Peter Baker On Days Of Fire: Bush And Cheney In The White House
HH: What is it about the fifth year of a presidency? Welcome to a show on an extraordinary day. And I’m so pleased to tell you that I’ve got an extraordinary guest this hour and next. Hour number three, Dr. Charles Krauthammer will be joining me. But this hour and next, Peter Baker is my guest. He is the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times. You see him most weeks on Washington Week In Review on PBS. He is the author of really one of the more remarkable works of nearly contemporaneous history that I have ever read, Days Of Fire: Bush And Cheney In The White House, New York Times bestseller. It’s linked over at www.hughhewitt.com. Peter Baker, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
PB: Hey, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
HH: What is it about fifth year? I went to Days of Fire, which I’ve been reading for the last few days, and I went back to about Page 400-440, which is the fifth year, the fall of the fifth year of the Bush presidency. And he had Katrina and Harriet Miers, the casualty count in Iraq was 2,000, the wireless surveillance story broke. And here we are, five years into the Obama presidency, and you’ve got the slowdown, you’ve got Syria and Putin, you’ve this day, this week, this month, and Sebelius today. What is it, Peter?
PB: No, you’re exactly right. A fifth year, obviously, if you’re a two term president, you want to skip your fifth year, go straight to maybe the sixth or seventh year, although Bush’s sixth year was pretty tough, too. You know, it’s interesting. I think you come off the high of a reelection, right? The whole first term’s organizing principle is winning that second term. And you come off the high of a reelection when everything is measured by a single day, right, yes or no, win or lose, boom. And then everything becomes more complicated. Then it becomes sort of, you know, a series of compromises or setbacks, and maybe even complacency from time to time. And I think you’re seeing some of that already, obviously, in this White House…
HH: Uh oh, we lost Peter Baker. So much for the wonderful cell phone connection. We’ll go back and find him…Now Peter Baker, it sounds just like Mike Brown did after Katrina. No one imagined it.
PB: Yeah, no one imagined it. And it’s, you know, a failure of imagination, right? I mean, you should imagine that there are going to be these problems with health care. You should imagine that there could be a deadly hurricane in New Orleans that would overtop the levees. You know, look, hindsight’s perfect, of course, and it’s easy to criticize from the outside, which is of course what journalists do. But you do get the sense at this point in an administration that they need, that they need to kind of get things going again.
HH: We are going to spend the bulk of our time on Days Of Fire. And I’m going to encourage everyone to read it. I think once they pick it up, they’re not going to be able to put it down. The person I sat next to on a cross-country flight from Cleveland back to L.A. on Sunday looked at me at the end of the flight and said you didn’t stop reading that book. And I said because I haven’t seen it, I’ve read the memoirs of W., of Cheney, of Rice, of Rummy. I’ve had them all on the air. I’ve talked to Laura Bush about hers. I don’t know how you did this, but you got everybody to talk to you, Peter Baker.
PB: Well, thank you, a lot of them, anyway. President Bush chose not to, but Vice President Cheney did, Colin Powell did, Condi Rice, Don Rumsfeld, Stephen Hadley, Josh Bolton, a lot of people you would recognize from those years. And I think that they understood that it’s important to get this right for history. And it’s interesting talking to people after they leave the White House, because they’re, you know, they’re able to be a little more candid, a little more reflective, a little more thoughtful. They’ve given a lot of thought themselves to what went right and what went wrong, and what the important juncture points were along the way. So I really actually enjoyed those interviews a lot, because they were, I thought they were fascinating, listening to people relive those years and think through what they meant.
HH: All right, so here’s the parallel. Right now at your paper, on the front page, Robert Perry has a story, Sebelius Offers Apology For Debacle With Health Care Website. Mike Shear, frequent guest on the show, has one, Obama Vows To Fix Health Site And Rebuffs Critics. On Page 414 of Days Of Fire, you quote Steve Schmidt, Vice President Cheney’s counselor in the aftermath of Katrina writing an email to his colleague, “This is the end of the presidency.”
HH: Very clear-eyed. Obviously, it wasn’t the physical end of the presidency, and he was wrong, because the surge came back. But that level of despair…
HH: Do you believe that that’s engulfing the White House tonight?
PB: That’s a really good question. And one of the things about doing this book, Days Of Fire, is that you realize how little you really get in the moment, right? Reporters, I think, do a reasonably decent job of trying to capture the larger issue going on. But the truth is, we get 10%, 20% of what’s going on. And only afterwards can you begin to dig deeper. And you’re right. Some day in a few years from now, somebody’s going to write a book, or will get something that will come out of the archives that will give us a better sense of what’s happening inside this White House right now, whatever sense of anxiety or consternation, panic, even, they might be feeling over sort of the succession of bad news they’ve had to live with. And it’ll be fascinating to look at that.
