Cheney, a longtime expert in the workings of the bureaucracy from his days as Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford, when he and Rumsfeld had been nicknamed “the little Praetorians” for their willingness to manipulate the system to marginalize rivals. Since Watergate, Cheney had been engaged on a highly personal crusade to restore to the presidency the power he felt Congress had usurped from it, and with Bush’s blessing he spent most of the first five years of his vice presidency doing exactly that. Rumsfeld, too, was a participant, instructed by Bush two weeks after September 11 to “develop a plan to invade Ir[aq]. Do it outside the normal channels. Do it creatively so we don’t have to take so much cover.” A week later, according to Mark Danner, Rumsfeld came back with a plan, one to which the Administration committed itself despite the persistent murmurings of caution from the “reality-based community”:
A key war aim would be to persuade or compel States to stop supporting terrorism. The regimes of such States should see that it will be fatal to host terrorists who attack the US…. If the war does not significantly change the world’s political map, the US will not achieve its aim…The [US government] should envision a goal along these lines:
*New regimes in Afghanistan and another key State (or two) that supports terrorism…
According to these accounts, this was how the biggest of Bush’s many train wrecks happened. The process, of certainty bolstered by insularity, explains similar missteps: Afghanistan, illegal wiretapping, indefinite detention, Abu Ghraib, the politicization of the justice department. The majority of Bush’s second term was an attempt to correct for these missteps, and to cope with the fallout of an economic policy consisting of tax cuts and deregulation, one meant to satisfy the President’s business supporters and give him the space to pursue his transformational goals. In other words, George W. Bush’s trajectory was in three stages: pre-9/11 aimlessness turned to post 9/11 radicalism turned to a desperate attempt to salvage the wreckage he’d created. For this last stage he extended his hand to the reality-based community whose main representative in the Administration, at least to the extent it did not damage her standing with the President, was Condi Rice.
We knew all this by late 2007, when the White House had entered into negotiations with North Korea, formerly dismissed as a rogue state, and refused to bomb the Syrian reactors, despite urgings from Israel. Anyone with access to Time Magazine could have read a cover story that year about the Vice President’s diminishing influence and Rice’s new role as presidential right hand. Anyone with access to The New York Times could have read former Ambassador to the United Nations and Cheney ally John Bolton lambast the Administration’s new diplomatic outlook. The trajectory of the Bush White House, in other words, was clear. So too was the character of the man at its center. We knew from these investigations that the President was rigidly idealistic, aloof from policy formulation and management, energized by the abstract and deflated by the concrete, reluctant to question the decisions of subordinates, and loathe to change strategy during periods of both unprecedented popularity and alienation from the electorate. In this context, a new treatment of the Bush White House advertising itself as definitive needed to be justified rather distinctly.
Yet the question Days of Fire sets out to answer is one that could be nothing less than clear based on the preceding portrait: who was in charge of the Bush Presidency, Cheney or Bush? Baker’s answer, as revealed by Gwen Ifill in a blurb for the back of the book, is that “George W. Bush was no puppet, and Dick Cheney no puppet master.” In the context of what actually happened, this seems at best a sharply reductive narrative framework. At worst it looks like a straw man: a way to redirect attention, to channel readers’ focus through a lens so blunted by false comparatives that Bush can only end up looking relatively more competent underneath it. In Baker’s words, as if this is the main point that needs to be established in what is billed as a “monumental and definitive” exploration of the Bush presidency, “Bush, in the end, was the Decider. His successes and his failures through all the days of fire were his own.” Since no one who has seriously examined the Bush White House, and no one whose view of human relationships does not derive from high school, would argue otherwise, there is no explanatory purpose to a book which makes this its central premise.
