Days of Fire

Bush and Cheney in the White House
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In Days of Fire, Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for The New York Times, takes us on a gripping and intimate journey through the eight years of the Bush and Cheney administration in a tour-de-force narrative of a dramatic and controversial presidency.

Theirs was the most captivating American political partnership since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger: a bold and untested president and his seasoned, relentless vice president. Confronted by one crisis after another, they struggled to protect the country, remake the world, and define their own relationship along the way. In Days of Fire, Peter Baker chronicles the history of the most consequential presidency in modern times through the prism of its two most compelling characters, capturing the elusive and shifting alliance of George Walker Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney as no historian has done before. He brings to life with in-the-room immediacy all the drama of an era marked by devastating terror attacks, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and financial collapse.
     The real story of Bush and Cheney is a far more fascinating tale than the familiar suspicion that Cheney was the power behind the throne. Drawing on hundreds of interviews with key players, and thousands of pages of never-released notes, memos, and other internal documents, Baker paints a riveting portrait of a partnership that evolved dramatically over time, from the early days when Bush leaned on Cheney, making him the most influential vice president in history, to their final hours, when the two had grown so far apart they were clashing in the West Wing. Together and separately, they were tested as no other president and vice president have been, first on a bright September morning, an unforgettable “day of fire” just months into the presidency, and on countless days of fire over the course of eight tumultuous years.
     Days of Fire is a monumental and definitive work that will rank with the best of presidential histories. As absorbing as a thriller, it is eye-opening and essential reading.


Praise for Days of Fire

“Filled with enlivening detail and judicious analysis, Days of Fire is the most reliable, comprehensive history of the Bush years yet.”—Jim Kelly, The New York Times

“Mr. Baker, a White House reporter for the New York Times, has pulled off something of a journalistic miracle: He has written a thorough, engaging and fair history on the Bush-Cheney White House, the most polarizing presidency since Johnson's (Andrew, not Lyndon), with the possible exception of the current one.”—Jonathan Karl, The Wall Street Journal

"The story of those eight years would seem far too vast to contain inside a single volume. Yet here that volume is. Peter Baker neither accuses nor excuses. He writes with a measure and balance that seem transported backward in time from some more dispassionate future."—David Frum, New York Times Book Review

“A fine new book about [Bush’s] time in office … The Bush-Cheney era weighs heavily on America. Its divisions and disappointments help to explain much about today’s politics, from public war-weariness to the anti-establishment contempt that seethes among the Republican grassroots and the Tea Party. Insiders have already penned enough don’t-blame-me memoirs and score-settling biographies to dam the Potomac. Mr. Baker concentrates on relations between the two men at the top of the executive branch. His shrewd, meticulous reporting offers a useful corrective to tales of a puppet-master deputy manipulating an inexperienced boss.”—The Economist

“Peter Baker, the intrepid New York Times reporter lately covering his third president of the United States, has achieved the unthinkable—a vivid page-turner on the ultimately divided not-co-presidency of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.”—W. Gardner Selby, Austin American-Statesman

“In producing the first comprehensive narrative history of what will surely remain one of the most controversial presidential administrations in U.S. history, Baker has done yeoman’s service. All subsequent writers dealing with the subject will find his book indispensible … Baker’s conclusion, which will almost certainly stand the test of time, is that Bush is his own man and was responsible for the decisions made in his name.”—Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs 
“Baker offers clear-eyed perspective on the fateful decisions of a decade ago … [A] kaleidoscopic, behind-the-scenes narrative.”—Michael O’Donnell, The Christian Science Monitor
“Magisterial … Baker has done a tremendous job of knitting together the disparate strains of a complex and multilayered narrative. For all its density, the book proceeds at a beach-read velocity that makes it a pleasure to peruse. Especially enjoyable is Baker’s commendable urge to puncture many of the easy myths that still surround the Bush years. Anyone who reads it will come away from this account with their understanding of the period greatly increased—which, after all, is just what a history like this is supposed to accomplish … [A] remarkable achievement.”—Christian Caryl, The National Interest