HH: I don’t know if you were following the Twitter feed today, but I began to imagine what the Twitter feed would have been for Katrina, because Sebelius just got, she was a punching bag. It was terrible, actually. I almost felt sorry for her. Bush, at least, didn’t have to deal with that in the middle of the surge or Katrina, but devastating enough the media he got. But at least it wasn’t this relentlessness. Is it changing the way that politicians are going to be able to actually cope with a crisis?
PB: I think it does, actually. I think it changes the environment in which people are governing. I covered Clinton, I covered Bush, and I covered Obama. And with each of these presidencies, you watch as our media environment, our communications environment changed. Clinton, of course, didn’t have Twitter, didn’t have blogs, he didn’t have, really, the internet didn’t get going as a news source until the very end of his administration. But you saw that begin with Monica Lewinsky, right? The Drudge Report comes out and calls attention to something that the mainstream media in the form of Newsweek hadn’t chosen to publish. And that was the beginning of something very different for them. Bush, the same way. You know, you watched the rise of the 24 hour cable shows really became a much more dominant and more divided in the sense of Fox versus MSNBC, and you had more, all kinds of different ways of people getting their information those days. And today, you’re right, the Obama administration living with Twitter in which everything becomes so fast-paced and so hard to keep up with, I wouldn’t envy being somebody in that White House or any White House.
HH: Do you think, you know, the 2006 elections cost Rummy his job, or it was actually on the line as you detail, it was over before that. But the 2006 elections ratified the general malaise the country felt at years five and six of the Bush administration. Is that where we’re heading with the Obama administration and the elections of 2014, Peter Baker?
PB: Well, that’s a good question, right? So some of his aides and advisors, even family members, tried to convince President Bush that it was time to replace Rumsfeld as early as 2004. Fairly or unfairly, he was seen as in charge of a war that wasn’t going very well even then. And Bush resisted for a couple of years. He just didn’t like the idea of giving in to what he saw as the chattering class calling for a head on a platter kind of thing. And I think Obama is not that different in that regard. I think he hates the notion that pundits and political opponents would call for Sebelius’ head, and especially because she’s an ally. So I think he’s more resistant than perhaps a president might be otherwise. But it could be. If the 2014 elections go badly, it would be surprising not to see at least some transition then.
HH: Now let’s begin at the end of the book of Days Of Fire. At Page 651, you write, “Bush, in other words, was at his best when he was cleaning up his worst.” Now we debate that, because of course, that doesn’t account for the months after 9/11. But do you think Obama is going to be able to rise to the challenge of the mess he has created in the way that Bush rose to the challenge of the mess of Katrina and the surge, as you detail in Days Of Fire?
PB: Well, that’s a good point, isn’t it? I mean, you know, and I don’t know that we know the answer, but it is interesting. What was the phrase that Obama’s White House used when they promised to fix the website? They said they were going to have a tech surge, right?
PB: So it’s interesting that they’ve adopted even the language of Bush’s effort in his second term to reclaim control over the Iraq war, a surge, by the way, he opposed when he was a senator. But I think he now as a president at least sees the concept of trying to salvage a bad situation in a way that Bush did in his second term. Can they do it? I don’t know. That’s obviously a big question. I think the website will be fixed as everybody says. The bigger problems or bigger questions are, you know, are people who are losing their policies going to get new policies that they can afford? Can they make the actual mechanics of this work once the website is in fact fixed? And that’s a much bigger question.
HH: We dive into Days Of Fire after the break. 20 seconds, Peter Baker, is Jay Carney beginning to remind you of Scott McClellan?
PB: (laughing) Well, I’m not sure either one of them would like that comparison, but I do think that he’s a punching bag, and his days are pretty tough.
HH: Are they numbered?
PB: Maybe not. I mean, I think he’s been thinking about leaving for a while. It’ll be interesting to see whether he chooses to do that anytime soon.
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HH: Peter Baker, I met with President Bush twice in the White House with a bunch of other talk show hosts, or a half dozen of us who went in twice. One of those meetings was on the last Wednesday of his presidency. And I don’t know if you know about this, or if you would even be surprised by the fact I think the primary reason he asked us there was to go easy on President Obama and to give him a chance. And he expressed great confidence that the news president would quickly adopt his national security posture, and the seriousness of the job would change him. Are you surprised by that?
PB: No, I’m not, actually. I mean, that’s interesting and striking, and that’s, but it is in character with where he was. First of all, since we’ve seen since he left office, he’s been very gracious about his successor. The Obama people appreciate that, and they speak of him much more kindly in private today than they did, certainly, when they were on the campaign trail. And secondly, he really made a point during that transition of working closely in collaboration with the incoming team. He made very clear to his staff he wanted that to be a successful transition, that there should be no daylight between them, and because the fact he saw the security of the country being important to them.
HH: I also, the first time we met with him, it was, I think, August 1st of 2007. And as we were ushered in, again, a half dozen talk show hosts, he had just finished talking to Malaki via video conference, something, he said in passing, he did quite often. I see that confirmed in Days Of Fire. He attempted to mentor Malaki into the leader of a democracy.
