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Days of Fire

Bush and Cheney in the White House

By Peter Baker

Doubleday

816 pages, $35

By Lee Coppola

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Histories of presidencies usually pay some sort of homage to the second in command, but generally only to explain how minimal his role was. Not so in “Days of Fire,” perhaps the first presidential history that gives equal billing to the vice president.

And rightly so, for Richard Bruce “Dick” Cheney was often regarded as the puppeteer pulling the strings of President George Walker Bush. Peter Baker, White House correspondent for the New York Times, doesn’t go quite that far in explaining the Bush/Cheney team, but he does give an enlightening and detailed account of their relationship.

Both men have since written memoirs of their years in the White House, and Baker relies on them occasionally to illustrate a point. For instance, to emphasize Cheney’s constant attention to detail, he notes, as Cheney did, that the vice president had a letter of resignation prepared in case his always-present health concerns rendered him incapacitated. But Baker points out it was because Cheney had White House succession researched and learned there was none for a vice president unable to fulfill his duties.

Baker, in his own attention to detail, then notes the letter, never needed, remained in the possession of Cheney’s assistant, David Addington, and was one of only two documents salvaged when Addington’s home was destroyed in a fire.

That was one of many tidbits Baker found in the five years he spent researching “Days.” He interviewed more than 200 people familiar with the Bush-Cheney years and drew from books and articles written then and since.

Contrary to what pundits surmised as Bush dipped his toes into presidential waters, Cheney was not the lifeguard telling him where to go nor was Bush the inexperienced swimmer unaware of the potential dangers of a misstep. The two, according to Baker, had a well-oiled professional relationship during the president’s first term.

They were not friends, and they did not socialize except for official necessities. But, as Bush’s second term wore on and he sought what Baker called “validation” for his presidency, the president relied less and less on his vice president’s counsel. And even their professional relationship soured when the president, in the waning hours of his second term, refused Cheney’s repeated requests to pardon his assistant, Scooter Libby, who had been convicted of lying about disclosing the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Still, Baker writes, “Cheney was unquestionably the most influential vice president in American history. He assembled a power base through a mastery of how Washington worked and a trust with Bush, who viewed him as a consigliere guiding him through a hostile and bewildering capital.”

Baker traces their paths through the early years of their political lives, Bush’s in Texas, where it led him to lead the state, and Cheney’s in Washington, where he was taken under the wing of Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, in fact, was on the list of vice presidential candidates, but Bush scratched him.

Instead, he chose Cheney, who had been in charge of finding him a vice president.

“He had gotten to know Cheney and appreciated his quiet command,” Baker writes, and “he found it amusing when Cheney told him a personality test had determined his ideal job would be a funeral director.”

But funeral directors don’t take Washington by storm. Cheney was to be the deciding vote in an evenly split Senate, and he wasted no time in telling GOP Senate leaders at lunch that there was a new sheriff in town. Another tidbit: he ordered fried chicken against his heart doctor’s advice, and dropped a piece that stained the white carpet in Arlen Specter’s office.

The new-sheriff-in-town mantra played consistently through Bush’s first term. Cheney’s take-no-prisoners influence was evident as Bush confronted the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. The Iraq invasion, a Cheney-Rumsfeld-influenced decision that turned into a quagmire and presidential headache, loomed large in the second term when intelligence indicated Syria was capable of building nuclear arms.

Cheney wanted to take unilateral military action to support the Bush-Cheney resolve after 9/11 to fight terrorism at all costs. “Does anybody agree with the vice president?” Bush asked during a meeting with advisers. Nobody did, and Bush, now leery of the veracity of intelligence information, chose to forgo an invasion in favor of a methodical review of the Syrian situation.

That decision, perhaps, best illustrates Baker’s assessment of the Bush-Cheney years. The two did much good for the nation, Baker writes, lifting spirits after the sneak attack on the nation, bettering education and the economy at home and supporting democratic efforts in foreign lands. “They confronted crisis after crisis, not just a single ‘day of fire” on that bright morning of September 11,” writes Baker.

But, Baker adds, “their misjudgments and misadventures left them … the most unpopular president and vice president in generations,” an attitude fueled by an endless and seemingly unneeded war, a failure to adequately support recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and a fiscal morass left for a successor to confront.

“Days of Fire” provides a rarely seen account of the inner workings of a rare two-man team that guided a nation, for good or bad, through two presidential terms of office.

Lee Coppola is a former print and TV reporter, a former prosecutor and the retired dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School.