This recent rethinking will prove no more enduring than the original perceptions. The historical judgments of the Bush administration are only beginning to take shape. It has taken several years for the key actors to write their memoirs and for the president’s friends and subordinates to offer stories they wouldn’t volunteer at the time the Bush team was in the White House.
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, notable for its scope and ambition, that should become a standard reference for historians. After tracing the upbringing and early careers of both Bush and his 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 address: Referring to Sept. 11, 2001, the president said, “And then there came a day of fire.”)
The book has few groundbreaking 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 the jumble of material on the Bush years is consolidated in one smooth narrative. He has read the memoirs so 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 he increasingly operated on his own, relegating Cheney to the margins. Baker draws out each development in this tangled relationship in much the same way that Robert Caro wrote about the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
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 of Bush’s eight years in office, dwelling on time and detail until it becomes eye-numbing: When Bush has a routine colonoscopy in 2002 and transfers power to Cheney for a couple of hours, Baker informs the reader that the White House physician “performed the procedure, finishing at 7:29 a.m. without finding any polyps. Bush awoke at 7:31, got up soon thereafter, ate a waffle and played with his dogs.” This is simply too much information.