PB: He did believe he was mentoring him, and he did believe that that, that those weekly conferences helped. You know, it was a pretty unusual thing for a president to do. That kind of regular time with a single foreign leader is not a typical thing. But he believed that he had to step in and be a little bit more hands on, and show them how to take the lead. And Malaki, at first, was suspected, or not suspected, but believed by the Bush team to be not assertive enough about stepping in with these Shiite militias and so on, and that only Bush’s direct intervention would help.
HH: I have talked many times on the air with your colleague, John Burns, and with your former colleague, Dexter Filkins, as well as people like Robert Kaplan, and even General Petraeus before he came back in September to testify. They all believed that when Bush left, Iraq might be saved. But just this Monday, Peter Baker, 39 people died in car bombs. A bomber blew himself up killing 14 with a suicide bomber. What’s your assessment of the handoff from Bush to Obama, and Bush’s hopes for that country?
PB: Well, look, he had invested so much of his presidency and so much of our national treasure and lives into making that a success. I think he, you know, it became sort of the all-consuming thing for him. And even today, he’s very concerned about it. He’s spent a lot of time with veterans of the war. He left President Obama a roadmap, actually. You know, it’s funny. Obama came to prominence in part by his strong opposition to the Iraq war. But he ended up adopting at least part of the roadmap that President Bush had left him. Bush had negotiated a three year withdrawal agreement with Malaki before leaving office, and Obama basically stuck to it. He added an intermediate step of pulling combat troops out by a certain date. Now the difference is that Bush believed he would have probably come in and negotiated to keep a residual force, a follow on force at the end of that 2011 date, and President Obama didn’t manage to do it. But you know, it’s, how much different it would have made, I don’t know. It’s a real good question. Should more American troops have been there, would it have changed the dynamics? Or at a certain point, do the Iraqis have to be able to find their own solutions?
HH: Has your reporting on Bush and Iraq and the surge, and you’re in-depth, and I mean, it is detailed here, all the agony that went into the decision to go in, to stay, to surge, and to remain. Has it changed your assessment of how Team Obama handled the collapse of the Status of Forces Agreement?
PB: Well, you know, it’s interesting. The guy who negotiated the agreement for Bush was a guy named Brett McGurk. And the guy that Obama sent over to negotiate the follow on force for him in 2011 was Brett McGurk. And what he would tell you is that, you know, the Iraqis didn’t want it. And if the Iraqis didn’t want it, it’s very hard for Americans to agree to the kind of conditions that they were insisting on in terms of liability for American troops and so on. So you know, it’s a good question. I mean, I think that President Obama was less committed to that than certainly President Bush would have been. He didn’t have any great desire to leave a lot of troops behind in Iraq. But whether President Bush could have negotiated a different outcome, given that Obama was using the same guy, it’s an open question.
HH: Now I want to start at the end of the book and then move forward, because I’ve seen a lot of your interviews, and no one really quite gets to the financial crisis. But just today, the Fed reaffirmed they’re sticking with their $85 billion dollars a month bond repurchase, they’re sticking with 0.25 point interest rates. And your portrait of the financial crisis is riveting, Page 616, “Bush was calm and assuring aides watching him. He was at his best in a crisis when those below needed lifting up. His bottomless supply of confidence, no matter how much trouble it had gotten him into in other circumstances, proved reassuring to his staff at these moments.” Do you think this story is well-known, Peter Baker?
PB: No, probably not. I think that because everybody at the time was focused on both the consequences of the financial crash and also the presidential election that was hot and heavy at that very moment, it probably hasn’t gotten as much attention. You know, it’s interesting, because this is a moment where President Bush kind of feels on his own. He’s gone through so many other days of fire, if you will, by this point, that another crisis is almost, you know, it’s almost expected for him. And he tells Karen Hughes, his close advisor from Texas, he says look, I’m glad that I’m here when this is happening, because a new president, in this case Obama, wouldn’t have had the experience, the team with the political latitude to make the unpopular decisions that President Bush made.
HH: I can’t remember which of my colleagues did, I think it was Mike Gallagher, asked him about TARP on that Wednesday before he left office, and he pointed to two chairs, and he said Hank Paulson sat there, and Ben Bernanke sat there, and they said we were going to have a great depression, and I was not going to let that happen. In Days Of Fire, you quote him as saying, “I’m going to be FDR. I’m not going to be Hoover.” I don’t think a lot of people quite get the drama of those days, and you capture it very well.