Nonetheless Baker and those promoting him believe that he is bringing something else to the table. As Ifill helpfully clarifies: "This excellent book tells us what really happened, from the mouths of the players themselves, and explains why, more than a decade after 9/11, we are still a nation at war." In other words, the selling point is Baker’s insider access. But here we come to another problem, because “the players themselves” have a particular story to tell, one that dovetails nicely with Baker’s Bush-Cheney thesis and that he largely accepts on its face. In this version of history, we get an inexperienced but well-meaning President, steered in his first term by his hard-liner Vice President, who eventually steps fully into his position. This process is related on Bush’s terms, not as a repudiation but as a natural extension of his earlier decisions: where the President was unwilling to take chances with the nation’s security in the aftermath of 9/11, by the second term he felt able to institutionalize his programs, setting them up for the next President’s oversight. The story, then, is of the personal and political maturation of a President, a recognizable Washington, DC bildungsroman that could just as easily be applied to Barack Obama or Bill Clinton as George W. Bush. Each occurrence that Baker describes is interpreted through this narrative, a process that tends to divert attention from the larger significance of the events being related.
One notable diversion comes when Baker recounts the President’s 2006 decision to acknowledge the existence of “black site” prisons. He is “pumped up” about his speech, according to an aide, because “all of this information was stuff he had known […] and he couldn’t tell anybody about it […] and now he was able to sort of share it and tell the people, ‘Here is what we have been doing, here is what we have been doing to protect you.’” This is touching: the President as show-and-tell participant, bursting to explain how programs in violation of the Geneva Conventions which had cost the US significant credibility abroad had nonetheless been in its citizens’ best interest. This may or may not have been how Bush framed the issue in his own mind, but at this point Bush’s framings are hardly relevant, next to the evidence documenting the fact that these were measures instituted by his insulated team of principles, in the face of considerable resistance from career government officials, in late 2001 and 2002. In other words, this reporting does tell us how Bush felt, as related by someone “on hand” for the “critical moment,” but it has nothing to do with the primary point of concern.
The failed nomination of Bernard Kerik, the New York City Police Commissioner, as Director of the Department of Homeland Security in the post-election days of 2004 is another instance of Baker missing telltale signs in deference to his chosen narrative:
Bush wanted a hard charger who could tame the bureaucratic monster still trying to absorb twenty-two agencies […] He had met Kerik in the rubble of the World Trade Center and was instantly impressed. Kerik was the sort of tough, colorful character who appealed to Bush. A high school dropout and son of a prostitute apparently killed by her pimp, Kerik became an undercover narcotics detective wearing a ponytail and diamond earrings
Not unpredictably, problems surfaced:
Bush had kept his decision to put Kerik in the cabinet secret, instructing Alberto Gonzalez to vet him personally. It did not take much to uncover a trove of disturbing details about Kerik — various ethical scrapes, a civil lawsuit, a bankruptcy, a get-rich-quick board appointment to a stun gun firm seeking business with homeland security agencies […] Most damning of all, the best man at his wedding worked for a New Jersey construction company with alleged Mafia ties that was seeking a big New York City contract and had provided Kerik with gifts, including $165,000 in apartment renovations […] But in the end, Bush liked Kerik and brushed aside concerns.
This was, as Baker puts it, “a revealing miscalculation.” A sitting President deciding to nominate for his Director of Homeland Security a man with ties to the mafia, based on personal appeal and a hard-luck story of a prostitute killed by her pimp, does not quite fall under the rubric of executive discretion as Americans tend to understand the term. It is in fact a perfect model of the Bush White House, with its unquenchable attraction to outsize personalities, its disdain for more traditional markers of professionalism, its fitful determination to upend the establishment and its corresponding insistence on wilfully insular decision making. But this is not how Baker reads the incident. Bush’s flaw in his analysis was the familiar Washington Achilles heel of hubris, a misreading of the political winds, a mistake of maturity: “It demonstrated that a president at the peak of his power and influence thought he could dismiss [his nominee’s] issues and Washington could just go along.” So: just an understandable error by a man whose biggest flaw, in Baker’s telling, is a certain managerial reticence, a focus on the big picture at the expense of salient details. Where Clinton, say, thought too small, Bush thought too big. Another president, another nomination, another day in the life of the capital.
