Days of Fire

Bush and Cheney in the White House

by Peter Baker

Days of Fire

Hardcover, 800 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $35 | purchase

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Book Summary

A senior White House correspondent presents an account of the Bush/Cheney White House years that brims with anecdotes from more than 200 insiders.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Days Of Fire

Prologue

"Breaking China"

For a man about to win his freedom, George W. Bush was awfully grumpy. He was at Camp David on a frigid weekend to mark the end of his presidency and the beginning of a new life back in Texas. With him were his family and a few select friends and advisers, including Condoleezza Rice, Joshua Bolten, Henry Paulson and Stephen Hadley. He had been looking forward to this moment for some time.

If other presidents were reluctant to give up power, Bush was eager to escape Washington and the burdens of an administration that had been consumed by terrorism, war, natural disaster and now a financial crash rivaling the Great Depression. For this final weekend at the retreat in the Maryland mountains, the nation's forty-third president planned to celebrate, to focus on the triumphs, not the setbacks, to reflect and remember and soak in his dwindling hours in office.

But he was distracted, his mind elsewhere. The Decider, as he had memorably dubbed himself, was struggling with one final decision. His vice president, the man who had been at his side through every crisis, was pressing him as never before. For two months, Dick Cheney had been lobbying for a pardon for his former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, who was known to all as "Scooter" and had been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in a case that had its roots in the origins of the Iraq War. Cheney would not let it go. He brought it up again and again, to the point that the president did not want to talk with him anymore.

Bush's gut told him no pardon, and he usually followed his gut. He had long bristled at the notion of people trading on connections to win executive clemency. The whole pardon process seemed corrupted to him, and now here was the ultimate insider seeking a special favor. Yet how could he tell Cheney no? How could he reject his partner of two terms on the one thing Cheney cared about most? For a man who valued loyalty above almost all else, it cut against the grain.

While the rest of his clan was in another room, Bush found a telephone and called his longtime adviser, Dan Bartlett, who had left the White House and returned to Texas.

"This sucks," Bush said. "Here I am, supposed to be trying to have a great weekend with my family, last weekend, and here I am knowing what a difficult decision it is going to be."

His advisers worried about him. Bolten, his chief of staff, felt he had failed the president because he should have protected him from having to confront his own vice president. Rice, who was closer to him than any other adviser, watched Bush as he sulked in the living room of Laurel lodge and thought he needed to be shaken out of his funk.

"Can I talk to you a minute?" she asked.

They slipped away to the lodge's small presidential office with the sloped ceiling and wooden bookcases.

She knew what was troubling him. "Don't let this be a pall over your last days as president," she told him. "You deserve better and you've done so much and you've secured the country and you've done all these things and this shouldn't be the way that you spend your last hours as president."

Bush nodded. He understood, but he could not help it.

Finally, it fell to his wife, Laura, as it often did, to ground him.

"Just make up your mind," she told him. "You're ruining this for everyone."

For eight years, George Walker Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney had been partners in an ambitious joint venture to remake the country and the world. No two Americans in public office had collaborated to such lasting effect arguably since Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

Together they had 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 50 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.

Yet for all that, their misjudgments and misadventures left them on that cold January day the most unpopular president and vice president in generations. They had unwittingly unleashed forces that led to the deaths of perhaps a hundred thousand Iraqis while squandering America's moral authority, failing to rescue a great American city from a biblical flood, presiding over the worst financial crisis in eight decades and leaving behind a fiscal mess that would hobble the country for years. For good or ill, theirs was a deeply consequential administration that would test a country and play out long after the two men at its center exited the public stage.