PB: Well, he felt that the whole thing was coming apart, right? It just felt cataclysmic. And one of these institutions after another kind of going down or kind of on the brink of going down, and the whole thing felt like it was unraveling. And then he does pose TARP, and he goes to the Congress, and it gets voted down by the House, including his own Republicans, he can’t carry at that point. and the market just tumbles, you know, more than 700 points in just a matter of minutes and hours. And you know, he isn’t that calm in this moment. He deputized Hank Paulson to be his sort of front man, and to really take the lead, much like he did David Petraues with the Iraq surge, because he recognizes his own limitations at that point. He recognizes that the public, his own credibility and popularity are at a low point, and that you need a guy like Petraeus in the case of the surge, and Paulson in the case of the financial crash to sort of reassure the public.
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HH: Peter Baker, the relationship with Hank Paulson, you compare to the one he developed with Petraeus. And in many respects, Bush had many of these. And I went back through the book, and I counted he had this relationship with Cheney, with Rice, for a time with Rumsfeld, and certainly with Michael Gerson and John McConnell, with Rove and Hughes and Pete Wehner, and Joshua Bolton and Stephen Hadley, and Dana Perino. He had lots of strong people to lean on. I don’t think he actually got mad at anyone in any kind of enduring way, did he?
PB: Yeah, it’s a good question. You know, even Rumsfeld, who was widely blamed by people outside the administration, and quite a few inside, Bush never really got sort of mad at him the way that you might think you might if you were very frustrated about the war. He saw the attacks on Rumsfeld, to some extent, as being attacks on him. And his view was look, Rumsfeld was executing a strategy that I set, or at least I approved, and so if anybody has to take responsibility or accountability for not working, it has to be me. And I think it’s that kind of loyalty that you do see in interviewing people who worked for him, a great deal of affection and a great deal of residual admiration for him, even if they disagreed with individual policies or decisions that he made.
HH: There’s one character not fully developed in Days Of Fire, and actually, I haven’t seen it fully developed anywhere. And I think of him as sort of the Iago of the Bush administration. It’s Richard Armitage, not a man without talent, but he allowed Libby to go down. I mean, if it were the days of dueling, he’d have grass before breakfast. It was, what is the deal with him?
PB: Well, that’s a very, you know, one thing about this administration, and that’s probably true of a lot of administrations is there’s a lot of scar tissue, right? A lot of people came out of there feeling seared by something or another, and one of the big divots, one of the big wedges, was over the Scooter Libby case. And Cheney and his people felt very burned because Richard Armitage was in fact the first person to tell Bob Novak about Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative. Remember, of course, this is the case of Joe Wilson, who had criticized the administration for misusing intelligence, in his view, and his wife was outed, in effect, as a CIA official, and there was an investigation. And Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, not the leak itself. And in the Cheney world, the fact that Armitage didn’t tell them that he in fact, he told the prosecutors, but he didn’t tell anybody in the White House that he in fact was the first one to tell Novak left them very, very bitter, very sour.
HH: But I mean, why didn’t he? You talked to Powell, and you talked to Armitage, obviously,
PB: I did.
HH: Why didn’t they step up and say it wasn’t Libby, it wasn’t Rove?
PB: Well, they felt, they were told by lawyers that it was not, they asked them not to, you know. They said don’t intervene by this, we’re still investigating this, and they felt obliged to listen to the authorities who had interviewed them. It’s an awkward position to be left in, right? You’re sitting at a table in the Situation Room looking around the room, and you know this investigation is going on, and that people in that room might be targeted. But he also didn’t know, by the way, what other people had done. It’s not like Armitage telling Novak was the end of the story. There were others also talked about this information with reporters, and so what Armitage told me in an interview is look, I didn’t make Scooter tell the prosecutors what he told them. That was his decision.
HH: Oh, but that is such, I know this isn’t your job, Peter, that is such a cop out. The Armitage walking his friend off the plank, there isn’t a military unit in the country that would respect a guy who did that. And I look back, now I see Rahm Emanuel on CNN this afternoon defending the President, right, going out, doing, the people who stuck together. The Department of State under Colin Powell was just not part of this team.
PB: Well, that’s certainly the way it was viewed by other places in the administration, no question about it. And that’s why at the end of the first term, there was no crying in Cheney’s office that Powell was going to be leaving. You know, the flip side is what they felt was that Cheney and Rumsfeld were using Powell as a public shield to justify our Defense decisions that were controversial. And in fact, Armitage at one point, the book reveals, urged Powell to resign.
PB: But he chose not to. I think there’s sort of, there’s sort of the soldier’s mentality on his part.
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HH: The incredible stress that people in White Houses live under, I worked there, Peter, for one year under President Reagan in the White House Counsel’s Office, worked for Fred Fielding with John Roberts. It was, it’s a different sort of place. I cannot imagine, and you capture it very well, the stress of working there when it’s a target in wartime for this long, enormously stressful period of time. And I want to compliment you for giving hat tips to Stephen Hadley and Joshua Bolton, and people like Pete Wehner, as well as the people we always hear about like Rove and Cheney. But you really dug down and made sure that people like Crouch and the rest of them got their due.
