George W. Bush and the Question of Leadership

Article excerpt

Peter Baker's account of the George W. Bush administration is haunted by the question of leadership.

Days of Fire. Bush and Cheney in the White House. By Peter Baker. Illustrated. 800 pages. Doubleday. $35.

The Bush administration opened with a second Pearl Harbor, ended with a second Great Crash and contained a second Vietnam in the middle.

The story of those eight years seem far too vast to contain inside a single volume. Yet here that volume is. Peter Baker -- who covered the Bush White House first for The Washington Post, then for The New York Times -- neither accuses nor excuses. He writes with a measure and balance that seem transported backward in time from some more dispassionate future. Yet "Days of Fire" is not a dispassionate book. Its mood might rather be described as poignant: sympathetic to its subjects, generous to their accomplishments and extenuating none of their errors.

"Bush was not one given to reflection, at least not out loud. Yet one day," in the summer of 2008, "he seemed in a rare introspective mood. Sitting in the Situation Room while waiting for another meeting to begin, the president looked at Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, who had succeeded Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and harked back to the critical days in 2003 before he launched the war that had become so problematic. 'You know,' he recalled, 'when I made the decision on Iraq, I went around the room to everybody at that table, every principal. "You in? Any doubts?" Nothing from anybody.' For Bush, it was a rare moment of doubt. Was he ruing his own flawed judgment? Bitter that he had been led off track by advisers? Or both?"

That story is sourced to an interview with a "senior official" -- your guess whether it was Admiral Mullen, Mr. Gates or somebody else.This book is informed by remarkable access to its main characters, including Vice President Dick Cheney. (I'll note here that I am one of those interviewed for and quoted in this book.) Yet "Days of Fire" is something more than the reporter's "first rough draft of history." Almost every leading figure in the Bush White House, including Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, has now published his or her version of events, and Mr. Baker has painstakingly worked through them all. The result is what you might call a polished second draft of history, most likely the most polished draft we'll have until the archives are opened and the academics can get to work.

An Italian historian once wryly observed that his country was one of many secrets but no mysteries. That line may now be applied to the Bush administration in reverse. One by one, the administration's secrets have been revealed. Yet its central mysteries continue to haunt us. Mr. Baker is haunted above all by the mystery of the Bush- Cheney relationship -- and beyond that, by the mystery of George W. Bush. Did Mr. Bush truly lead his administration, or was he really led by others, and especially by his forceful vice president?

Mr. Baker accumulates many stories of imperious officials imposing their will during the Bush years: not only Mr. Cheney, but also Donald Rumsfeld; L. Paul Bremer, the Iraqi occupation administrator; and Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff. The crucial decisions in postwar Iraq -- to demobilize the army, to de- Baathify the country -- were made by Mr. Bremer with barely a glance to his superiors back in Washington. In 2008, Henry Paulson, the secretary of the Treasury, would exercise even more control over the administration's response to the financial crisis. Yet when all is said and done, Mr. Baker concludes: The "decider" really did decide.

"His successes and his failures through all the days of fire were his own. 'He's his own man,' said Joe O'Neill, his lifelong friend. 'He's got the mistakes to prove it, as we always say. He was his own man."'

If Mr. Bush relied heavily on Mr. Cheney at the outset of his administration, that was a choice too. …