That their final hours together would be consumed by their private argument over the pardon underscores the distance the two men had traveled. Theirs is a story that may seem familiar on the surface but in fact the real tale of Bush and Cheney and their eight years together is far more complicated than the simplistic narrative that developed over time. Hundreds of interviews with key players including Cheney and thousands of pages of never-released notes, memos and other internal documents paint a riveting portrait of a partnership that evolved dramatically over time. Even in the early days when a young, untested president relied on the advice of his seasoned number two, Bush was hardly the pawn nor Cheney the puppeteer that critics imagined. But if the vice president won most of the fights in the first term, he had grown increasingly marginalized by the second. Restless and disaffected, Bush sought out new paths to right his presidency and no longer paid as much heed to his vice president on everything from North Korea to gun rights. Cheney became alienated sitting in his West Wing office watching their efforts in his view run off course, undermining much of what he had accomplished. His fight for Libby was in a sense then a fight for redemption from a president who had turned away from him. In pressing for clemency, Cheney was seeking one last validation of their extraordinary tandem — one that Bush ultimately was unwilling to give.

Friendship is a word that does not fully capture the relationship between Bush and Cheney. They did not see each other out of the workplace. Cheney did not spend social weekends at Camp David, or dine with their wives together. They did not typically exchange birthday gifts. Bush did not go hunting with Cheney, and the vice president visited the president's ranch in Texas only for official meetings, although occasionally the two men would slip out to fish for bass in a pond on the property. On election night in 2000 and again in 2004, they watched the returns separately, coming together only late in the evening when they thought they were about to head to a public party to claim victory. "They weren't personally close," reflected Ari Fleischer, the president's first White House press secretary. "They didn't go bowling together or to Camp David. Cheney didn't go jogging with George Bush. He was everything that Bush designed when he chose Dick Cheney to be counselor."

Cheney thought of their relationship as a business one. "It was professional, more than personal," Cheney said after leaving office. "We weren't buddies in that sense." Bush had a hard time defining their relationship. "You know, I would, I would say friends," he finally concluded. "But on the other hand, we run in separate circles. Dick goes home to his family and I go home to mine. I wouldn't call him a very social person. I'm certainly not a very social person either. So we don't spend a lot of time socially together. But, uh, friends."

Partners might be a more apt description, although even that is freighted. Some Bush advisers objected because in their view partnership implied an equal footing, and the vice president was, in the end, the vice president. Cheney never forgot that and made a point of showing nothing but deference to Bush. While Bush called him "Dick," Cheney always called Bush "Mr. President." Even out of his presence, Cheney referred to him as "The Man," as in, "Let's take this to The Man." Bush, more irreverently, sometimes referred to Cheney as "Vice." Karl Rove came to call Cheney "Management," as in "better check with Management."

Cheney was just five years Bush's senior, but carried himself with the gravitas of a much older man, and Bush treated him with more respect than anyone else in the inner circle. Yet in any meeting, it was clear who was in charge — Bush led the discussion, asked the questions and called on people to speak, while Cheney largely remained quiet. "If you spent any time around President Bush, you quickly realize he's not a guy who can be led around in that way, not at all," observed Matthew Dowd, his reelection strategist. "And Cheney's not the type who operates that way, not at all." Still, that silence seemed to connote a power all its own; everyone else in the room understood that when they left, Cheney stayed behind, offering advice one on one when nobody could rebut him. What Cheney actually thought, at times, remained mysterious. "He was a black box to a lot of us," said Peter Wehner, the White House director of strategic initiatives.

They were, of course, starkly different men, Bush an outgoing former college cheerleader from a privileged family background who delighted in bestowing nicknames, conquered his own demons with a ferocious midlife discipline and preferred the big picture, Cheney a onetime electrical lineman who worked his way up to some of the most important jobs in Washington by mastering the intricacies of governance, ultimately becoming the grim eminence of a wartime White House.

But they shared more in their background than many recognized. Both were raised in the West and identified with its frontier spirit. Both made their way East to the halls of Yale University only to become disenchanted by what they found to be an elitist culture. Both partied robustly as young men and had run-ins with the law, only to get their acts together after the women in their lives finally put their feet down. Both admired Winston Churchill to the point of displaying busts of the legendary prime minister, seeking to emulate his relentless strength in the face of overwhelming odds.