PB: Well, you know, I think it’s a hard thing to be in any White House in the modern era. I think it was probably hard in the Reagan era, and I think it’s only gotten, you know, exponentially worse as you say with the advent of Twitter and everything else that’s so hard. And as you say, in a time of war, they felt very, very personally about this. And there were consequences to it. You know, you’d talk to somebody like Meghan O’Sullivan, for instance, she was a deputy National Security Advisor in charge of Iraq. She felt deeply personal about it. When she left the White House, in fact, she told me afterwards, you know, she kept having dreams. She couldn’t stop dreaming about Iraq. It just kind of, they lived it. And they were anxious, even desperate to find a way to turn things around and make things better. So the surge story, I think, is actually one of the most interesting ones, because it is such a dramatic moment, and a daring and bold decision by a president who was in deeply in trouble.
HH: You write at one point about Rove being conflicted about actually leaving, even though he didn’t really leave. But some people stuck through – Cheney and Rice, of course, and other people left early, and sort of came back, like Hughes. And then Bartlett left, but he didn’t really leave. Ari Fleischer left. Rummy would have stayed until they carried him out, but some people stuck around through the whole eight years. I don’t think anyone’s done a study, yet, of other presidents at war, whether it’s Johnson or Nixon or Lincoln about who stayed and who went. John Hay stuck with Lincoln through the whole bloody mess.
PB: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m reading that John Hay biography right now, and it’s very interesting. It points out, by the way, that he and Nicolay, who was Lincoln’s other secretary, were probably going to leave in the second term anyway, but that’s of course, who knows? But it’s stressful, and it’s wearing on these people. And it’s wearing on the President, by the way. What’s really interesting is of course Bush didn’t want us to know that.
HH: Right, right.
PB: He really reacted strongly to this notion, correct or not, that LBJ was too public in his agonizing, that he sent the wrong signal during Vietnam, one that undercut morale and support. Whether he’s right or not, that really influenced his thinking about this, and he was determined not to show any doubts or anxieties, perhaps to a fault, because I think people probably wanted, the public probably wanted him to show that he was as frustrated as they were about the war earlier than he ultimately did.
HH: Now we’ll spend more time in the second hour talking about the Bush-Cheney relationship. I ended up making a note to myself. I’ve interviewed the Vice President so many times, including last week, and I brought up your book to him. At the beginning, they were almost 100% agreed, 100% of the time. And at the end, they were 100% agreed, 30% of the time. But there was no disloyalty ever from Cheney towards Bush, was there?
PB: No, I think you know, he kept quiet. I mean, he didn’t voice publicly his differences with him, and they didn’t leak them out a lot. It wasn’t adjudicated in the press the way a lot of administrations do. There were a couple of moments. There was a moment when…
HH: Oh, the Heller brief. I loved that story.
PB: It’s interesting, because the Heller case, of course, for your listeners who might forget, was a 2nd Amendment case, right? Was the handgun ban in the District of Columbia Constitutional or not? And the administration kind of took a sort of middle position. They were worried about, the Justice Department, that is, was worried about invalidating laws that would ban machine guns and others. So they took a kind of middle position in their brief. Cheney didn’t like that. He thought that they should stand up foursquare for the 2nd Amendment, as he saw it. And he signed on to a Senate brief filed by Republicans. And he said he was doing so in his role as president of the Senate. But of course, that was in conflict with the administration he was in. And that was one of the rare moments, I think, where he in fact did sort of publicly kind of give voice in some way to this dissatisfaction.
HH: And who did Joshua Bolton chew out? Was it Addington? Did he go down and threaten to send Addington to the Senate office forever?
PB: He did. Yeah, Bolton obviously wasn’t going to take on Cheney. He was a chief of staff. The Vice President was the Vice President. So he goes to Cheney and says look, you know, this is what you call a process foul. And Cheney kind of smiles at that, and says I feel like I have to chastise Addington, in effect, is what he says, and is that okay? And Cheney says you know, be my guest. And he goes down and he talks to Addington about it…
HH: And David Addington is the President’s Counsel, and a very formidable, intelligent and powerful figure in the White House.
PB: Right, and intimidating. I mean, he’s a tall guy, he’s very gruff at times, although people who were close to him say he had a softer side that many people didn’t see. But in any case, I mean, Bolton went to him and said this isn’t kosher, in effect. You can’t have the Vice President taking a different position than the President and his administration. And Addington sort of responds by saying you know, he works for the, he gets his paycheck from the Senate, which is true, because the Senate pays for Vice President’s staff, interestingly enough. But then Josh Bolton said something to him, yeah, well, that’s fine, but the next time this happens, you can take your office stuff and go work out of a tiny little office in the Senate, because you won’t be welcome in the White House anymore.
HH: It’s a great anecdote. And I was thinking today when President Obama was up in Boston giving a speech that you wrote on Page 597 about Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden came out to say I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He was out today. On Page 597, you write about Cheney, “More than anyone in the White House, Cheney remained focused on the war on terror.” Hour three today, I’m going to talk with Charles Krauthammer about this. Cheney just never took his focus off. To this day, I don’t think, he thinks about much other than that when it comes to assessing presidents, Peter Baker.
