Dick Cheney http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/4556459708/sizes/z/in/photolist-7WD3J9-anHTyq-fCnSQo-daasHn-dtByNU/
Not George Bush's boss?
Caricature by DonkeyHotey.
For more than a decade, ever since Dick Cheney used his assignment to select a vice presidential candidate for George W. Bush to pick himself, the conventional wisdom has been that the former secretary of defense and former CEO of Halliburton pulled Bush's strings. In 2008, for example, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker of the Washington Post won a Pulitzer prize for their four-part 2007 series—Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency that reinforced the view of Bush as willing and weak-willed marionette.

Peter Baker's 650-page new book—Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House—presents a different view of the relationship between Bush and Cheney. Baker, who covered the Bush administration first for the Washington Post and subsequently The New York Times (where he is now chief White House correspondent), agrees that Cheney was the "most powerful vice president" of modern times. But he does not present George Bush as second-in-command to the imperious Cheney, as you can read in this excerpt:

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,  ”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. When he published his own memoir 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 twice after Inauguration  Day. 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.”

Mike Allen at Politico offers some glimpses inside Baker's tome:
By the time they left office, Bush and Cheney were on opposite sides of almost every major issue, including North Korea, Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Middle East peace talks, gun rights, gay rights, climate change, surveillance, detention and the auto bailout. […] There were more doubts about invading Iraq inside the Bush team than were publicly known at the time. Karen Hughes, one of the president's closest confidantes, worried that it would be a mistake to go to war and brought up her concerns with Bush. The president sent her to Condoleezza Rice for reassurance, but she was never fully convinced and at several points tried to keep Bush from feeling trapped into going to war. As one senior official who came to rue his involvement in Iraq put it, “The only reason we went into Iraq, I tell people now, is we were looking for somebody’s ass to kick. Afghanistan was too easy.”
That may well be the unnamed senior adviser's perspective, but this we-did-Iraq-to-prove-our-manhood assertion doesn't mesh well with the reality of the Iraq invasion that other Bush White House insiders—such as former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill—have confirmed was on the agenda in January 2001. The September 11 assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a convenient excuse for pinning something on Saddam Hussein, even though he had nothing to do it.

It wasn't just "somebody's ass." Hussein's Iraq was a specific target of the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century long before Cheney, one of its charter members, even considered running for vice president. While Cheney and Bush may well have been at odds, that wasn't enough to stop slaughter in Iraq, torture everywhere and a legacy of tens of thousands of brain-damaged American veterans plus a $3 trillion-plus hole in the Treasury.

You can read David Frum's review of Days of Fire here.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Mon Oct 21, 2013 at 12:26 PM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers and Daily Kos.

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