They both had a sense of humor too, though of markedly different brands. Where Bush was jocular and sometimes goofy, making faces on his campaign plane or enjoying an aide's whoopee cushion prank, Cheney was dry and understated, slipping in an ironic comment and then lifting the corner of his mouth into his trademark crooked grin. As it happened, they shared the same target for their humor: Cheney. Bush enjoyed poking fun at his vice president's bad aim and penchant for secrecy. "Dick here sent over a gift I could tell he'd picked out personally," Bush said when his daughter, Jenna, got engaged to be married. "A paper shredder." Cheney embraced his own dark reputation. Once his friend, David Hume Kennerly, greeted him teasingly by saying, "Hi Dick. Have you blown away any small countries this morning?" Without missing a beat, Cheney replied, "You know, that's the one thing about this job I really love." At one point, he puckishly tried on a Darth Vader mask his aides had bought and posed for a picture. When Cheney later tried to put the picture in his memoirs, Lynne Cheney talked him out of it.

Popular mythology had Cheney using the dark side of the force to manipulate a weak-minded president into doing his bidding. The image took on such power that books were written about "the co-presidency" and "the hijacking of the American presidency." Late-night comedians regularly turned to the same theme. Conan O'Brien joked that Cheney had told an interviewer that "I'll really miss being president." Jimmy Kimmel joked that Cheney "doesn't regret any of the decisions he made, and if he had to do it all over again, he would order President Bush to do exactly the same thing."

Cheney did not seem to mind, but it got under Bush's skin. Once over lunch with guests who did not raise the subject, Bush volunteered a rebuttal, "I always value Dick Cheney's advice. There was never a time I didn't value Dick Cheney's advice. But we don't agree on things even half the time." When he published his own memoirs after leaving office, Bush disclosed that Cheney had volunteered to drop off the 2004 election ticket. "Accepting Dick's offer," Bush mused, "would be one way to demonstrate that I was in charge." Yet while Bush stewed, Cheney came to see the reputation as an advantage. "Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole?" he once asked sardonically. "It's a nice way to operate, actually."

The cartoonish caricature, however, overstated the reality and missed the fundamental path of the relationship. Cheney was unquestionably the most influential vice president in American history. He assembled a power base through a mastery of how Washington worked and a relationship of trust with Bush, who viewed him as his consigliere guiding him through a hostile and bewildering capital. Cheney subordinated himself to Bush in a way no other vice president in modern times had done, forgoing any independent aspiration to run for president himself in order to focus entirely on making Bush's presidency successful. In return, Bush gave him access to every meeting and decision, a marked contrast to his predecessors. Harry Truman as vice president met alone with Franklin D. Roosevelt just three times. When asked in 2002 how many times he had met privately with Bush, Cheney reached into his suit pocket and pulled out his schedule. "Let me see," he said. "Three, four, five, six, seven — seven times." Then he paused for effect. "Today."

As a result, Cheney played an outsized role in driving decisions in the early years of the administration, expertly employing a network of loyalists placed strategically throughout the government. When he ran into opposition, Cheney instituted controversial environmental, energy and counterterrorism policies by circumventing the internal process. He pressed, and even badgered, an inexperienced president to go after Saddam Hussein in Iraq over any reservations Bush might have harbored. "Are you going to take care of this guy or not?" Cheney demanded impatiently at one of their private lunches.

For all that, Cheney largely was pushing on an open door, taking Bush where the president himself was already inclined to go. The president's closest friends and advisers do not recall him ever complaining that Cheney had convinced him to do something he would not have done otherwise. "He never did anything in his time serving George W. that George W. didn't either sanction or approve of," said Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming and a close friend of Cheney's. "So when people say that Cheney was running the show, that is bullshit." General Richard Myers, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on hand for some of the most critical moments, agreed. "This whole notion that the vice president was the puppet master I find laughable," he said. "He was an active vice president because I think he was empowered but he wasn't a dominant factor. The alpha male in the White House was the president."