PB: I think that’s right. He’s very single-minded in that regard. And from his point of view, you know, he spent his career even before the White House thinking about these issues, right? He had not only been White House chief of staff during the Cold War, he had also, during his years in Congress, participated in these continuity of government exercises, where they literally spirited him off once a year to go to some retreat and pretend that the world had blown up, and he was the White House chief of staff. So when 9/11 happens, this sort of confirms, I think, his darkest views of the world. And what he sees out there is a world full of peril, full of danger. And he remains focused on that to the end of the administration, and as you say, beyond. And it’s President Bush who begins to move away, in effect, begins to think okay, I want to protect the country, too, obviously, but he begins to think about other priorities like repairing the damage with allies, trying more diplomacy. And that’s where he and Cheney really begin to diverge.
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HH: Peter Baker, you have a number of anecdotes in here. There’s a fascinating account of an Oval Office meeting with a bunch of historians where Max Boot and President Bush get into it over Korea, over Chris Hill and John Bolton.
HH: And Bush’s give and take, and that was what he was doing with journalists when he invited them in, and his reading. He was so alive and engaged. Do you get the sense that President Obama does the same thing on the same level of frequency?
PB: I actually think he does. I think lately, in fact, he’s had a number of journalists in, particularly bureau chiefs and columnists more than guys like me, and they have had some of these off the record kind of sessions like the one we write about in Days Of Fire with Bush. And you know, it’s interesting, in fact, there was one the other day where he had a number of them in, and he asked what should I be doing, and one of the columnists said well, you need to be talking with people who are more conservative than we are. And the next day, he in fact did bring in a bunch of conservative columnists, which I think is interesting.
HH: Does he read the way Bush reads, because I mean, you chronicle Bush was voracious.
PB: Bush is more of a reader than people give him credit for, yes. It’s a different kind of reading, it’s interesting, because I think that Bush’s reading is, it’s defined by a certain metrics. He’s a metrics guy, right? So he gets into this reading contest with Karl Rove, and it’s about not just how many books they read, who’s read more, it’s how many pages each book is, how many square inches of type it is. I mean, they really kind of get down into it. I think President Obama obviously is an author of books, and interested in books, too, probably reads in a different way, and spends a lot of time on briefing papers as well. But my guess is, I don’t know, but I’d be interested to know whether President Obama’s reading about Lincoln. That’s something that President Bush read a lot.
HH: Oh, you know, again in the Oval Office, it’s so funny when you brought that up, he pointed out to the talkers there’s 41 is number one in my heart, but that man, pointing at the Lincoln portrait, is in my head. He really did immerse…I never knew about the Gettysburg trip, either. That was new to me in Days Of Fire.
PB: Isn’t that interesting? Right after the 2008 Republican Convention, John McCain has had the convention, not really thrilled about having Bush come. In fact, Bush, because of the hurricane at that time, ended up addressing the convention by video. And afterwards, he goes to visit, he takes some of his longtime aides and advisors to Gettysburg of all places, and he’s being given the tour, and they’re talking about what happens there. And Bush says to the guide, he says well, yeah, but did he say bring him on?
HH: Yeah, very self-aware, very self-deferential as well.
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HH: Peter Baker, are you on deadline tonight? Or do you get a time off for the book tour, by the way?
PB: (laughing) I’m not on deadline tonight just for you.
HH: Oh, well that’s terrific. I’ve got to ask you, though, how are the Bushies reacting to Days Of Fire?
PB: Well, that’s a good question. I haven’t heard from the President or his office, and he did choose not to give an interview or cooperate. He did think that he did have worries that a New York Times reporter couldn’t be fair to him. But I’ve heard from a lot of his aides and advisors since then, and it’s been very nice. A lot of them say that they recognize where they worked, they recognize the times they were in. One of them, Nicole Wallace, said that she, on every page, she said that she read something that she knew, and she read something she knew but didn’t know that I knew.
PB: And read something she didn’t know.
HH: Well, let me tell you something I didn’t know, and it’s really the central moment of the Bush presidency, and the central moment of the book. It’s on Page 520. W. and Cheney go to the Pentagon, they go into the tank, and they’re talking about the surge. And Army Chief of Staff Schoomaker says no, “We are concerned we are going to break the Army. And W. looks at him and says let me tell you what’s going to break the Army. What’s going to break the Army is a defeat like we had in Vietnam. That broke the Army for a generation.” I put the book down and made a note on my notes at that point, Peter Baker. There’s a commander-in-chief with a vision out beyond the tree line.
