Sympathetic, but still revealing…
😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
For those of us on this side of the Atlantic, US politics has only a marginal relevance in normal times, especially since the end of the Cold War. But following the atrocity of 9/11, Bush was suddenly thrust on to the world stage in a way he had not anticipated and overnight his pronouncements and actions became as important over here as those of our own leaders – especially since Blair instantly committed the UK to go along with the US wherever Bush might lead them. As a result, the Bush presidency is to me the most interesting of modern times.
In this book, Peter Baker, the Chief White House Correspondent of the New York Times, sets out to examine the relationship between Bush and Vice-President Cheney – an unusual relationship from the start since Cheney made it clear that he had no intention to run for the presidency at any point in the future. The received wisdom back in the early years was that Bush was a bumbling buffoon riding on his father’s achievements; and that Cheney, one of his father’s henchmen, was the power behind the throne – a shadowy and rather machiavellian figure – the puppet-master. Baker’s position is that Cheney’s influence was strong in the early years and that his support after 9/11 was crucial, but that ultimately Bush was his own man even then, and that Cheney’s influence gradually waned as time passed.
Baker’s account is very heavily weighted towards foreign affairs and the ‘war on terror’, particularly Iraq, presumably because this is the area in which Cheney was most involved. Although domestic policies are discussed from time to time, the coverage of them is nothing like as detailed or insightful. Again that works well for me, as a Brit, since it is the foreign policy that most interests me – however I felt it was a bit of a lack in the scope of the book. The other major weakness of the book, I felt, was a disregard of the influence of other world leaders on Bush’s position (and vice-versa) – we remember him trying to accommodate Blair’s domestic troubles over Iraq and we vividly remember the infamous ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ phrase hurled (though not directly by Bush) at a disobedient France (now apparently ‘America’s oldest ally’, since Syria). The attempt to gain the support of allies is discussed, particularly the whole UN resolution saga, but not with the depth that might have been expected, considering how much it damaged the position of the US in the eyes of much of the rest of the world. Interestingly Hans Blix doesn’t get a single mention in the whole book, while Jacques Chirac rates only two.
However, other than these omissions or weaknesses, the book is an extremely thorough and detailed account of the workings of the White House during a presidency hit by catastrophe and disaster – from 9/11 to Katrina to the economic meltdown. Overall Baker takes a sympathetic view of both men, though he doesn’t shy away from discussing the more unforgivable aspects of the period either – torture, water-boarding, Guantanamo et al. He does make the point, and makes it well, that such unconstitutional actions had precedents in previous presidencies at times of crisis, and shows how Bush pulled back from the worst excesses as the threat level decreased. Cheney however is shown as having developed an almost paranoid fear of another terrorist assault that led him to want to extend the power of the executive to extraordinary levels, and to justify almost any form of behaviour, no matter how morally repugnant, as necessary in the cause of security.
In the first half, the first four years, the book is very much about both men. However, in the second term, Cheney begins to fade away as Rice becomes the most prominent of the President’s advisers, and the book becomes much more of a biography of Bush alone. This tallies with Baker’s depiction of Cheney’s gradual loss of importance to Bush, but does mean that the focus on the relationship gets a bit lost somewhere along the way. But that doesn’t stop it being a fascinating record of a turbulent time in US history. I came out of it feeling that I understood Bush much better, but that somehow Cheney remained a bit of a shadowy figure.
In conclusion, this is a well written, detailed and interesting account, but not the complete picture of the period and I’m sure not the last word either on the Bush presidency or on his relationship with Cheney. The author’s sympathy is more for the men than for their policies, necessarily; and as such it is a good reminder of how we ask people to perform impossible jobs and then criticise them for mistakes or failures. Bush and Cheney made some serious mistakes, not lightly forgotten or forgiven, but this book gives a revealing picture of the almost intolerable pressures they had to deal with, and of the toll it took of them. Despite some weaknesses, the book is a major work that sheds a good deal of light on the time, and it therefore gets a ‘highly recommended’ from me.