Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

Sympathetic, but still revealing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

days of fireFor 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Peter Baker
Peter Baker

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 9…

Episode 9

 

The TBR continues to grow exponentially – in fact, it’s way more frightening than anything that’s turned up on so far on Tuesday Terror! Here’s a few of the books that have added themselves to the list when my willpower was at a low ebb…

Courtesy of NetGalley:

 

the sleeperThis will be my fourth Gillian White since I discovered her earlier this year.  Two were very good, the other was great – which will this be…?

“The sins of the past haunt an isolated farmhouse as a snowstorm rages outside . . .

It’s not shaping up to be a very merry Christmas. Clover Moon feels trapped in her life as a farmer’s wife. She certainly doesn’t enjoy hosting Fergus’s mother, Violet, who always finds new ways to publicly humiliate her unsatisfactory daughter-in-law. But would Violet ever seek a more violent way of expressing her disapproval?

Violet is a medium, and the voices of the dead sometimes encourage her to do disturbing things. During her stay at the farmhouse, she claims to sense an intrusive presence. Fergus then discovers the dead body of a woman floating in their flooded cellar, and elderly Miss Bates, resident of a nearby senior home and a client of Violet’s, is missing . . .”

*****

we need new namesAnd this will be the fourth Booker shortlisted novel I’ve read. The Testament of Mary was great, Harvest was very good, A Tale for the Time Being was so-so…what will this be…?

“‘To play the country-game, we have to choose a country. Everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and them. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?’

Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which of course is no such thing. It isn’t all bad, though. There’s mischief and adventure, games of Find bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices.

They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live. For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges – for her and also for those she’s left behind.”

*****

the strangling on the stageMy first Simon Brett, though I’ve heard a couple of the Charles Paris BBC Radio 4 adaptions. Hopefully this will be a light and enjoyable romp…

“When Jude agrees to lend her vintage chaise longue for the local Amateur Dramatics Society’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, little does she realize she’ll end up in a starring role. It’s an ambitious play, culminating in a dramatic execution scene: a scene that’s played for real when one of the leading actors is found hanging from the especially-constructed stage gallows during rehearsals. A tragic accident – or something more sinister? Carole and Jude make it their business to find out.”

*****

Pre-order:

 

days of fireI’m so far behind with factual reading (mainly because The Cave and the Light looks like it’ll take me about ten years to read) that I have no idea when I’ll get to this. But it should also be a fun romp…

“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.”

*****

Courtesy of Vine:

 

the tudorsJohn Guy is one of my favourite historians. Since I’ve read most of his long histories of the Tudors, I’m not sure whether this will add anything, but somehow those words ‘Very Short’ were irresistable…

“The monarchs of the Tudor period are among some of the most well-known figures in British history. John Guy presents a compelling and fascinating exploration of the Tudors in the new edition of this Very Short Introduction. Looking at all aspects of the period, from beginning to end, he considers Tudor politics, religion, and economics, as well as issues relating to gender and minority rule, and the art, architecture, and social and material culture of the time. Introducing all of the key Tudor monarchs, Guy considers the impact the Tudor period had not only at the time, but also the historical legacy it left behind. ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.”

*****

All blurbs are taken from either Amazon or NetGalley.

What do you think? Any of these that you’re looking forward to too? Or are there other new releases you’re impatiently awaiting?