This analysis, of the President as a hands-off manager nonetheless devoted to America’s safety, is the main explanation Baker offers for the disastrous misadministration of Iraq between 2003 and 2006 and the near-resignation of two dozen Justice Department officials in 2003 over a disagreement about warrantless wiretapping. Were it not for Iraq as well as the “unnecessary controversies” caused by the Administration’s insistence on conducting national security policy without reference to other branches of government, Baker editorializes, Bush’s record might have been a “solid” one. Leaving aside the accuracy of this hypothetical, what is missing here, and everywhere else, is context: the attempt to set these decisions within a densely populated world of presidential precedents, ideological influences and institutional politics that might reveal their actual causes.
The decisions Baker is talking about were not normal political errors, the understandable overreach of a hyper vigilant administration. They were willed and often thoughtless extensions of executive prerogative powered by ideological zealotry, rigid utopianism and a temperamental resistance to entertaining opposing points of view. But these are not facts that fit into the bildungsroman, nor would they likely be offered by the people whom Baker is interviewing. Instead we get the insider’s story, the establishment’s perspective: the heady view from those “on hand” for “critical moments,” in which almost nominating for a cabinet-level post a man now serving time in federal prison can best be characterized as a political miscalculation.
What is this book interested in? Judging by the Index’s references to George W. Bush, it is interested in Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch: references appear on 34 pages in the book, as opposed to “domestic policies of” Bush, which merit 25. It is interested in “Baseball as interest of” and “bicycle riding as sport of” Bush: the topics appear on 16 pages, while “free market ideology of,” and “stem cell research policy of” get 10. “Reputation of” gets 41 whereas “warrantless security surveillance approved by” gets 22. Bush’s relationships with Powell, Putin, Rice and Rumsfeld receive 145, even as “preemptive war doctrine of,” “military commissions established by” “immigration policy of” and “prescription drugs program of” get 48. “Loyalty to” and “media coverage of” get 80, while “tax cuts and reform policies of” and “unilateralism of” receive 47. President Bush “as Republican leader” gets 69 and “speeches of” receives 70; “Homeland security policy” gets 9 and “social security reforms proposed by” get 25.
So politics and personalities reliably trump policy and analysis. But even politics do not supply the most memorable parts of Baker’s book. Much of the genuinely new information comes in the form of “human moments” recollected by the power players. One of these is Vladimir Putin’s first visit to George W. Bush’s ranch:
Bush was annoyed that a gusty downpour was marring the visit as he drove the Russian leader around the ranch in his pickup truck […] Bush grew more irritated later when Putin arrived an hour early for dinner. Realizing the mistake, Putin retreated back to the guesthouse until the appointed hour, but Bush barked at Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes. “Somebody forgot to tell Vladimir about the time change,” he snapped. Rice knew that was aimed at her but could not help laughing at a former KGB officer flummoxed over something as simple as a time zone.
But, despite these foreboding signs, the evening ends well:
When another house passed, the two leaders, their wives and their advisers made the most of the intemperate weather, casting aside suits and ties for blue jeans and sweaters and a relaxed dinner of fried catfish and cornbread, followed by mesquite-grilled beef tenderloin and then birthday cake for Rice. The birthday girl entertained by playing piano, and some of the guests danced. Putin’s wife, Lyudmila, wore a sequined vest in red, white and blue.
The payoff to all of this, we are given to understand in an eight-line paragraph, is that “the visit smoothed the way for Bush to formally pull out of the ABM treaty a few weeks later.”
Accorded even more space is Bush’s secret visit to Iraq the next year over Thanksgiving: three and a half pages trace the presidential progress from Crawford to Baghdad.
Bush, wearing jeans, boots, and a work coat, climbed into an unmarked red van with tinted windows along with Rice. Both of them had baseball caps pulled low. “We looked like a normal couple,” she said afterwards. “We were a casual yuppie couple” […] They pulled out onto Interstate 35 toward TSTC Waco Airport, and for once the highway was not shut down for the presidential motorcade. Bush seemed taken aback by the slow pace. “What is this?” he asked. “A traffic jam,” Rice responded, tweaking him.