“A magisterial study of the way [Bush and Cheney] influenced each other, waxing and then waning, during the fateful eight-year presidency of George W. Bush.”—Jamie Stiehm, US News

“[Days of Fire] is steeped in facts, and the writing is clear and crisp. You will also be impressed by Baker’s research and reporting … All told, Days of Fire delves deeply into the Bush-Cheney partnership and offers breathtaking insights into power, passion and politics at the highest levels of our government.”—BookPage

"The complex partnership of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney undergirds this authoritative narrative of their tumultuous eight years in Washington. Baker, the senior White House correspondent for New York Times, skillfully navigates how Bush, a national security neophyte, came to rely heavily on the former Wyoming congressman and secretary of defense, a consummate Washington insider. Although Cheney became one of the most influential vice presidents in American history and grew to relish his Darth Vader reputation, Baker upends the popular perception that Bush did his bidding … Baker delivers a fast-paced read that deftly weaves the trials and tribulations of the Bush presidency into a monumental tale of hubris and missed opportunities for greatness."Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A thorough, objective and surprisingly positive examination of the Bush-Cheney years. Written as though it has the perspective of a century's distance on the events of the last decade, New York Times senior White House correspondent Baker dispatches false and puerile memes—Bush stole Florida, blood for oil, Bush lied and kids died, etc.—to the dustbin of history as he delivers "the most documented history of the Bush-Cheney White House to date." The author is no Bush cheerleader; he shines a pitiless light on the failures of judgment, erroneous intelligence and excessive reliance on subordinates that led to the debacle in Iraq, which undid Bush's second term. Baker concludes that Bush "was at his best when he was cleaning up his worst." The author shows how it all went wrong, however, without a hint of partisan rancor. This briskly written but exhaustively detailed account defies expectations by portraying an administration of intelligent, patriotic adults with necessarily limited information striving to do what they believed was best for the nation in a dangerous era, with real but overlooked achievements. The president, in particular, appears as a man of decency who retained his optimism and dedication to principle as his polls declined to record lows and political allies fled. In delineating the businesslike relationship between Bush and Cheney, Baker refutes the popular notion that Cheney was the dominant figure, though Bush relied heavily on his experience during his first term … A major contribution to the rehabilitation of our 43rd president."Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"An ambitious, engrossing, and often disturbing study of the inner workings, conflicts, and critical policy decisions made during the eight years of Bush and Cheney governance … This is a superbly researched, masterful account of eight critical, history-changing years."Booklist, starred review

"Peter Baker's superb biography of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will stand as the most complete and balanced discussion of the men and their administration for decades. Until the Bush library opens the wealth of papers that will expand our knowledge of their White House, we will be indebted to Baker for his brilliant reconstruction of this presidency. No one has drawn the complicated Bush-Cheney relationship more convincingly than Baker. Anyone eager to understand our current dilemmas does well to read this book."—Robert Dallek, author of Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power 

"Peter Baker tells the story of Bush and Cheney with the precision of a crack reporter and the eye and ear of a novelist. This is perhaps the most consequential pairing of a president and vice president in our history. And Baker captures it all—the triumphs and defeats, the partnership and eventual estrangement. It is a splendid mix of sweeping history and telling anecdotes that will keep you turning the page."—Chris Wallace, anchor of Fox News Sunday
"It turns out George W. Bush was no puppet, and Dick Cheney no puppet master. Days of Fire takes us inside a relationship that came to define American conflict, peace, and politics. Forget everything else you've read. 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."—Gwen Ifill, coanchor of PBS Newshour

"9/11, two long wars, a crushing recession, neo-cons, and turf wars defined the first decade of twenty-first-century American politics. In the middle of it all, the president and his powerful vice-president. The complicated and then contentious relationship between Bush and Cheney is worthy of Shakespeare. Peter Baker’s Days of Fire is a book for every presidential hopeful and every citizen."—Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation

