If journalism is the first draft of history, surely we are far enough removed from the George W. Bush administration for New York Times reporter Peter Baker’s “Days of Fire” to be a chronicle of our national past. It has been a long time since the swaggering Texan left the White House with his tail between his legs. Much has changed both in our national life and in his own Republican Party. Baker’s long and substantial book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of American political history.
Bush and his Vice President, Dick Cheney, are the main characters and principal concerns of Baker’s book. Baker attempts a detailed character sketch of both men, and his endeavor at characterization succeeds handsomely. The portrayal of Bush persuasively belies the liberal caricature of the forty-third president as a hayseed simpleton. Instead, Bush comes across as an intelligent (though not intellectual man) doing his best to manage a rapidly evolving global landscape. Cheney is likewise at odds with his demonic image. Though he does come across as calculating and stereotypically political, his patriotism is equally clear in Baker’s portrayal. Liberal readers hoping for a feast of red meat will put this book down hungry.
Strong as his personality studies are, Baker’s greatest achievement in this book comes in the realm of policy analysis. There is no area of Bush-era public concern that he does not treat with intelligence and insight. Readers will come away with deepened appreciations of educational testing and Iraqi ethnic fissures alike. Whether because of deep research or natural facility with diverse subject matters, Baker comes through as an adroit guide to the policy disputes of the early 2000’s.
“Days of Fire” attempts–largely successfully–to present itself as an early, semi-definitive guide to the Bush White House. But it is inevitable that the author’s New York Times background will color reader’s expectations for the book. In this light, Baker’s work sometimes comes across as a bit too explicitly contrarian. It is easy to see his defenses of Bush as a counterpoint to broadly held assumptions, and at times, he almost willingly fails to plumb the failures that made the Bush administration one of the most unpopular presidencies in American history. The book would be stronger if Baker had more fully reckoned with the unprovoked tragedy of mass death in Iraq, or with free-market ideology’s central role in the collapse of the US financial system in 2008.
George W. Bush has enjoyed a renaissance of respect in recent years as Donald Trump showed Americans what a truly incompetent president can do to the country. That does not excuse his failures in the areas of economic management, foreign policy, and even essential civic integrity, but from today’s vantage point, it is hard not to miss the leadership of a fundamentally good man. Peter Baker’s book shows definitively that George W. Bush belongs on the side of our better angels as a leader, if not as a policymaker.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.