DURING his final days as president, George W. Bush asked a group of historians for advice on writing his memoirs. Public opinion was savagely against him. His record as a war leader, for many on the left, amounted to a bumper-sticker indictment: “Bush Lied, People Died”. Conservative spending hawks railed at his bail-outs for banks and the car industry. Nativists in Congress took pride at having blocked his liberal immigration reform. After the Ozymandian collapse of the Bush era, many on the right denounced the president as a lover of big government and not really a conservative at all.
Mr Bush surprised the visiting historians twice over, according to a fine new book about his time in office, “Days of Fire“, by Peter Baker, a long-serving White House correspondent. First, his guests were taken aback by his air of serenity and his eagerness to chew over his eight years. Then somebody mentioned his vice-president, Dick Cheney, and they were struck by their host’s suddenly defensive tone. Too many people think that he just has to call me up and I do whatever I am told, grumbled Mr Bush, pointing to an Oval Office telephone for dramatic effect. He then “rattled off a series of decisions where he had overruled Cheney, even citing dates.”
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 vice-president knew how to maximise his influence (not least by ruling out a run of his own for the presidency, which allowed him to amass clout without seeming a threat). But Mr Bush was the undisputed alpha male in the White House, as a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff recalls. Both leaders were men of conservative instincts, who reacted to the attacks on September 11th, 2001 with similar hawkishness. But the book reports something more interesting: an eight-year process of disillusionment, as Mr Bush and Mr Cheney found their assumptions buffeted by reality, and reacted very differently.
The president cared about setbacks more than outsiders knew. In the view of aides including John Negroponte, his first director of national intelligence, Mr Bush’s despondency at the worst moments of the Iraq war approached clinical depression. When informed in 2006 that al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq had been killed, the president told an aide, numbly, that he was “not sure how to take good news any more”. Doubts were downplayed in public, as part of a tactic of painting Republicans as the party of national security and Democrats as soft on terror. But doubts infected every internal debate. This had some positive effects, for instance prompting Mr Bush’s decision to send a troop surge into Iraq to dampen a runaway insurgency. By the end of his second term, he had grown less dependent on his vice-president’s knowledge of Washington’s ways and more interested in leaving a legacy. That would require bipartisan deals at home and alliances overseas. Mr Cheney scorned compromise: or, as a former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, remarks in the book: “I think he would have liked to have kept breaking china.” (She is referring to crockery, not the People’s Republic.)
The book does not whitewash Mr Bush. He could be maddeningly passive, neglecting to question failing underlings. He was stubborn about revisiting decisions, hating to appear irresolute. One of his closest advisers since his days as governor of Texas, Karen Hughes, feared that he was being railroaded into a war with Iraq. She anxiously warned him not to end up trapped by a mistake (Mr Bush sent her to Ms Rice for reassurance, which only partly worked). But he emerges as more pragmatic than many critics might suppose. In the view of several officials, Mr Bush’s inner certainties were tempered by his biography. They see in him a former drinker’s faith in redemption and second chances (a belief that some linked to his staggeringly ambitious programmes to fund AIDS treatments in Africa).
Extremists seldom get what they want
The vice-president’s certainties were grimmer. Biography played a role here too, say his family and staff. Mr Cheney thinks the world is less safe than most Americans realise. He is also a man who suffered his first heart attack at 37 and would go on to endure four more. In government, that sense of life as both short and perilous left him determined to do what he thought necessary, resisting hand-wringing appeals to change course.
By the end of the second term the two men were on opposite sides of issues from North Korea to Israel, gun rights, climate change, secret surveillance of terror suspects, the car industry bail-out, closing secret CIA prisons and Syria. (“Does anyone here agree with the vice-president?” Mr Bush asked a painful 2007 meeting of national security advisers, after his deputy urged the American bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor. No one raised a hand.) Mr Bush’s last hours in office were overshadowed by an ugly row over his refusal to pardon Mr Cheney’s right-hand man, Scooter Libby, who was convicted of perjury.
Historians of the future will have more to say about Mr Bush, a flawed leader who achieved a measure of redemption just as his country gave up on him. They may consign Mr Cheney to their footnotes: briefly the most powerful vice-president of his era, until he was marginalised by his intransigence and extremism. There are lessons there for today’s Republicans if they want to look for them.
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