PB: Well, he was, yeah, he had to push back against the joint chiefs who were reluctant to do the surge. And this is a rather extraordinary moment for any president. He has to, and it’s a calculation that comes after several years where he didn’t, right? He deferred to the generals, he deferred to Rumsfeld. He deferred to the strategy on the ground, and he deferred to Bremer, because he didn’t want to impose his own judgment. He thought that was too LBJ-like. But finally, 2006 comes around and he thinks he has to sort of intervene, finally, to say I think that the answer here is to put more forces in, and he’s going to have to confront these generals who were reluctant to do it, who don’t think it’s going to work, and who worry about the impact on the force. And he makes that powerful argument that you cite.
HH: Well, I also made notes about the relationship with generals, because President Obama has this same issue, and as I put down the book, I had written down all the people who are gone – Petraeus, General Mattis, General Allen, General McChrystal, General Odierno, I believe, is still in the Army. But most of these guys are gone. How could that have happened that we’re still in the same war, and that I think I just named our five best commanders, and Abizaid is a great commander as well, and Sanchez is a courageous man, but they were not up to the task, and Casey, of course, became chief of staff, and you chronicle that very well. But are you surprised that Obama has blown through all these generals?
PB: Well, you know, it’s interesting, this does predate him, actually. I mean, we think of World War II, we think of some of these other conflicts where you had Eisenhower, and I’m reading another book about Eisenhower right now, and he’s there for the duration, right?
PB: And that wasn’t the pattern. We had a pattern with Afghanistan and Iraq where we switched generals every year or so, just when they kind of got to know the lay of the land. And it’s a different culture right now in the military that we don’t have a draft, we don’t have a conscription army, we have a volunteer army, and you have these tours. Not just the generals, but the troops have gone over and come back, and gone over and come back, and rather than just going and staying until they’re done, and that’s created a very different dynamic.
HH: But the talent, though, we’re talking about Petraeus may be the most admired general of a generation, Mattis was the warrior monk. In fact, I think the big botch from my notes again, Page 179, “Mattis believed he could march to Tora Bora and cut them off, and Bush-Cheney wouldn’t let them do it.”
PB: He did. He was, you know, Tora Bora was of course a key moment when the last time we really had Osama bin Laden in our sights until we finally got him in Pakistan in 2011, and there was this, again, this deference. You know, the President doesn’t want to tell the generals what to do, and the general like Mattis, who was junior, didn’t get to, you know, in effect, talk to the President. So they allowed Tommy Franks to not, in effect, put in a larger force there. Franks believed that a larger force would been counterproductive in Afghanistan, and they wouldn’t have gotten there fast enough. Mattis obviously disagreed.
HH: Mattis wanted to go.
PB: He did. He did. And others did, too. Hank Crumpton, who was a CIA veteran who then did State Department intelligence, goes to the White House and says we’re about to lose this guy. But his warning goes unheeded.
HH: Well you know, if you look back at hinges of history, no telling if the Marines could have stopped it, but good argument that they might have. Talk about, that’s why the book is so fascinating you got there. I want to go to 9/11, and I’m going to leave most of the first 115 pages of the book to other people. Well, let me go to one thing. I did not know that Dick Cheney had written a resignation letter, on Page 98. Now the old White House lawyer in me, I was in the White House Counsel’s office when President Reagan went under general anesthetic for colon surgery. Now Chief Justice Roberts drafted all those documents to transition. That’s all we worked on for days. I actually don’t think that the Vice President’s letter would have been effective. I think anyone could have challenged it. But I didn’t know it had happened. When did you find out about it?
PB: Well, that’s not a scoop. The Vice President put that in his memoir two years. I don’t think that got a lot of attention.
HH: Oh, that he wrote it, but what about the idea that it was supposed to be delivered only to him? That part I don’t remember reading anywhere.
PB: Yeah, and it’s, you know, it’s an interesting moment. What the Vice President determines, and this is now he’s got his own book out, you interviewed him last week about his heart condition, very interesting, he recognized that if a president is incapacitated, we have a Constitutional remedy. We have a way to remove a president who is no longer physically able to do the job. We don’t have a way to do that with a vice president. And he recognized that given his own health, that could be a real issue, and if the president himself had been taken out in a terrorist act or something terrible like that, and the vice president, there wasn’t one, really, you’d have a very big Constitutional situation where you’d have to go down to the Speaker of the House, something he wanted to avoid.
HH: Well, I would encourage people to read about that, because I just, the lawyer in me just didn’t think that that would have been effective. But now let’s go to after 9/11, great writing, of course. It’s hard, actually, to screw this up, because the drama is so great. But you do a very fine job of getting some, I didn’t know about Brad Blakeman’s nephew being lost in this.
HH: Is that original reporting?
PB: Yeah, I talked to Brad for that, and he sent me an email today. In fact, I need to send him one back. Brad Blakeman was the President’s director of scheduling. He worked very closely with the President for all this time, and he didn’t tell the President that his own nephew had been missing, was missing at Ground Zero. And the President only found out from Andy Card. And it obviously impacted him. He first calls up Brad, and he’s consoling him, and he’s telling him we’re going to find him, we’re going to do what we have to do. And then Blakeman is very appreciate of that, and then hangs up the phone. And then a few minutes later, the President’s showing up at his desk personally to sort of repeat it. It’s clearly on his mind. It’s clearly weighing on him.