"Without ever surrendering his critical detachment—this book is no valentine—Baker humanizes the leader whose post-Reagan agenda was hijacked by foreign terrorists and Wall Street crooks. You may or may not agree with George W. Bush's actions as president, but by the time you put Days of Fire down, you will understand them, and him, as never before."—Richard Norton Smith, author of Thomas E. Dewey and His Times


Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition

Part one


“One of you could be president”

George W. Bush had already dropped by to see three congressmen when he strode down the high-ceilinged corridor of the Cannon House Office Building to find the fourth on his list. It was June 17, 1987, and the son of the vice president was making the rounds to gather support for his father’s presidential campaign, or at least build goodwill with Republicans on Capitol Hill. His 3:30 p.m. appointment was with a low-key congressman from Wyoming named Dick Cheney.

This next-generation Bush was a tall, rangy man, handsome with an easy smile and a face that bore a striking resemblance to that of his famous father. Just a couple weeks shy of his forty-first birthday, he had moved his wife and twin daughters to Washington for the campaign, appointing himself “loyalty enforcer” to ensure a growing staff of political operatives was laboring on behalf of George H. W. Bush’s interests rather than their own.

Along the way, he was becoming a surrogate for his father and was surprised how much he enjoyed his new role. This family business had gotten into his blood. He had none of his father’s smoothness, though, and none of those polished New England sensibilities. Junior, as some called him, although he was not technically a junior, lived closer to the edge, the “Roman candle of the family,” as the campaign chronicler Richard Ben Cramer would call him, “the biggest and most jagged chip off the old block.”

By temperament, the man he was visiting was quite the opposite. Cheney, a former White House chief of staff now in his fifth term in Congress, was as quiet as Bush was voluble, as stoic as the younger man was expressive. He would say what he had to and then stop, perfectly comfortable with the silences that disquieted others. “He’s not necessarily what you would call the life of the party,” observed Dennis Hastert, who served with him in the House and went on to become Speaker. Cheney’s wife, Lynne, thought the way to understand him was to remember how much he loved fly-fishing, standing without a sound for hours casting for a bite—”not a sport for the impatient,” as she put it, and “definitely not a sport for chatterboxes.” He refused to go fishing with his friend Kenneth Adelman because “he talks too much.” At forty-six, Cheney had just been promoted to chairman of the House Republican Conference, the number-three position in the party leadership. He had his eye on someday becoming Speaker.

Neither man in the years to come would remember the first time they met, but it was likely this encounter in the summer before the Republican primaries. Never mind that Cheney had no intention of taking sides in the Republican contest featuring Bush’s father. To a congressman eyeing further moves up the leadership ladder, becoming a partisan for a presidential candidate would be “asking for grief I didn’t need,” as Cheney later put it. Indeed, his neutrality would cause a years-long rift with his good friend and mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, who had been contemplating his own run for president. But Cheney got along well with his guest that day. “He and Bush hit it off,” recalled Wayne Berman, the campaign’s congressional relations director who organized the meeting.

Berman would go on to become one of Washington’s premier lobbyists and Republican fund-raisers, as well as one of the few men close to both Bush and Cheney. He raised millions of dollars for them, promoted their campaigns, and hosted dinners for them at his house. His wife, Lea Berman, would work in the White House first for Cheney’s wife and then for Bush’s wife. But even Wayne Berman never imagined what would eventually come of the acquaintance that began in that courtesy call one summer afternoon. “Bush in those days was a really interesting guy,” he observed years later. “A little insecure, had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Very skeptical of everything in Washington, something I think he retained. Skeptical of a lot of people around his dad.” As for Cheney, he was more comfortable with Washington yet also kept his distance. The only ones he truly relaxed around were his wife and two daughters. “Cheney has three confidantes, and all their last names are Cheney,” Berman noted. “One is related by marriage and two by blood.” He could be unguarded with friends, “but if he told you something and it leaked and he suspected you leaked it, you didn’t get a second chance. Finished.”

Bush at that point had yet to win public office and was still evolving into the politician he would later become. When he visited the West Wing in those days, he would stop by offices of aides he knew, plop down on a couch, and put his cowboy boots on the coffee table. Ronald Reagan, who had met the Bush children, thought that if any of them had a bright political future, it would be George’s brother Jeb. Their brother Marvin once gave his assessment of each sibling. “George?” he said. “George is the family clown.”

