(published November 13, 2013)
Comedians and news outlets often painted the Bush administration as rather cartoonish; Bush as Pinocchio, and Cheney as the man behind the puppet’s strings. Peter Baker’ 88, the Chief White House Correspondent for the New York Times, returned to Oberlin Friday November 8 to discuss his new book Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, in which he recounts their partnership, from the honeymoon days in 2000 to their final split over Scooter Libby.
Although Baker confirmed that Cheney had certainly been one of the most influential vice presidents in US history, he also cites the fact that the power of the vice presidency has only truly increased in the past thirty years, as the US has engaged with other countries more than it ever had before the 20th century.
“How much older do you think Cheney is than Bush?” Baker asked those in Dye [formerly West] Lecture Hall on Friday night. Many guessed ten or more years older—but in fact, Cheney is merely five years older than Bush; they are actually contemporaries. They also come from similar backgrounds. Both were from the West, and from “frontier oil towns,” Baker added. Both went to Yale and hated its East Coast intellectualism. Neither did well at Yale. Bush graduated from Yale; Cheney did not. Both had trouble with alcohol and other substances at some point in their lives.
The beginning of the Bush/Cheney relationship, Baker noted, held some strong resemblances to the close partnership between President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Baker interviewed over 275 people in the Bush administration, including Bush and Cheney themselves. Anecdotally, he found that after staff meetings, Bush would consult Cheney privately before rendering a decision on a particular policy issue. This was especially helpful for Bush when he first came into office. Bush was now a world leader, but with his background as a former governor, he had virtually no foreign policy experience. Cheney, who had been the Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush, knew the inner workings of the state bureaucracy and seemed to be a reliable source who did not intend to overshadow Bush in his presidential infancy.
The rift between Bush and Cheney began when evidence (however questionable, Baker noted) of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was included in a memo from US intelligence agencies. Cheney encouraged simply intervening unilaterally in Iraq; Bush differed, and preferred to go through the UN. Ironically, Baker pointed out, almost as soon as he was inaugurated, Cheney had encouraged Bush not to sign various international treaties—such as the Kyoto Protocol (a treaty through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that calls for industrial nations to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they emit)—and as a result, many other countries at this time already found Bush’s presidency hostile to the international community.
The distance between Bush and Cheney continued to grow and fracture further into Bush’s second term. Bush and Cheney never had a bromantic partnership (Cheney told Baker that the two were never “buddies”), but as the war in Iraq escalated and Bush sensed growing international frustration with his presidency, he and his new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, worked to repair some of these relationships. Bush shifted his priorities to diplomacy and repairing the US image abroad—even with the countries he had labeled as embodying the “axis of evil.” Cheney, a champion of US exceptionalism and total independence from other countries, felt betrayed by these actions.
By the end of Bush’s presidency, Bush and Cheney had veered to opposite sides of the spectrum regarding US influence in North Korea, Syria, Iran, LGBTQ rights, federal spending, surveillance, Guantanamo, and finally, Scooter Libby.
Baker cited the final rupture in the Bush/Cheney relationship as the two men’s disagreement over the pardon of Scooter Libby. Libby, who was Dick Cheney’s personal chief of staff and national security advisor, had been accused of leaking the identity of a CIA officer whose husband had been a critic of the Iraq War. Cheney took this accusation personally, and asked Bush to pardon it. Even after consulting his lawyers (who said that there was, in Baker’s words, “ample evidence to find Libby guilty of several charges”), Bush finally decided not to grant Libby this pardon. When he told Cheney, Cheney retorted, “You are leaving a good man wounded on the field of battle.” Bush, feeling guilty, continued to deliberate over this decision literally until Obama’s inauguration; in his car ride with then-President-elect Barack Obama, Bush’s final words of advice were to “make sure you set a pardon policy from the start, and then stick to it.”
As their partnership suffered, Bush also took strides to isolate Cheney. This could even be shown in their staff meetings; instead of asking Cheney what he thought regarding policy options after meetings, Bush confronted Cheney in the middle of larger staff meetings, which forced him to voice his opinions—even though at this point, most were contrary to Bush’s, thus humiliating Cheney and isolating him among their peers.
While Baker recognized the passion and particular concerns of his Oberlin audience, Baker, and his language, remained very neutral. This can be attributed to how seriously he takes his job as a nonpartisan journalist. In a Q&A session earlier that day, he explained to those in the room with him—a group of Oberlin student journalists—that he does not participate in politics, and while this may be extreme, he fears that choosing a candidate might affect his objectivity when covering controversial topics.
However, in writing Days of Fire and elucidating one of the most controversial Presidential administrations in US history, his message was clear. “If we’re going to debate it,” Baker declared, “We should understand it first.”