Even in the first term, Bush rebuffed Cheney on more than one occasion. While agreeing to confront Iraq, Bush refused to attack in the spring of 2002 when Cheney first pushed him to do so, a full year before the eventual invasion. He accepted Powell's recommendation to first seek United Nations support and rejected a plan to create a post-Hussein government led by Iraqi exiles like Ahmad Chalabi. By the second term, Bush moved away from Cheney even further. Frustrated by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the crescendo of violence that greeted the "liberators," unhappy to find the United States isolated from its allies and eager for breakthroughs that would shape his legacy, Bush increasingly turned not to Cheney but to Rice, who as secretary of state supplanted him as the president's most influential lieutenant.

That's not to say he was neutered. Cheney managed to preserve much of what he had started. But he was on defense more than offense in the second term, trying to fend off changes that he thought would weaken the country or unravel the policies he had brought to pass. "Perhaps my clout was diminished," he conceded after office. "That's possible. I wouldn't quarrel about that." Indeed, by the time Bush and Cheney stepped out of the White House for the final time, they had disagreed on North Korea, gun rights, same-sex marriage, tax cuts, Guantanamo Bay, interrogation practices, surveillance policy, Iran, the auto industry bailout, climate change, the Lebanon war, stem cell research, Harriet Miers, Donald Rumsfeld, Middle East peace, Syria, Russia and federal spending.

All of that came before the Scooter Libby pardon.

To Cheney, the question of a pardon was simple justice. Libby had been pursued by an unprincipled prosecutor bent on damaging the White House. His conviction was based not on the original leak that prompted the probe but nothing more than a disagreement over memories during interviews with investigators. It was a travesty and if Bush stood for anything, he ought to stand behind the people who were loyal to him.

To help Bush make a decision, Joshua Bolten suggested asking White House lawyers to reexamine the case to see if a pardon was justified. Fred Fielding, the White House counsel who had also served in the same role for Ronald Reagan, and William Burck, his deputy who had been a federal prosecutor in New York, pored over trial transcripts and studied evidence that Libby's lawyers had raised. They came to the conclusion that the jury had ample reason to find Libby guilty. It was not just that his story clashed with that of one person but with those of eight other people, including fellow administration officials. To believe Libby, the lawyers concluded, would be to believe that all those other people were wrong in their recollections or that Libby's memory was so faulty that he did not remember repeated conversations about a topic that clearly consumed the office of the vice president.

Libby contacted Bolten to ask if he could talk with Bush directly, man to man. It seemed like the Texas thing to do.

"No, you may not," Bolten said.

Then Cheney went to Bolten.

"Scooter would like to visit with the president."

"I know," Bolten said. "I've already told him no."

"I'm asking you," Cheney said.

Bolten stuck to his guns and said no.

So finally Cheney said, "I'd like to ask the president directly."

"I wish you wouldn't," Bolten said, "but obviously if you want to raise it with the president, he would not want me screening you from raising something with him."

Bush backed up Bolten, though, refusing to see Libby. So Bolten suggested Libby see the two lawyers instead. On Saturday, January 17, as Bush retreated to Camp David for his last weekend, Libby sat down with Fielding and Burck in a booth at McCormick & Schmick's, a chain seafood restaurant on K Street a few blocks from the White House. Ordinarily, this was a see-and-be-seen center of Washington, but it was 11 a.m. on a weekend and they hoped no one would recognize them.

For the next ninety minutes, Libby made his case, but the White House lawyers were not swayed. Uncomfortable grilling a former colleague, they nonetheless started going through the evidence. Isn't it possible? What about this witness? No, Libby insisted. The point was not what was in the trial record, but what was not. The prosecutors had suppressed expert testimony about the unreliability of memory that Libby was sure would have exonerated him.