Indeed, after their father won the presidency, the younger George attended a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, lifted his pant legs to show her his cowboy boots, and proudly declared that he was the black sheep in the family. “Do you have any in yours?” he asked. What was certainly a defense mechanism for a son and grandson of accomplished men also became a conscious strategy of lowering expectations. “It is always better to lowball these things,” he once told a general years later in a revealing moment during a conference call about Iraq. “If you perform, people are surprised.” He added, “I really enjoy it when somebody says, that son of a bitch just got out a coherent sentence.”

The day Bush met Cheney came less than a year after a radical midlife course correction. Although he never accepted the word “alcoholic,” Bush’s decision to quit drinking the day after his fortieth birthday reshaped his outlook on life, manifesting itself as both empathy and determination. The man who conquered his own weakness would stop whatever he was doing upon meeting an addict. “His cadence would change,” said David Kuo, a former aide. “He would put both of his hands on the man’s shoulders and look into his eyes. Any swagger disappeared. Something softer and perhaps more genuine took its place.” At the same time, the iron discipline it took to stop cold turkey would become a never-look-back approach to the Oval Office; he could be at once maddeningly stubborn about revisiting decisions and indefatigably upbeat in the face of crises that would leave other presidents talking to the paintings.

It may have also fueled an urgent idealism that would characterize his presidency for better or worse; on some level, he believed he had been saved to accomplish great things. His zeal inspired supporters with its promise of transformation while dismaying critics as dangerously messianic. Bush’s favorite book was The Raven, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biography that traced the life of Sam Houston from drunkard to president of the Republic of Texas. “His first thought, his constant thought, was to atone for the period of his delinquency,” the author, Marquis James, wrote of Houston. “He would do something grand. He would capture an empire.”

Grandiosity never defined Cheney. He was, as the writer Todd Purdum once observed, “a never-complain, never-explain politician who reminded many of the younger officials and journalists who came to know him of their fathers.” A man who would survive five heart attacks, the first at age thirty-seven, Cheney demonstrated a grit he rarely got credit for, one that fostered a single-minded intensity to get things done regardless of others’ sensibilities. “I suppose it gives him a sense of you can’t count on being here forever and you have to accomplish what you can accomplish while you can,” his daughter Liz observed. His own mortality never far from mind, Cheney adopted a cold-eyed view of what was needed to protect the life of the country, never entertaining a moment of doubt over tactics that would cause others to recoil.

Trent Lott, who served with him in the House before becoming Senate majority leader, remembered skiing with Cheney once in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the future vice president had a vacation home. Lott was decked out in a fancy outfit and red coat, while Cheney showed up at the lift in jeans, red scarf, and ragged old jacket that “looked like something a sailor would have worn in 1945.” Cheney took off “and all I saw for the next two miles was that red scarf flapping in the breeze as I skidded down the run on my butt,” Lott recalled. “He came up, very unimpressive looking, nothing fancy, skied like a wild man going down that run. I said that’s the real Dick Cheney. I looked good and he skied good.”

Cheney’s DNA was missing that politician’s gene attuned to reputation, a trait that served him well for decades, only to betray him at the end as he allowed himself to be reduced to a cartoon figure in the public mind. “I think years ago, the rooms in his brain that normal people devote to keeping score of slights and Beyoncé and popular culture, he moved all the furniture out of those rooms and stuffed them full of file cabinets about GDP and throw weights and all that kind of stuff,” said Pete Williams, who worked for Cheney on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon. “He is fundamentally a very serious man.” And because Cheney flunked out of Yale and never became part of the club, he never felt beholden. “He didn’t have the blue blazer, he didn’t have the crest, and he didn’t have the whale belt and the purple pants and all that stuff,” Williams said. “There is no Ivy League thing, there is no big city thing, there is no prep school thing. He went to a public high school. So I think what that means is he came here pretty much on his own two feet. I think that that has always given him a great deal of self-confidence. That plays out in a number of ways. I think it liberated him to follow his own conscience. He didn’t have chits to repay, he didn’t have errands to run, he didn’t have to worry about being ostracized if he took a view that was unorthodox. He just took the measure of himself and that was enough.”

