Interview: Peter Baker, Author Of 'Days Of Fire' Peter Baker covered the George W. Bush administration for The New York Times. In his new book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, Baker takes a second look at those controversial years.
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'Days Of Fire': The Evolution Of The Bush-Cheney White House

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'Days Of Fire': The Evolution Of The Bush-Cheney White House

'Days Of Fire': The Evolution Of The Bush-Cheney White House

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It has now been more than four years since George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left office. It was, to put it mildly, a consequential and deeply controversial tenure - 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, the financial collapse. Those are just some of the major events that challenged the administration. And at the center of it all was the relationship between two polarizing figures: Bush and Cheney.

Peter Baker is the White House correspondent for the New York Times. He's taken a second look with a new book called "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House." I asked Baker about the perception that developed of the administration - that Vice President Cheney was the one really in charge.

PETER BAKER: He was certainly the most influential vice president we'd ever seen, to that point, but it kind of got distorted and oversimplified over time. I think we kind of lost the - sort of the nuance of what was really going on there. And, in fact, the reality, when you go back and look at it, is a much more interesting and dynamic relationship that changes and evolves over time.

RATH: Well, with Cheney - and I think a big part of that was early on, he made those comments on "Meet the Press" about working through the dark side.

BAKER: Right.

RATH: And so it sort of turned into almost a Darth Vader caricature of him.

BAKER: Right. Yeah. He definitely saw the world in grim terms. He had a very fatalistic outlook about the perils he saw to America that informed and shaped the policies that he recommended and pushed for President Bush. And he came to embrace this dark reputation, at one point.

You say Darth Vader. Literally, his staff bought him a Darth Vader mask; and he puts it on, and they take a photo of it. And somewhere in the National Archives, this photo exists. But it has never been released to the public. He tried to put it in his memoir, but Lynne Cheney talked him out of it.

RATH: So he had fun with that. He was amused by that caricature?

BAKER: He had a wry sense of humor about it. He thought it was absurd. But at some point, he said, you know, the whole reputation of operating from the shadows served him well, on some level. The mysterious vice president, he must be more powerful than we think he is. Therefore, we will defer to him, and we will be afraid of him, and we will be intimated by him. And to some extent, that actually then creates its own reality.

RATH: What did President Bush think of the caricature, the reputation?

BAKER: At first, President Bush thought this was OK. When his aides would come to him and say, look, you know, we don't like that Cheney's getting so much attention at your expense; he says look, this is good for me. He takes arrows for me. This is helpful to me, in a political sense. And he felt that it was helpful to him in a policy sense because he really did trust and rely on Vice President Cheney. But over time, he grew more sensitive toward it. He really started to bristle at this idea that he wasn't in charge.

And Vice President Cheney, in fact, at one point says to him in 2003: Look, I'll drop off the ticket in 2004, if you want. If you want to have somebody else, I'll go graciously. And Bush thinks about it, and he says he thinks about it because it would show who was really in charge. And it's a statement, I think, that reveals just how much that was starting to bother him, at that point.

RATH: And that was pretty early because I think that the general impression is that the disenchantment with Cheney and the distancing was much later on, sort of late second term.

BAKER: Yeah.

RATH: You're saying back as - 2003.

BAKER: Right. No, I think it begins earlier than that. I think as Iraq goes badly, as they discover there are no weapons, as the president begins to think about what his second term might be like, he begins to move in a different direction than Vice President Cheney would want him to go. And that causes this rift between the two over policy.

RATH: A lot of people became aware of this - the two men kind of drifting apart towards the end of President Bush's second term. And I think a lot of it was wrapped up in Vice President Cheney's push for a pardon...

BAKER: Right.

RATH: ...for Scooter Libby.

BAKER: Right.

RATH: How did that first erupt as an issue between the men?

BAKER: So the final days of the administration are approaching. And by this point, the two had been on opposite sides of most of the important things that have been confronting them these previous few years. They're on the opposite side of Iran, North Korea, Syria, Russia, Lebanon, Harriet Miers, Donald Rumsfeld, the auto bailout, climate change, gun rights, gay rights.

RATH: That's an amazing list.

BAKER: It's a pretty striking list, right? So they come into these final days, and Cheney comes to Bush, basically saying, I - there's one thing, then, left that I'm asking for, and I've never asked for anything like this before; a pardon for Scooter Libby. Scooter Libby, of course, had been his chief of staff, convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice in the CIA leak case. And Cheney thought it was a bogus prosecution, that it was political. And he says to the president, you have to pardon him.

The president's reluctant. He doesn't want to do this. He had commmuted his sentence, but he didn't think that a pardon was necessarily justified; sends out the lawyers, asks them to relook at the case. They went and met with Scooter Libby at a seafood restaurant near the White House. And they came back to the president, and they said, we think the jury was justified in its verdict. And the president tells Cheney no.

And Cheney says something to him that's as harsh as anything he had said in eight years. He says, I think you're leaving a good man wounded on the field of battle. And that's the end of the partnership. That happens in the very final days of this administration, and the two go off in their different directions.

RATH: We talk about journalism being the first draft of history. We have some perspective on this. You might call this the second draft.

BAKER: Right. Right.

RATH: What's your takeaway now, with a bit more perspective on the Bush-Cheney years?

BAKER: Well, I think, you know, a second draft has the benefit of hindsight, has the benefit of a little distance. It's been five years. The reason to do a book like this is because as a journalist, you discover how little you know in the moment. And only after years later, when people are willing to sit down and be more candid and thoughtful, are they willing to share further understanding of what was really happening behind the scenes.

But I think this, as a second draft, tries to put things in perspective. As one of the reviewers put it, neither accuses nor excuses but simply tries to bring the reader into the White House and understand what happened in these rather extraordinary and consequential years.

RATH: Peter Baker is the longtime White House correspondent for the New York Times. His account of the inner workings of the Bush administration is called "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House." Peter, thank you.

BAKER: Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

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