Then Fielding and Burck raised another point — pardons in the modern era typically were issued not to people claiming to be innocent but to convicts who had paid their debt to society and were seeking forgiveness. Under Justice Department guidelines at the time, the pardon attorney who prepared recommendations for the president did not even accept requests until at least five years after applicants had completed their sentence. That did not mean a president could not pardon someone who did not fit that criteria — under the Constitution, the president's pardon power is virtually without limit — but it indicated what was considered an acceptable case for a pardon.

Fielding and Burck asked Libby if he would be willing to admit guilt and ask for forgiveness to obtain a pardon.

No, Libby said. "I am innocent. I did not do this."

The controversy that surrounded Cheney's role invited a question that would mark his time in office: Had he changed? What happened to the sensible, moderate Republican everyone thought they knew? Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to two Republican presidents, famously said he no longer recognized his friend. Others wondered whether the vice president had been somehow affected by his multiple heart attacks or by the trauma of September 11, 2001.

Perhaps so many thought he changed because they mistook his low-key demeanor, friendships across party lines and service for moderate presidents as indications that he was more moderate than he really was. The record suggests he was always more conservative than his reputation. In Gerald R. Ford's White House, he was at odds with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. In Congress during the 1980s, he compiled one of the most conservative voting records; when The Washington Post referred to him as a moderate, Cheney instructed an aide to call for a correction. As defense secretary for George H.W. Bush, he was deeply suspicious of the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Cheney scoffed at the notion that he was different. "I didn't change," he said. "The world changed."

Having participated in doomsday wargame scenarios in the 1980s mapping out the consequences of catastrophic attack, Cheney had long nursed dark views about the world's dangers, views that seemed ratified on September 11. He spent the rest of his time in office consumed not with another September 11, but with a much worse scenario where terrorists would be armed with nuclear or chemical weapons instead of box-cutters. By the end of his tenure, the country had largely forgotten its fears from the days after the World Trade Center fell, but Cheney had not. What happened on September 11 was a wrenching tragedy, but ultimately survivable for a nation; an attack with weapons of mass destruction could pose a much more existential threat. In that view, almost anything it took to protect the country seemed justified. While some Americans began thinking they had overreacted to September 11, Cheney lived in the shadowy world of intelligence reports that projected threats around every corner, the "dark side," as he memorably put it. What was the moral cost of waterboarding three terrorists against the chance of a mushroom cloud in Manhattan?

If anything transformed, it was Cheney's public persona. "He went from the wise man, the Yoda character, to Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men," said Adam Levine, who worked in the White House in the first term. Levine then channeled Cheney as the gravely-voiced Jack Nicholson playing the you-can't-handle-the-truth colonel lecturing the lawyer played by Tom Cruise on a rough and tumble world: "'You want me on that wall. Who is going to do it? You, Colin Powell? You, Condi Rice? I don't have the time or inclination to explain myself to somebody who rises and sleeps under the blanket of freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.' Cheney embodied that feeling of it — 'I don't have to fucking explain to you what I am doing. I am saving the country, you asshole. I am saving lives. As much as you might hate me, you need me here.' Bush was never like that."

From the days after September 11, at least, it was Cheney who did not change. He remained focused unwaveringly on the threat he perceived. It was Bush who changed, not in his core beliefs or his general personality but in his approach toward the same goals. By the latter half of his presidency, he had grown more confident in his own judgments and less dependent on his vice president. He was willing to compromise on his most controversial terror policies in order to build a bipartisan foundation that would outlast his administration. He was more interested in rebuilding alliances and trying diplomacy than preemptive wars. Condoleezza Rice, the architect of the shift, said Bush viewed it not as a sharp pivot but more of a natural evolution along a continuum following the necessarily aggressive actions of the first term. "We had broken a lot of china," she reflected. "But at that point, you have to leave something in place. That is true with allies. It is true with the Middle East. It is true in putting together an international consensus on North Korea and international consensus on Iran. And I don't think that is how the vice president saw it. I think he would have liked to have kept breaking china."

