WASHINGTON, November 3, 2013 ― Former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are two of the most controversial men to occupy the White House in recent memory.
The intricate relationship between the president, vice president and the Bush Administration is the subject of a new book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. The author is Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and a regular panelist on Washington Week on PBS. In compiling his work, Baker conducted over 475 interviews with more than 200 administration officials.
Baker spoke with the Communities regarding some of the more startling revelations and contentious decisions of the Bush administration, including the decision to attack and invade Iraq.
Baker began our conversation around the erroneous public perception that few within the President’s cabinet, save perhaps Secretary of State Colin Powell, dissented on launching an attack against Saddam Hussein’s government during the initial stages of the discussion. Baker explains that there were far more within the Bush administration who expressed skepticism over fighting another war in the Middle East: “I think there was more doubt heading into that (Iraq) than people realized at the time- a great example of that is Karen Hughes, the long time advisor of President Bush.”
Hughes became concerned about the possibility of a strike against Iraq after watching a tough-minded speech delivered by Vice President Cheney on the subject at her home in Texas. Baker continued: “She called the President, and she said: “What’s going on here? When did this become our major focus?”
President Bush directed her concerns to Condoleezza Rice, then the President’s National Security Advisor, who explained to Hughes the threat posed by the Iraqi regime. Hughes listened to Rice’s explanation, but still believed the President should have an exit route planned if the evidence suggested there was no credible case for a war in Iraq.
Baker went on to offer the provocative thoughts of a senior administration official who also regretted his involvement in Iraq: “The only reason we went into Iraq, I tell people now, is we were looking for somebody’s a** to kick. Afghanistan was too easy.”
Baker puts the official’s quote into context: “This is somebody who was really involved in these issues and believed in them at the time, and today I think regrets it…what he means by that is at the time both in the White House and in the country at large, there was this atmosphere after 9/11 of an appetite for action. You couldn’t just sit back after some terrible, horrific attack…I think you have to remember the atmosphere at the time. We can look today with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time there was there was this real sense there were more dangers out there- that it wasn’t just 9/11.”
Bush and Cheney express no public regret for the Iraq War. However, Baker said that based upon his interviews of some of the administration’s officials, the President did seem, at least privately, to harbor some doubts about the strategy of the war. “There were regrets…about some of the details. President Bush said he regrets that they didn’t go with more troops and that when things were going badly, that they didn’t respond with more troops sooner.”
Toward the end of the Bush Presidency, the Commander in Chief, according to Baker, suffered terribly, especially over the war in Iraq. “It weighed on him on a way that he didn’t want people to see…Behind the scenes though, at one point he was grinding his teeth so hard that his mouth hurt. Some of the aides thought that he seemed almost despondent.”
As further example, Baker went on to recount the moment when Presidential aides delivered news that the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had been killed. The President, appearing not as overly excited as the aides would have expected, responded that he didn’t know how to take good news anymore.
The political landscape at home offered no consolation. While the Bush administration suffered embarrassment over the invasion of Iraq amid headlines of promised but elusive WMDs, the Democrats capitalized, regaining control of the House and the Senate through promise to withdraw American forces from Iraq. Some in the Democratic Party openly touted the idea of impeaching Bush and Cheney for the War and some of their other controversial policies.
When asked if the duo ever feared impeachment proceedings, Baker replied: “They looked at the slings and arrows of criticism they were receiving as part of the cost of what they were doing.” While the suggestions of impeachment never came to fruition, Baker said that the two leaders currently travel abroad cautiously because of certain countries which want to personally hold either the President or Vice President accountable for what they perceive as crimes committed during their years in office.
Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House is both a biographical and historical read. Told in the context of the complex relationships that existed within the Bush White House, and in the words of those directly involved, Baker deep-dives into many pivotal moments of the Bush administration including: 9/11, the pardoning of Scooter Libby, the exit of Donald Rumsfeld, the TARP program, Hurricane Katrina, the interrogation program, and more.
It will be many years before historians can fully evaluate and determine the legacy of the Bush administration, but Baker’s behind-the-scenes interviews and insights promise to weigh heavily in the final verdict.
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