Dark Sidekick: How Dick Cheney Controlled, and Lost Control of, George W. Bush
Clift, Eleanor, The Washington Monthly
Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in White House
by Peter Baker
Doubleday, 816 pp.
The prologue to what author Peter Baker calls "a neutral history of a White House about which almost no one is neutral" focuses on the pardon that Vice President Dick Cheney desperately wanted to secure for his loyal aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and that President George W. Bush steadfastly refused to issue. It was not an easy decision for Bush, who agonized about it to the point that, when asked what advice he would give his successor, he didn't cite anything related to war or the recession but said, "Make sure you set a pardon policy from the start and then stick to it."
In Cheney's view, Libby had been left on the battlefield after taking a bullet for him. Bush's determination to resist his vice president's entreaties was the final break in a complicated relationship, evolving from a first term characterized by Cheney serving as the president's lodestar to a second term increasingly defined by Bush's defiance of what even Cheney called his dark side.
In his thoroughly researched chronicle of the Bush-Cheney administration, Days of Fire, Baker covers this iconic team from beginning to end in a fair-minded way, painting a generous, even affectionate portrait of Bush as a man who entered the Oval Office with good basic instincts but was easily manipulated by Cheney and others in a White House that was so dysfunctional and with such confused lines of authority that a Texas friend called it a "clusterfuck."
Just as the Iraq War consumed much of Bush's presidency, it fills much of Baker's 816 pages--the early headiness at what seemed a big victory, the unrequited search for weapons of mass destruction, the disillusionment as the war became unpopular. Bush gave up golf--it didn't look right during a time of war--and took up mountain biking for exercise and to relieve stress. "The more pressure there was at the White House, the harder he rode," adviser Mark McKinnon observed. Never one to second-guess or appear anything other than resolute in public, Bush nonetheless confessed to Dan Bartlett, one of his principal aides, "I'm just thinking about what I'm going to do in Iraq, and I'm grinding my teeth."
Baker gives Bush full credit for pushing the surge of troops into Iraq that most analysts believe saved the United States from a full-scale defeat and allowed a more face-saving end to the war. The military had balked, telling Bush the deployment would break the Army. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, initially opposing the surge, tempered her support, telling Bush, "This is your last card. It had better work." Under pressure from friend and foe alike for being out of touch, trapped in a presidential bubble of his own making, Bush pushed back, saying after six years as president, "I see the world as it is, maybe better than most." Brett McGurk, special adviser on Iraq, remembers Bush saying, "The world needs America to lead. You know why? Because nothing happens if we don't lead." Baker writes, "For Bush, the decider, there is no greater sin than giving into nothing happens."
Reading Days of Fire as President Barack Obama was making his case for using military force in Syria to punish the regime for using chemical weapons, Bush's words sound prescient. Obama opposed Bush's mostly go-it-alone approach in Iraq, but mustering international and congressional support for strikes in the Middle East proved so daunting that Obama backed down, while leaving open the possibility that he, like Bush, could act unilaterally if diplomacy failed.
Bush spent more time away from the White House than even Ronald Reagan, but nobody could accuse him of not being engaged on Iraq. He made four secret trips to the country; on the last one, after the 2008 election, he told Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki that Texas is just like Iraq. "We got desert, oil, tough folks, lots of guns. …