We are now in the midst of a wave of revisionism about George W. Bush and his administration.
For years, amid the rancor of the Iraq War, Bush was often portrayed as a simple idiot or, sometimes, as a demonic manipulator. More recently, amid the outpouring of coverage prompted by the opening last spring of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, we have been treated to even thinner caricatures of W.: Bush the humanist, a quietly contemplative painter who was misunderstood at the time and did little to inspire the passions that engulfed him.
This recent revisionism will prove no more enduring than the original perceptions. The long-term historical judgments on the Bush administration are only now beginning to be formed.
Peter Baker’s impressive new book, Days of Fire, one of the first efforts to set out the history of the Bush administration, is a distinguished work that should become a standard reference for historians. The book is notable for its scope and ambition. After tracing the upbringing and early careers of both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, Baker chronicles their time in office from start to finish, encompassing their foreign and domestic policies. (The book’s title is a play on a quote from Bush’s Second Inaugural: Referring to Sept. 11, Bush said, And then there came a day of fire.)
The book has few ground-breaking revelations or startling judgments. Its virtue lies in the mass of information Baker has collected and the way he has pulled it together, so that all the jumble of material on the Bush years is consolidated in one smooth narrative. He has read the memoirs, so that you don’t have to. From them, he unearths gems such as Bush’s quip about the icy reception he would get when addressing the United Nations General Assembly: It’s like speaking to the wax museum. Nobody moves. (This comes from former spokesman Ari Fleischer’s memoir.)
Baker also gathers a wealth of other revealing quotes and anecdotes, not previously published, from interviews and from private notes of White House meetings. Write this down, Bush told Republican governors in the fall of 2002. Afghanistan and Iraq will lead that part of the world toward democracy.
The heart of Days of Fire lies in the changing relationship between Bush and Cheney – how Bush in the early years of his administration relied heavily on his vastly more experienced vice president, but during his second term increasingly operated on his own, relegating Cheney to the margins. Baker slowly draws out each new development in the tangled relationship. In this, Baker sometimes succeeds, yet his approach has some flaws, too. The book is overwhelmingly event-driven and chronological. On occasion, it reads too much like a tick-tock, dwelling on time and detail to the point where it becomes eye-numbing.
The book dwells more on the personalities in the Bush administration than on the ideas and larger forces at work. Baker depicts the relationship between Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell as that of an old friendship turned sour; Powell had been Cheney’s once-trusted sidekick during the first Bush presidency, he writes. This is doubly off-kilter: Powell, both as a former national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan and as the most powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the nation had ever known, was anything but Cheney’s sidekick; his stature and influence in George H.W. Bush’s White House engendered considerable mistrust on the part of Cheney and top civilian aides such as Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. At the root of this mistrust was the fact that Cheney and Powell represented different ideas about America’s post-Cold War role in the world.
When the two men returned to office under George W. Bush, they brought with them these distinct world views. In addition, each man (particularly Cheney) installed a network of allies and supporters who reflected his own beliefs. Amid these larger conflicts, the personal relationship between Cheney and Powell was almost irrelevant; it was bound to be strained.
Baker’s careful reconstruction gives readers as good a sense as they will ever get of the day-to-day flow of the Bush administration. He describes the events as the Bush White House saw them – switching often, in short order, from one subject to another, with Baker drawing the connection that even as one thing was happening, another was.
The economic crisis began to worsen dramatically the day after (Adm. Fox) Fallon’s resignation, he writes in one typical passage, leaving time as the sole connector between unrelated events.
Days of Fire makes far too little effort to separate the wheat from the chaff. Events of historic consequence, such as the Bush tax cuts, are given comparable treatment with White House staff feuds and minor personnel changes that had little significance at the time and none at all by now. Why should we care about the conflicts between, say, Bush political strategist Matthew Dowd and Karl Rove, or between press secretary Dana Perino and one of her predecessors, Scott McClellan? Including such material distracts from the important story Baker has to tell about the administration’s leading actors and about events such as the Iraq War.
The final verdict on the Bush administration, of course, remains to be written. After nearly five years of the Obama administration, some of Bush’s counterterrorism policies (the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, for example) have proved more lasting than they seemed when he left office. It will take years, perhaps decades, to judge what Bush’s tax cuts did to America’s economic and social structure. Over time, we will be able to see just how badly the war in Iraq eroded American power and damaged its international standing.
Days of Fire doesn’t try to make these larger assessments. It is, however, as thorough and detailed an account of the Bush years – day by day, week by week – as we are ever likely to get.