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Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House

by Peter Baker
Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House

by Peter Baker


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A New York Times Top 10 Best Book of the Year
A Washington Post Notable Book

Theirs was the most captivating American political partnership since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger: a bold and untested president and his seasoned, relentless vice president. Confronted by one crisis after another, they struggled to protect the country, remake the world, and define their own relationship along the way.

The real story of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney is far more fascinating than the familiar suspicion that Cheney was the power behind the throne. Drawing on hundreds of interviews with key players, and thousands of pages of private notes, memos, and other internal documents, Baker paints a riveting portrait of a partnership that evolved dramatically over time, during an era marked by devastating terror attacks, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and financial collapse. Peter Baker has produced a monumental and definitive work that ranks with the best of presidential histories.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385525190
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/03/2014
Pages: 832
Sales rank: 414,475
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Peter Baker is the Chief White House Correspondent for The New York Times and a regular panelist on Washington Week on PBS. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Breach, about Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and, with his wife, Susan Glasser, of Kremlin Rising, about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. 

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition

Part one


“One of you could be president”

George W. Bush had already dropped by to see three congressmen when he strode down the high-ceilinged corridor of the Cannon House Office Building to find the fourth on his list. It was June 17, 1987, and the son of the vice president was making the rounds to gather support for his father’s presidential campaign, or at least build goodwill with Republicans on Capitol Hill. His 3:30 p.m. appointment was with a low-key congressman from Wyoming named Dick Cheney.

This next-generation Bush was a tall, rangy man, handsome with an easy smile and a face that bore a striking resemblance to that of his famous father. Just a couple weeks shy of his forty-first birthday, he had moved his wife and twin daughters to Washington for the campaign, appointing himself “loyalty enforcer” to ensure a growing staff of political operatives was laboring on behalf of George H. W. Bush’s interests rather than their own.

Along the way, he was becoming a surrogate for his father and was surprised how much he enjoyed his new role. This family business had gotten into his blood. He had none of his father’s smoothness, though, and none of those polished New England sensibilities. Junior, as some called him, although he was not technically a junior, lived closer to the edge, the “Roman candle of the family,” as the campaign chronicler Richard Ben Cramer would call him, “the biggest and most jagged chip off the old block.”

By temperament, the man he was visiting was quite the opposite. Cheney, a former White House chief of staff now in his fifth term in Congress, was as quiet as Bush was voluble, as stoic as the younger man was expressive. He would say what he had to and then stop, perfectly comfortable with the silences that disquieted others. “He’s not necessarily what you would call the life of the party,” observed Dennis Hastert, who served with him in the House and went on to become Speaker. Cheney’s wife, Lynne, thought the way to understand him was to remember how much he loved fly-fishing, standing without a sound for hours casting for a bite—”not a sport for the impatient,” as she put it, and “definitely not a sport for chatterboxes.” He refused to go fishing with his friend Kenneth Adelman because “he talks too much.” At forty-six, Cheney had just been promoted to chairman of the House Republican Conference, the number-three position in the party leadership. He had his eye on someday becoming Speaker.

Neither man in the years to come would remember the first time they met, but it was likely this encounter in the summer before the Republican primaries. Never mind that Cheney had no intention of taking sides in the Republican contest featuring Bush’s father. To a congressman eyeing further moves up the leadership ladder, becoming a partisan for a presidential candidate would be “asking for grief I didn’t need,” as Cheney later put it. Indeed, his neutrality would cause a years-long rift with his good friend and mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, who had been contemplating his own run for president. But Cheney got along well with his guest that day. “He and Bush hit it off,” recalled Wayne Berman, the campaign’s congressional relations director who organized the meeting.

Berman would go on to become one of Washington’s premier lobbyists and Republican fund-raisers, as well as one of the few men close to both Bush and Cheney. He raised millions of dollars for them, promoted their campaigns, and hosted dinners for them at his house. His wife, Lea Berman, would work in the White House first for Cheney’s wife and then for Bush’s wife. But even Wayne Berman never imagined what would eventually come of the acquaintance that began in that courtesy call one summer afternoon. “Bush in those days was a really interesting guy,” he observed years later. “A little insecure, had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Very skeptical of everything in Washington, something I think he retained. Skeptical of a lot of people around his dad.” As for Cheney, he was more comfortable with Washington yet also kept his distance. The only ones he truly relaxed around were his wife and two daughters. “Cheney has three confidantes, and all their last names are Cheney,” Berman noted. “One is related by marriage and two by blood.” He could be unguarded with friends, “but if he told you something and it leaked and he suspected you leaked it, you didn’t get a second chance. Finished.”

Bush at that point had yet to win public office and was still evolving into the politician he would later become. When he visited the West Wing in those days, he would stop by offices of aides he knew, plop down on a couch, and put his cowboy boots on the coffee table. Ronald Reagan, who had met the Bush children, thought that if any of them had a bright political future, it would be George’s brother Jeb. Their brother Marvin once gave his assessment of each sibling. “George?” he said. “George is the family clown.”

