The relationship between former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney was much more contentious than is commonly believed, Peter Baker, White House correspondent for The New York Times, told a nearly filled Dodds Auditorium in a Tuesday evening lecture. The lecture was organized to promote Baker’s new book about the Bush administration, “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.”
“Cheney rewrote the rules,” Baker said of the vice president at the outset of his first term. Baker noted that, since the vice president was only given an office in the White House once Jimmy Carter became president, most vice presidents remained marginalized in policy-making until the Bush years. In contrast with his predecessors, Cheney made an agreement with Bush to be able to attend all top-level meetings and access the administration’s important documents.
Echoing themes from Barton Gellman’s book, “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency,” Baker recounted an anecdote in which Cheney, asked by a reporter how many times he had met with Bush, “pulled his schedule out of his pocket, and counted two, three, four, five, six, seven times — today.”
“Harry Truman’s vice president only met with him twice during his entire time in office,” Baker added.
Bush raised Dick Cheney’s profile further in the White House during the 9/11 attacks when he reportedly stated, “I’m going to call Dick,” while Air Force One lifted the president to safety. Bush also made the final decision to invade Iraq with only Cheney in the room, according to Baker.
Nonetheless, by Bush’s second term, Cheney and Bush were largely estranged politically, Baker explained. By this point, the two were “on opposite sides of North Korea, Iran, Russia,” “the auto bailout,” “[Supreme Court nominee] Harriet Myers,” “climate change,” “[former Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld” and “federal spending,” among other issues, he said.
“Of the 275 sources I interviewed,” Baker said, “not one of them told me Bush did something that he didn’t want to do.”
Indeed, Bush became more independent and confident in his views as the second term approached, fleshing out a worldview separate from Cheney’s, according to Baker.
“Bush begins thinking about his second term. What can he do to change the trajectory of his presidency?” Baker said of the demarcation between Bush’s first and second terms that some commentators, including Baker, have noted. “Under pressure from the news media [and] Congress,” Bush “gets buy-ins from surveillance and detention, closes the CIA black site prisons overseas [and] got more prisoners out of Guantanamo than President Obama has in the five years since.”
The tension between the two came to a head by the end of the second term, at which point Cheney lobbied continually for the pardon of his friend and former aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. "Bush didn’t like the pardon system to begin with,” Baker said. “He was more conservative with pardons than any president in a century, other than his father.”
In the final week of their second term,Cheney harshly and uncharacteristically remarked to Bush, “You’re leaving a good man on the field of battle,” Baker said.
“Cheney was asking for one last validation of their partnership over eight extraordinary years, and Bush wouldn’t give it to him,” Baker said. “Cheney’s public battle with Obama was a proxy for his private battle with Bush,” he explained, alluding to the vice president’s interviews after leaving office that werecritical of the Obama administration.
“President Bush left behind a program that Obama could, more or less, live with,” Baker said, citing a three-year withdrawal plan from Iraq and a bailout of General Motors that Bush might have ultimately opposed had he had more time in office.
“Some Bush administration friends have suffered PTSD” as a result of reading “Days of Fire,” Baker said, joking, explaining that he felt the need to write it because “we [reporters] get about 10 to 20 percent of what’s going on at the moment.”
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Baker also added that Bush’s record on African aid was “undeniably positive” but that one of the take-home messages of his book for future presidents was that “reliance on an inner circle” can lead to worse decision-making than otherwise would occur.
Baker also took issue with characterizations of Cheney as a "neoconservative,” stating that he was instead a “strong [traditional] conservative” who argued against Bush’s own plan to remain in Iraq indefinitely to rebuild its government.
Baker promoted his book on "The Colbert Report" on Monday and traveled to Seattle after presenting at the University.
The lecture was sponsored by the Wilson School.