Bush and Cheney headed into their final months in office resigned to their differences. Bush remained respectful of his number two, and was rarely heard to utter a disparaging word, although there were occasions when he was known to gently roll his eyes at something Cheney did or say. Cheney seemed tired, perhaps physically spent after four heart attacks on his way to a fifth and politically spent after eight years in the trenches. When it came to one of the last major foreign policy decisions of the administration — what to do about a secret Syrian nuclear reactor — Cheney's isolation was made plain when he urged an American airstrike. "Does anyone here agree with the vice president?" Bush asked at the critical meeting. Not a single hand went up.

A few weeks before the inauguration, even as Cheney was lobbying Bush for the Libby pardon, Joshua Bolten invited all of his living predecessors as chief of staff to his West Wing office to meet with his successor, Rahm Emanuel. Thirteen of the sixteen men to have served in that unique role attended, including Cheney, who had been Ford's top assistant. They went around one by one to offer advice.

When it came to Cheney, a devilish look crossed his face. "Whatever you do," he counseled, "make sure you've got the vice president under control."

As he headed into his final hours in the White House, it was clear to Bush that he did not exactly have his vice president under control. Bush ended the final weekend at Camp David still not fully decided what to do about the pardon for Scooter Libby. He and Laura returned to Washington the afternoon of Sunday, January 18, and headed for dinner with their friends, Jim and Sandy Langdon, at their spacious home in the Spring Valley neighborhood of the capital. They had visited any number of times over the past eight years but this time an official photographer came along to record the evening, a sign of the impending end.

Jim Langdon knew of the president's struggle and interrupted dinner.

"I got this list of people that I need pardons for," he announced jokingly.

Bush laughed.

The next morning, Monday, January 19, on his last full day in power, Bush ushered Bolten and William Burck into the Oval Office to discuss the meeting with Libby.

"He is not seeking forgiveness," Burck told Bush. "He is not asking to be forgiven because he said he didn't do it."

"Do you think he did it?" Bush asked.

"Yeah," Burck said, "I think he did it."

Libby had been convicted of lying to federal investigators about whether he had divulged to journalists the name of a CIA officer married to a critic of the vice president. Libby insisted he simply remembered events differently from other witnesses.

"I don't know. I wasn't there," Burck told Bush. "But if I were on that jury, I would probably have agreed with them. You have to follow the law and the law says if you say something that is untrue, knowingly, to a federal official in the context of a grand jury investigation and it is material to their investigation, that's a crime."

Bush was sitting behind his desk, chewing gum, staring and listening — in fact listening longer than usual. He did not like long discursive reports. But this one weighed on him.

"All right, all right," the president said finally, which his aides took to mean he would not grant the pardon. "So why do you think he did it? Do you think he was protecting the vice president?"

"I don't think he was protecting the vice president," Burck said.

"So why do you think he did it?" Bush asked.

Burck said he thought Libby assumed his account of events would never be contradicted because prosecutors would not force reporters to break their vows of confidentiality to their sources. "I think he thought that would never be broken and I think also Libby was concerned because he took to heart what you said back then, which is that you would fire anybody that you knew was involved in this," Burck said. "I just think he didn't think it was worth falling on the sword."

Bush took that in but did not seem convinced. "I think he still thinks he was protecting Cheney," the president said. He did not say so, but it seemed that Bush believed that Cheney had a personal stake in this, that in effect it was a conflict of interest. Now, the vice president was just one more supplicant trading on personal connections in the pardon process, in this case seeking forgiveness for the man who sacrificed himself for Cheney.

Bush sighed. "Now I am going to have to have the talk with the vice president," he said gloomily. That was the sort of unpleasant business that for eight years he had left to Cheney to handle. It was the vice president who had delivered the bad news to people like Paul O'Neill and Donald Rumsfeld when they were fired.

Bolten spoke up. "I can do it," he volunteered.

"Nah, nah, I can do it," Bush said.

But he was dreading it.

Excerpted from Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker Copyright 2013 by Peter Baker. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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