Peter Baker's "Days of Fire" will not disabuse those who consider the terms of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney the worst two in American political history. Those who view Mr. Cheney as a figure of singular, hawkish focus will be affirmed. But they also may arrive at a more sympathetic attitude toward Mr. Bush, who, Mr. Baker documents, was more independent, caring and intelligent than his public image suggested.
The tumultuous Bush-Cheney years, book-ended by 9/11 and the economic collapse of 2008, when Mr. Bush rammed through the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the auto bailout, parade in vivid detail in Mr. Baker's painstakingly organized tome. It's all here: Mr. Cheney's shooting an acquaintance during a hunt, Mr. Bush's backslapping of clueless Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown following Hurricane Katrina, the uppity belligerence of former U.N. ambassador John Bolton.
Peter Baker's book is red meat for political junkies and good reading for people willing to look at the times of Bush and Cheney with eyes other than jaundiced. Despite successes -- Mr. Bush did more to relieve AIDS than any other president, upped fuel economy standards and energy incentives, and cleared out secret CIA prisons -- the aftereffects of his failures linger.
Mr. Baker is senior White House correspondent for The New York Times, and before that, reported on the White House for the Washington Post. He conducted 380 interviews with about 275 sources -- but not Mr. Bush. Such inside information puts the reader inside the room. The scene in which Mr. Bush, Sen. John McCain, President-elect Barack Obama and Bush administration officials hash out what to do about TARP, the plan Mr. Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson concocted to keep the economy afloat, is at once high drama, preposterous comedy and fundamentally a tragedy.
The deepening rift between Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney over pardoning I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff convicted for lying to federal investigators about whether he had leaked the name of a CIA officer married to a critic of the vice president, is the backbone of the book.
The Bush-Cheney bond became an uneasy marriage between a natural politician like Mr. Bush and a government mechanic like Mr. Cheney. While Mr. Baker shows they are men of principle, they didn't coordinate well, let alone delegate. They also didn't pick the best people to run their ideologically driven show, nominating the hapless Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court and appointing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a Texas buddy Mr. Bush finally threw under the bus when he became politically toxic.
Best at times of crisis, Mr. Bush, and particularly Mr. Cheney, attempted to extend the power of the executive branch -- remember waterboarding? -- in the name of national security. And, unfortunately, many of the crises they, in particular Mr. Bush, were good at surmounting were ones they manufactured themselves.
The surge in Iraq worked, but only after Mr. Bush pushed it through, rejecting the legacy of his tone-deaf Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In some senses, Mr. Bush's second term was all about repairing the first. Between 2000 and 2004, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney botched Katrina; they couldn't deliver on immigration reform, they couldn't privatize Social Security, and, goosed by neocons who knew just how to press Mr. Bush's cowboy buttons and Mr. Cheney's hawk buttons, they launched the war in Iraq, based on bad information that tainted both terms, tarnished the reputation of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and set the stage for a kind of polarization in the American body politic that's still being played out.
Mr. Baker's fair book is an admirable attempt to put a polarizing administration into perspective. But it's not designed to forgive and forget. If anything, it resurrects the consequential days of an administration that dealt with unprecedented problems and tensions in a uniquely headstrong, American way.
Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.