Peter Baker is a White House correspondent for the New York Times and author of the excellent "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House". We spoke on Wednesday, and a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Ezra Klein: When the George W. Bush administration ended, a lot of people were really eager to move on. There was even this whole presidential campaign about “change.” So why did you decide to dive deep back into those years?
Peter Baker: I’m a masochist, basically. I think reporters get 10 or 20 percent of what’s going on at any given time. It’s a fraction of what really goes on. To go back and reexamine and re-interview, to talk to people who can be more candid now, let’s us learn more about what really went on. It produces surprises. In this case, the surprise was how dramatically this unique partnership in American history changed and evolved over time.
EK: Reading the book, it felt like Dick Cheney was the main character of the first half and George W. Bush was the main character of the second half. In those early years, Bush may be the decider, but Cheney really seems to be setting up the administration, driving the agenda and providing the core philosophy. Did you intend to write it that way?
PB: No, I think the book follows the reporting in that sense. Cheney is so much more of a force in the first term. Bush really comes into his own later in the presidency. He becomes more comfortable in his own skin, more grounded in his judgment, more seasoned. He’s dealt with so many world crises and other leaders by that point. He no longer feels like he needs a guy like Cheney as much as he did in the first term, and he begins setting a different direction that alienates and aggravates Cheney. People like Karen Hughes say he got his presidency a little more in the direction he meant it to go in the first place before it got hijacked by 9/11 and Iraq.
EK: But it wasn’t hijacked by Iraq. The Bush administration chose that war. And, to be honest, that’s what I read the book to understand. I’ve never felt like I understood the reason the Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq. Once that decision was made, I feel like I can track the arguments for and against it. But the fundamental choice to make that the project is a mystery to me. Now that you’ve written the book, do you feel like you understand it?
PB: I have a better understanding, but I think it’s one of these questions that will be revisited and re-debated for decades to come. My guess is 20 years from now we’ll still be seeing more books on that question. It is the essence of this presidency: Why go to war in Iraq? Some mention Bush’s father. Some mention Cheney’s sense of unfinished business in the Gulf War. There’s the false intelligence.
And overlaying all that is what it felt like in that moment. They were operating in an atmosphere of fear and anger and uncertainty. They were seeing these threat reports every day -- including episodes we didn’t even know about, like the botulism scare. When they come into office, they had thought, at the time, that Iraq was a top threat. Then once 9/11 happens it sort of removes all constraints that they might have had prior to that in their interest and inclination to use force. There’s a quote in the book from a senior administration official who was really involved in the decision to invade Iraq and who regrets it now who says we went into Iraq because Afghanistan was so easy. We needed someone harder to beat; 9/11 felt like such a signal event that it required action and response beyond simply toppling the Taliban.
EK: That quote is amazing. But it sounds like he also doesn’t know why they went into Iraq. And he was there! That’s less an explanation of the policy than of the psychology. And that’s something the book details really well. I think people can remember what it felt like to be scared after 9/11. But the amount of fear there is in the White House and the degree to which fear of a worse attack drives the decisions after 9/11 -- it’s a really psychologically unusual administration.
PB: That’s absolutely right. Every day they receive a briefing telling them 100 ways bad guys around the world are trying to kill Americans, Some are real, and some are fanciful. But in that moment the intelligence agencies, having missed the dots on 9/11, begin throwing everything they have at the White House.
Cheney has this history in continuity-of-government issues. He has for years contemplated the notion of an apocalyptic attack on the United States -- 9/11 convinces him his fears are real. Nineteen guys with box cutters, to him, are only a scratch on the surface compared to what could have happened. And that makes a lot of things seem more reasonable. Eventually, Frances Townsend becomes head of the Homeland Security Advisor and begins taking some of these threats out of the briefings because she felt it was so skewed towards danger and it was warping everyone’s mindset to be so exposed to every piece of raw data like that.
EK: One of the really interesting threads in the book is the way Cheney wields power. I think it’s fair to say he’s one of the most talented executive branch staffers of his generation. He’s chief of staff in a White House at a young age. He served across many presidents at top positions. And so with Bush, he runs the transition and manages to really stock the bureaucracy with allies in key spots. His approach to influencing, it seems, isn’t so much whispering into Bush’s ear but having control or at least a lot of influence over the way decisions are framed by the time they get to Bush’s desk. Agreeing with Cheney’s agenda ends up looking like the only logical thing to do.
PB: There’s no question that he understood how power worked. It’s not just the guy who’s loudest at the table. His power emerged from the ability to sprinkle key people throughout, to make himself indispensable to a president who didn’t have much national security experience. And some of his power comes from being able to subordinate himself and be deferential to Bush in ways others can’t. He comes in with no aspirations to be president, and that takes away the friction that often exists between presidents and vice presidents.
That quiet, deferential approach actually enhanced his power in the White House. He spoke so rarely in meetings that a lot of staffers didn’t even know what his position was. He was a black box to them. But he was there when they left, talking to Bush. So staffers often didn't even know if Cheney had won or lost on an issue, and they couldn't rebut him because they didn't know what he was saying.
EK: There’s this theme in the book of Bush looking for his Bob Bullock, a reference to the Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas who was so crucial to Bush’s governorship. You mention Tom Daschle and Ted Kennedy in that context. But it seemed to me that it’s really Cheney. The Texas governorship is unusually weak, and the lieutenant governor is actually the strongest position in the government, so Bush’s experience before the White House was that the number two is an older, more experienced political hand who knows where the bodies are buried and who drives the agenda. There's a division of labor there that he seems to replicate in his first term in the White House.