This tableau shifts to a description of the presidential flight to Baghdad, and a satisfying ending, as Bush “entered to raucous cheers from the shocked soldiers.”
Another tension-inducing preparation came in late 2007, when Bush announced a tentative agreement to craft a Peace Treaty between Palestinians and Israelis, and the type is too small for him to read, so “the next few minutes were a scramble as [then National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley] ran around trying to find a way to reprint the document in larger type. Finally, Bush shrugged it off. “Forget it,” he said, “They’re waiting for us. I’ll just use my reading glasses.”
The central relationship in the book is also subjected to this kind of treatment. A significant moment for Baker comes at the annual Gridiron Dinner in 2006, a month after Cheney accidentally shot a hunting partner on a ranch in Texas.
If Cheney’s mishap had made him the butt of jokes behind his back in the White House, Bush now chose to poke fun to his face. The president at these dinners was expected to give a humorous talk, so Bush opened with a reference to the shooting incident, alluding to the last time a Vice President shot someone, namely Aaron Burr’s duel with Alexander Hamilton […] Cheney took it with good humor, laughing when he was supposed to.
The takeaway? “The laughter was a brief interlude in a cascade of bad news.”
A year later, the Vice President’s standing had sunk lower: “From time to time Cheney would drift off in the Oval Office. ‘He fell asleep quite often,’ said one official, who thought Cheney’s ‘energy level by the end was not so high as it had been at the beginning.’” This would seem to be a fairly safe diagnosis of a man who has endured four heart attacks and is on his way toward a transplant. But the real payoff for Baker is what Cheney’s exhaustion says about his relationship to Bush:
One day, after a meeting where Cheney dozed off, Bush and Dan Bartlett chuckled about it […]. “Did you see?” Bartlett asked Bush with a big grin. “Yes,” Bush said merrily, “I couldn’t look at him.” The two were laughing boisterously by this point. “I saw his head go down and he dropped his papers and I didn’t want to say anything,” Bush said […] It was a sign of the changing relationship that Bush was willing to laugh at Cheney behind his back.
So we have the humorous anecdotes, retold to the diligent reporter by the former officials, now jocular and reflective about their “days of fire.” The ex-KGB guy unable to navigate time zones; the President and the National Security Adviser as the out-of-towners; the next National Security Adviser scrambling around for a printer because the President can’t see; the President gently roasting his Vice President; the Vice President falling asleep and dropping his papers during a meeting and the President chuckling “merrily.” In the end, though, everything ends satisfactorily, and consistently with Baker’s narrative of the maturing President. The former KGB operative and the rancher President bond over a meal in their sweaters and jeans; the President finds his way off the freeway and to the adoring crowd of soldiers waiting for him; the President, unconcerned with vanity, uses his reading glasses; the Vice President takes his ribbing at the Gridiron dinner manfully, even as, exhausted from the duties of government, he gradually slips into senescence, ceding ground to the now-experienced President.
Reviewers have tended to characterize Baker’s focus on incidents like these, for which analytical payoffs are nonexistent, as the product of overzealousness, of not knowing how much information is too much; the understandable overreach of the earnest reporter seeking to understand his subjects. In fact these sentimental digressions are at the heart of Baker’s approach, which relies on anecdotes over analysis and characters over context. For readers interested in the day-by-day minutiae of George W. Bush’s presidency, or his appointees’ post-game rationalizations of his policies, or how it felt to attempt to run the country, this will be a useful book. For readers looking to understand how our politics work, its primary interest is sociological: this is how, in the early 21st century media landscape, a disgraced public figure works his way back toward redemption.
Matthew Wolfson is a writer living in New York. He holds a BA from Pomona College and an MPhil in political thought and intellectual history from the University of Cambridge.