Indeed, after their father won the presidency, the younger George attended a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, lifted his pant legs to show her his cowboy boots, and proudly declared that he was the black sheep in the family. “Do you have any in yours?” he asked. What was certainly a defense mechanism for a son and grandson of accomplished men also became a conscious strategy of lowering expectations. “It is always better to lowball these things,” he once told a general years later in a revealing moment during a conference call about Iraq. “If you perform, people are surprised.” He added, “I really enjoy it when somebody says, that son of a bitch just got out a coherent sentence.”

The day Bush met Cheney came less than a year after a radical midlife course correction. Although he never accepted the word “alcoholic,” Bush’s decision to quit drinking the day after his fortieth birthday reshaped his outlook on life, manifesting itself as both empathy and determination. The man who conquered his own weakness would stop whatever he was doing upon meeting an addict. “His cadence would change,” said David Kuo, a former aide. “He would put both of his hands on the man’s shoulders and look into his eyes. Any swagger disappeared. Something softer and perhaps more genuine took its place.” At the same time, the iron discipline it took to stop cold turkey would become a never-look-back approach to the Oval Office; he could be at once maddeningly stubborn about revisiting decisions and indefatigably upbeat in the face of crises that would leave other presidents talking to the paintings.

It may have also fueled an urgent idealism that would characterize his presidency for better or worse; on some level, he believed he had been saved to accomplish great things. His zeal inspired supporters with its promise of transformation while dismaying critics as dangerously messianic. Bush’s favorite book was The Raven, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biography that traced the life of Sam Houston from drunkard to president of the Republic of Texas. “His first thought, his constant thought, was to atone for the period of his delinquency,” the author, Marquis James, wrote of Houston. “He would do something grand. He would capture an empire.”

Grandiosity never defined Cheney. He was, as the writer Todd Purdum once observed, “a never-complain, never-explain politician who reminded many of the younger officials and journalists who came to know him of their fathers.” A man who would survive five heart attacks, the first at age thirty-seven, Cheney demonstrated a grit he rarely got credit for, one that fostered a single-minded intensity to get things done regardless of others’ sensibilities. “I suppose it gives him a sense of you can’t count on being here forever and you have to accomplish what you can accomplish while you can,” his daughter Liz observed. His own mortality never far from mind, Cheney adopted a cold-eyed view of what was needed to protect the life of the country, never entertaining a moment of doubt over tactics that would cause others to recoil.

Trent Lott, who served with him in the House before becoming Senate majority leader, remembered skiing with Cheney once in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the future vice president had a vacation home. Lott was decked out in a fancy outfit and red coat, while Cheney showed up at the lift in jeans, red scarf, and ragged old jacket that “looked like something a sailor would have worn in 1945.” Cheney took off “and all I saw for the next two miles was that red scarf flapping in the breeze as I skidded down the run on my butt,” Lott recalled. “He came up, very unimpressive looking, nothing fancy, skied like a wild man going down that run. I said that’s the real Dick Cheney. I looked good and he skied good.”

Cheney’s DNA was missing that politician’s gene attuned to reputation, a trait that served him well for decades, only to betray him at the end as he allowed himself to be reduced to a cartoon figure in the public mind. “I think years ago, the rooms in his brain that normal people devote to keeping score of slights and Beyoncé and popular culture, he moved all the furniture out of those rooms and stuffed them full of file cabinets about GDP and throw weights and all that kind of stuff,” said Pete Williams, who worked for Cheney on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon. “He is fundamentally a very serious man.” And because Cheney flunked out of Yale and never became part of the club, he never felt beholden. “He didn’t have the blue blazer, he didn’t have the crest, and he didn’t have the whale belt and the purple pants and all that stuff,” Williams said. “There is no Ivy League thing, there is no big city thing, there is no prep school thing. He went to a public high school. So I think what that means is he came here pretty much on his own two feet. I think that that has always given him a great deal of self-confidence. That plays out in a number of ways. I think it liberated him to follow his own conscience. He didn’t have chits to repay, he didn’t have errands to run, he didn’t have to worry about being ostracized if he took a view that was unorthodox. He just took the measure of himself and that was enough.”

George Walker Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney were born five and a half years and a world apart. Bush arrived on July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, joining a blue-blazer-and-whale-belt family with a rarefied history dating back to the Mayflower. His mother, the former Barbara Pierce, was a distant cousin of President Franklin Pierce’s, while his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, had roots tied by researchers to fifteen American presidents and the British royal family. His grandparents traveled in the same circles as the Rockefellers, Tafts, Luces, Grahams, Harrimans, Lodges, Fulbrights, and Kennedys. Cheney was born on January 30, 1941, in Lincoln, Nebraska, to a family of New Deal Democrats who struggled through the Great Depression and were proud their oldest son was born on Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday. His grandparents had lost everything in the crisis except their house. His father, Richard Herbert Cheney, dropped out of college and worked for decades for the Soil Conservation Service teaching farmers how to rotate crops. His mother, Marjorie Dickey, waited tables at the family-owned Dickey’s Café in Syracuse, Nebraska, until meeting the young public servant. At various points growing up, Dick lived on an uncle’s farm and in a family friend’s basement.