George Walker Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney were born five and a half years and a world apart. Bush arrived on July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, joining a blue-blazer-and-whale-belt family with a rarefied history dating back to the Mayflower. His mother, the former Barbara Pierce, was a distant cousin of President Franklin Pierce’s, while his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, had roots tied by researchers to fifteen American presidents and the British royal family. His grandparents traveled in the same circles as the Rockefellers, Tafts, Luces, Grahams, Harrimans, Lodges, Fulbrights, and Kennedys. Cheney was born on January 30, 1941, in Lincoln, Nebraska, to a family of New Deal Democrats who struggled through the Great Depression and were proud their oldest son was born on Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday. His grandparents had lost everything in the crisis except their house. His father, Richard Herbert Cheney, dropped out of college and worked for decades for the Soil Conservation Service teaching farmers how to rotate crops. His mother, Marjorie Dickey, waited tables at the family-owned Dickey’s Café in Syracuse, Nebraska, until meeting the young public servant. At various points growing up, Dick lived on an uncle’s farm and in a family friend’s basement.

Yet from such disparate beginnings, the two future partners would travel familiar paths. Bush’s parents eschewed the easy life in the East to move to hardscrabble Texas oil country, and the Cheneys headed to the frontier of Wyoming, with the boys raised in settings not all that different. “There is a similarity, to a certain extent, between West Texas and Casper, Wyoming, in look and feel,” observed Dean McGrath, who spent years working for Cheney. “It is a long, long way between places. There was openness and expanse that when people in the West talk about, people on the East Coast don’t get.” From their western upbringings came strong views about the American ethos and an equally strong detachment from the coasts that dominated national life. As McGrath put it, “They are both pretty conservative, they are both pretty free market, they are both pretty free trade, and they both have pretty strong social values.”

Nostalgia naturally shrouded the places that shaped Bush and Cheney in romantic hues, but friends describe them in similar terms, as towns where doors were left unlocked, boys played baseball day after day, and everyone knew each other’s business. Midland was a “little Mayberry type of town,” as Bush’s lifelong friend Joe O’Neill remembered it, while Joe Meyer, Cheney’s high school pal, described Casper as something out of Happy Days. They were towns on the rise, flush with oil and the entrepreneurs who chased it. Midland was the capital of the Permian Basin, which produced nearly 20 percent of America’s oil in the 1950s. Casper was called the oil capital of the Rockies. Both towns were formed in the 1880s and topped twenty thousand residents in 1950; Casper had doubled in size since 1920, while Midland had quadrupled since 1930 and would triple again over the next decade. By the time the Bushes bought their first house in Midland, 215 oil companies had opened offices there. Both towns were arid, but Midland was flat and brown, prone to tumbleweed and sandstorms, while Casper was greener, perched at the base of a mountain and nearly as high as Denver.

The Bushes came from money, of course, but family tradition dictated that each generation make its own. Prescott Bush, young George’s grandfather, who went by Pres, had refused his father’s inheritance and helped round up investors in early American icons like CBS, Prudential, and Pan Am. He helped Dresser Industries reorganize and go public with a Yale University friend, Neil Mallon, at the helm. George H. W. Bush, the youngest commissioned navy combat pilot in World War II and a star baseball player at Yale, set off for Texas in 1948 to make his own mark. That’s not to say family connections were unavailable. It was Mallon who gave him a job at a Dresser subsidiary in Odessa. But he had to start as an equipment clerk. It was a hard, peripatetic life in modest homes for years until oil began paying off. Settling in Odessa, the family rented a two-room duplex, sharing a bathroom with a mother-and-daughter prostitute team next door. After a yearlong transfer to California, where the family bounced around five different homes, they returned to Texas in 1950, this time to Midland.

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