Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (New York: Doubleday, 2013), 816 pp., $35.00.
A SPECTER is haunting Washington—the specter of George W. Bush. President Obama may have spent almost five years in the White House by now, but it’s still possible to detect the furtive presence of a certain restless shade lurking in the dimmer corners of the federal mansion. Needless to say, this is something of a first: usually U.S. presidents have to die before they can join the illustrious corps of Washington ghosts, and 43 is, of course, still very much alive in his tony Dallas neighborhood, by all accounts enthusiastically pursuing his new avocation as an amateur painter. Yet his spirit is proving remarkably hard to exorcise.
Anyone who doubts this need only consider the current debate about how to deal with Bashar al-Assad. The pollsters and the pundits have found a remarkably stubborn public consensus against the use of force, and the reasons for this reluctance invariably circle back to the case of a previous Baathist dictator who stood accused of using weapons of mass destruction against his own citizens. America’s war against Saddam Hussein may be history, but for once the American people’s notoriously flabby short-term memory has not failed them. They have distinctly little appetite for anything that looks like a redo.
So how could George W. Bush, of all people, have created such a potent legacy? As New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker reminds us in his magisterial new book Days of Fire, Bush left office as one of the most unpopular presidents of modern times. The Iraq War was clearly the signal failure of his presidency—a point now conceded even by many of his erstwhile supporters. But that’s just the first item in the index of errors. What about the shameful embrace of torture as a principle of the so-called global war on terror? The bewildering insouciance toward the war in Afghanistan? The self-destructive contempt for America’s allies? The fumbling response to the Katrina disaster? The policies that paved the way for the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression?
Given this list of cock-ups, it would have been understandable if Baker had chosen to structure his narrative as an 816-page affidavit for the prosecution. There are still plenty of short-fused Bushophobes out there, so a hatchet job might have made for great sales. But that would also be bad history. For better or for worse, we—and President Obama most of all—still live in the world that Bush built.
Think about it. The prison at Guantánamo Bay still operates. The drone war goes on—the current president, indeed, has expanded it far beyond Bush’s wildest imaginings. As for the National Security Agency’s vast warrantless-surveillance schemes set up in the years after 9/11, the current White House hasn’t missed a beat there, either. Indeed, despite Obama’s promises to guarantee government transparency and protect whistle-blowers, his White House has gone after leakers with a ferocity that puts George W. to shame. (The current administration has brought charges against seven people under the World War I–era Espionage Act; the previous White House prosecuted only one.)
So could one, indeed, argue that the Bush presidency produced anything positive? In his efforts to provide balance, Baker does his best to make the case for Bush and Dick Cheney. He argues that this duo
accomplished significant things. They lifted a nation wounded by sneak attack on September 11, 2001, and safeguarded it from further assault, putting in place a new national security architecture for a dangerous era that would endure after they left office. At home, they instituted sweeping changes in education, health care, and taxes while heading off another Great Depression and the collapse of the storied auto industry. Abroad, they liberated fifty million people from despotic governments in the Middle East and central Asia, gave voice to the aspirations of democracy around the world, and helped turn the tide against a killer disease in Africa. They confronted crisis after crisis, not just a single “day of fire” on that bright morning in September, but days of fire over eight years.
Baker’s effort to illuminate these aspects of the story won’t make him any friends on the left. Far from it. But, again, the continuities are difficult to deny. The newly elected Obama happily continued the economic emergency measures instituted by Bush in the waning days of his term. The Troubled Asset Relief Program and the bailout for the U.S. automotive industry—some of the most far-reaching interventions in the national economy ever undertaken—were launched by the laissez-faire Texas conservative, not the community organizer from Chicago. And though few Americans seem to have noticed, those programs worked out pretty well in the end—and both presidents can rightfully claim a share of the credit.
Obama also has kept No Child Left Behind, Bush’s signature education reform, maintained the costly Medicare prescription-drug program, and expanded the higher fuel-economy standards and renewable-energy incentives that Bush passed in his second term. “While Obama ran against Bush’s tax cuts, he ended up preserving roughly 85 percent of them, reversing them for just the top 1 percent of American taxpayers,” Baker writes. “And Obama made one of his highest second-term priorities an overhaul of the immigration system, moving to complete Bush’s unfinished mission.” All correct.