Yet from such disparate beginnings, the two future partners would travel familiar paths. Bush’s parents eschewed the easy life in the East to move to hardscrabble Texas oil country, and the Cheneys headed to the frontier of Wyoming, with the boys raised in settings not all that different. “There is a similarity, to a certain extent, between West Texas and Casper, Wyoming, in look and feel,” observed Dean McGrath, who spent years working for Cheney. “It is a long, long way between places. There was openness and expanse that when people in the West talk about, people on the East Coast don’t get.” From their western upbringings came strong views about the American ethos and an equally strong detachment from the coasts that dominated national life. As McGrath put it, “They are both pretty conservative, they are both pretty free market, they are both pretty free trade, and they both have pretty strong social values.”

Nostalgia naturally shrouded the places that shaped Bush and Cheney in romantic hues, but friends describe them in similar terms, as towns where doors were left unlocked, boys played baseball day after day, and everyone knew each other’s business. Midland was a “little Mayberry type of town,” as Bush’s lifelong friend Joe O’Neill remembered it, while Joe Meyer, Cheney’s high school pal, described Casper as something out of Happy Days. They were towns on the rise, flush with oil and the entrepreneurs who chased it. Midland was the capital of the Permian Basin, which produced nearly 20 percent of America’s oil in the 1950s. Casper was called the oil capital of the Rockies. Both towns were formed in the 1880s and topped twenty thousand residents in 1950; Casper had doubled in size since 1920, while Midland had quadrupled since 1930 and would triple again over the next decade. By the time the Bushes bought their first house in Midland, 215 oil companies had opened offices there. Both towns were arid, but Midland was flat and brown, prone to tumbleweed and sandstorms, while Casper was greener, perched at the base of a mountain and nearly as high as Denver.

The Bushes came from money, of course, but family tradition dictated that each generation make its own. Prescott Bush, young George’s grandfather, who went by Pres, had refused his father’s inheritance and helped round up investors in early American icons like CBS, Prudential, and Pan Am. He helped Dresser Industries reorganize and go public with a Yale University friend, Neil Mallon, at the helm. George H. W. Bush, the youngest commissioned navy combat pilot in World War II and a star baseball player at Yale, set off for Texas in 1948 to make his own mark. That’s not to say family connections were unavailable. It was Mallon who gave him a job at a Dresser subsidiary in Odessa. But he had to start as an equipment clerk. It was a hard, peripatetic life in modest homes for years until oil began paying off. Settling in Odessa, the family rented a two-room duplex, sharing a bathroom with a mother-and-daughter prostitute team next door. After a yearlong transfer to California, where the family bounced around five different homes, they returned to Texas in 1950, this time to Midland.

Table of Contents

Prologue: "Breaking china" 1

Part 1

1 "One of you could be president" 15

2 "To be where the action is" 31

3 "The fire horse and the bell" 47

4 "We wrapped Bill Clinton around his neck" 65

5 "I'm going to call Dick" 79

6 "Iron filings moving across a tabletop" 99

Part 2

7 "Somebody's going to pay" 119

8 "Whatever it takes" 133

9 "The first battle of the war" 155

10 "We're going to lose our prey" 166

11 "Afghanistan was too easy" 188

12 "A brutal, ugly, repugnant man" 213

13 "You could hear the lunge of history turn" 229

Part 3

14 "Maybe we'll get lucky" 257

15 "Mr. President, I think we've got a problem" 270

16 "Welcome to Free Iraq" 282

17 "We were almost all wrong" 304

18 "When are we going to fire somebody?" 326

19 "The election that will never end" 353

20 "Not a speech Dick Cheney would give" 361

Part 4

21 "Who do they think they are? I was reelected too" 379

22 "Whacked upside the head" 396

23 "This is the end of the presidency" 406

24 "You could have heard a pin drop" 425

25 "Please do not let anything happen today" 441

26 "I'm not sure how to take good news anymore" 456

27 "Make damn sure we do not fail" 468

28 "Don't let this be your legacy" 483

Part 5

29 "The elephants finally threw up on the table" 507

30 "Everybody knew this was the last bullet in the chamber" 519

31 "I'm going to fire all your asses" 533

32 "Revolt of the radical pragmatists" 551

33 "Don't screw with the president of the United States" 566

34 "What is tins, a cruel hoax?" 578

35 "Our people are going to hate us for this" 595

36 "I didn't want to be the president during a depression" 619

37 "Such a sense of betrayal" 629

Epilogue: "There is no middle ground" 639

Acknowledgments 655

Notes 659

Bibliography 765

Index 775

Illustration Credits 801

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