The eight years of the George W. Bush-Richard B. Cheney presidency and vice presidency included emphatic reactions to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.; an invasion of Iraq; the devastation of New Orleans and other locales by Hurricane Katrina, plus a gigantic domestic economic collapse.
The phrasing of my opening sentence is vital, because unlike previous U.S. presidencies, in the Bush administration, the so-called “leader of the free world” and the vice president “a heartbeat away” from that leadership shared power — really shared power.
In the nearly five years since Bush and Cheney left office, plenty of books have appeared about their eight years at the top. The books have been written by insiders and outsiders, overt ideologues and relatively neutral historians, political scientists and journalists. Peter Baker, a former White House correspondent for the Washington Post and current White House correspondent for the New York Times, wants his book to be viewed as unique. He creates what he hopes is that uniqueness by using the framework of a president and vice president sharing power in a way unlike any other of the previous 43 presidencies.
Baker’s approach works well for many reasons — partly because of the original wise conception of the book; partly because of unusually good access to insiders (Cheney cooperated, Bush to a lesser extent); partly because he avoids the trap of relying heavily on anonymous sources with unrevealed agendas (as opposed to the more famous White House chronicler Bob Woodward); partly because the narrative is structured compellingly, and partly because Baker is an impressive stylist.
Sure, any book reaching 800 pages might occasionally strain readers’ patience by fitting domestic and world events into a narrow theme — the relationship of a president and vice president — but the strains are minimal.
For many readers, I suspect, the primary takeaway from the book will derive from the gradually changing relationship between the two men. During Bush’s first term, the president tended to follow the vice president’s aggressive instincts, especially concerning invading other nations, with Iraq as the exclamation point. During the second term, Bush shifted his attention more often to other advisers, perhaps the first among organization-chart equals being Condoleezza Rice on foreign policy.
Furthermore, Baker shows convincingly, Bush became more comfortable in his own skin, for better and for worse in the context of the nation’s fate. As Baker says in closing, “to blame or to credit Cheney for the president’s decisions is to underestimate Bush. … Bush, in the end, was the decider. His successes and his failures were his own.”
Steve Weinberg is a former Washington correspondent for newspapers and magazines. He is at www.www.steveweinbergauthor.com