PB: That’s right. When he looked for Bullock he thought he was looking for a bipartisan partner. But the fact is, a Texas Democrat is a center-right Republican in Washington. What Bob Bullock really meant to Bush was a mentor, someone he was careful to court and win over, and who could help him advance his own causes and career. And Cheney does play that similar role.
EK: How well did Bush actually understand policy? There’s this moment around TARP where he tries to describe the proposal as buying low and selling high, and his staff says he can’t do that because that’s not the point of it, and he asks, “Why did I sign onto this proposal if I don’t understand what it does?” You think, reading that: “Good question! But not a question for your staff!”
PB: I think the TARP example is also an example of how fluid things were at that time. The TARP proposal was changing quickly.
But Bush was not a details guy. He certainly wasn’t a policy wonk. You do hear from people who worked closely with him, and even Democrats and scholars who came in to see him, some expressed surprise at how much he had a mastery of some subjects. It wasn’t with everything. But it was with the issues he cared about, like national security. On things he didn’t perceive as top priority, though, he didn’t have [Bill] Clinton’s innate appetite for policy books. He preferred oral briefings to written briefings. He liked to talk things through. All that led to some misimpressions. And he himself certainly encouraged people to underestimate him. He bragged so often about being a C student that people began to think of him that way.
EK: There’s an airless quality to the book where you’re really trapped in the White House for the whole thing. Congress just isn’t a huge factor. Is that a function of how you wrote the book, or is it a function of how the Bush White House actually conducted itself and its focus on national security issues where continuous checking-in with Congress was less necessary? How insular was it, in other words?
PB: They believe in secrecy. They believe in executive power. Even their allies were often surprised at who they would nominate for key positions. When they did the second inaugural address and the president decides to focus on freedom around the world, I asked [Bush counselor] Dan Bartlett whether that was provocative to people at the State Department. He said, “Yeah, that's why you don’t show it to the State Department.” There’s a cost to operating that way. President Bush himself has said that some of the mistakes he made was not getting buy-in from Congress on some of the policies that later proved really controversial, like surveillance and interrogation.
EK: When you tick through the domestic agenda in the book a lot of it really is bipartisan -- and certainly less polarizing than the foreign policy agenda. Democrats don't love the tax cuts, but they end up having a fair amount of Democratic support. Medicare Part D is a massive entitlement expansion with roots in Democratic policy ideas. No Child Left Behind is very bipartisan. Bush pushes immigration reform along the lines of what Obama favors now. He wants to do more on climate change. If 9/11 hadn’t happened, what kind of domestic policy legacy do you think Bush would’ve had?
PB: That’s the great what-if. His original mandate was compassionate conservatism. He was going to push his party in the way Clinton pushed his party away from some of the orthodoxy that turned off the middle. It doesn’t make him a moderate. But it makes him a different kind of conservative, certainly. You remember when he was governor he publicly split with [California] Gov. Pete Wilson on immigration and with Republicans in Congress on what he called “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.” And if you talk to Karen Hughes today that’s what she laments: the dropping on compassionate conservatism. One I’d add to your list is PEPFAR, literally the most ambitious effort any president ever made to combat disease in the Third World. All this got overshadowed by Iraq, of course.
EK: And the result seems to be a Republican Party that really rejects Bush and his legacy. That’s true on domestic policy, certainly, but there’s also been a rise in Rand Paul-esque isolationism and skepticism of the national security state, which is far from the Bush-Cheney doctrine, certainly. What was the impression you got writing the book of Bush’s reputation in Republican circles today?
PB: The tea party is in part a reaction and a rebellion against Bush. It certainly has its roots in Bush’s term. He was a big-government conservative. He did believe in a federal role for education. That part of the party wants to get rid of the Department of Education. He did spend money, and not just on security. And I think he sensed the beginning of isolationism in his presidency. It crops up in the speeches in his last few years. So I think today he watches what happened in the tea party with concern. Look at who he gave money to. It was to Sen. Lindsey Graham, who faced a challenger on the right. I think [Washington Post reporter] Dan Balz’s book shows he talked to Chris Christie. He's trying to encourage people who see the Republican Party a bit more like he does.
EK: At the end of the book, you talk about the idea that there’s more continuity than one might’ve thought from Bush to Obama, particularly on foreign policy. Obama ends up following, to some degree, Bush’s timetable for withdrawal, and he keeps some of the surveillance programs in place, and he’s not able to close Gitmo, and so on. You have this nice line that Obama runs against Bush’s first term and ends up inheriting his second. How much of that continuity do you think is agreement and how much of it is simply this White House having to bring Bush’s initiatives in for some kind of gradual landing?
PB: By the end, Bush had made enough compromises that he made more of a bipartisan consensus then you would’ve thought a few years earlier. And when you get into the Oval Office, as Obama did, and hear these threats every day, the world does look a little differently to you. On national security and foreign policy, for the most part there’s usually a lot more continuity between Democrats and Republicans in the White House than we think, and Iraq was kind of an outlier in that way.
The big place where they divide is the big idea of Bush’s second term -- the freedom agenda and a values-based foreign policy. Bush sometimes only follows it in the breach, but he did articulate this idea. That’s not really Obama’s approach. He’s for democracy and freedom, but he doesn’t prioritize it in the sense that America needs to be delivering it.
EK: I’ve found that the Obama team does have a lot of respect for Bush’s foreign policy, but it’s Bush 41, not Bush 43, they admire. In that way, George W. Bush really did do the work of rescuing his father's legacy.
PB: Obama has said that publicly. And that’s because the father’s foreign policy is more of what we inadequately call the realist school. It’s interest-based. The son attempts to be values-based. Now, George W. Bush made the argument that our values are our interests and vice versa. But his second inaugural call for ending tyranny around the world is not something that’s been emulated or adopted by Democrats -- or even his own party.