HH: It’s one of those details, flash forward four hundred pages, “The President calls Peter King’s wife, the Congressman, because she worries about him.” This is the sort of, it’s not what one expects out of President Bush. I’m sure President Obama does the same sort or things. But they’re humanizing details that in the world in which we live, we don’t get from the president anymore.
PB: Yeah, no, it’s interesting. He’s on a plane in that anecdote you tell. It’s really interesting. He’s going up to New York and coming back for an education event, and he’s on the plane coming back. It’s the middle of the terrible, worst days of the war. Pete King, the Congressman, is with him. And he says my wife doesn’t understand how you don’t, how you get up every day, and how come you don’t just, you know, say today’s enough. And the President’s kind of surprised and taken aback. She thinks that, he says? Give me the phone. I want to call her. And he gets her, he calls her on the cell phone and gets her voice mail and says you know, don’t you worry about me, I’m fine. He hated the idea that people sympathized with him. He didn’t like the idea that they might pity him. He didn’t want anybody to think that things were bad for him. He hated what he called the woe is me kind of mentality, especially the reporters like me would always ask him about, because I think he did understand that you know, look, troops in the field had it a whole lot worse.
HH: Right, right. I think that was very well portrayed. Another thing I want to compliment you on, I’ve known a lot of presidential speechwriters. The guy who got me my first job was a fellow named Ray Price who worked for Nixon.
HH: And I went out to work in San Clemente with Ray for former President Nixon. But I officed next to Peter Robinson and Josh Gilder, I knew Tony. I just know a lot of these folks. But if you look at this murderer’s row of Gerson, McConnell and Scully, and you know, I know that President Nixon had Ray Price and Pat Buchanan and Bill Saffire, but that middle hour of our grief speech and the others, they really are maybe the best, do you think?
PB: Well, they are very eloquent writers, no question about it. And they managed to make a president who wasn’t necessarily the most articulate natural speaker in the world give some memorable speeches. And I think that, and they got to learn Bush’s mannerisms, his own speech patterns. He was a tough editor with them. He would go through with a Sharpie pen and kind of like cross out adjectives, and he hated things that repeated. He didn’t like sort of throat-clearing introductions. He was very much his Yale English class would have a subject-verb declarative kind of statement, kind of writing.
HH: Well, you captured that effort very well, and the middle hour of our grief speech, I think, was his best.
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HH: I have a technical question, Peter Baker. As I read this, I have personal reactions to people based on my experience. I’ve known Rove since ’74. And other people like Dan Bartlett have been somewhat rude to me and ungracious, and others like Dana Perino have been very encouraging. And so I have personal feelings towards people, as you must. You’ve been around the White House for a dozen years. How do you put that aside when you write one of these things?
PB: Oh, that’s a good question. You know, partly because you have done it for so long, right? At a certain point, being a reporter sort of takes over, and it’s your job to be as detached as you possibly can. We’re all human. We all have our personal feelings about people or things, but one of the great things about, for me, about being a reporter is getting to talk to lots of different people with different points of view and different attitudes, and understanding how it all fits together. So I tend to respect anybody who works in public service. I think they have, for the most part, while we can all be cynical about politics, and there’s lots of a reasons to be cynical, I think most people who get into it are getting into it because they want to do good things, and they want to do what they think is best for the country, whether we agree with the particular choices they make or not.
HH: Now there are two people in the book that I’ve never met, never been in the same room with them. One is Harriet Miers, whom I defended her nomination quite a lot from a Constitutional perspective. We’re not supposed to have an appellate court of appellate court judges.
HH: But she got a raw deal. And then Paul Bremer, who’s physically, obviously, very courageous, but he made a botch of the occupation. Have they, either of them reacted to this book? And do you find yourself forming opinions about them, these players in sort of the mini-dramas of the Bush presidency?
PB: You know, it’s interesting, I tried very hard to avoid that, but it’s, because in fact, it’s easy to get, especially in going back and redoing this, it’s easy to get trapped in the conventional wisdom, so and so did this, so and so did that. And so I really tried to go back and listen to them talk, and tell me how it looked from your perspective, why is it you made these decisions, what was going through your mind, and how does it look now? And you know, Harriet Miers, I didn’t get a chance to talk to. She wouldn’t talk to me, unfortunately.
HH: She’s a lawyer. She’s the President’s lawyer. She can’t really talk to you, right?
PB: Well, she could have.
HH: Did Fielding, Fred didn’t talk to you, did he?
HH: Did Fred Fielding talk to you?
PB: You know, you make me realize I’m getting into a process I shouldn’t do where I say who I did and didn’t.
PB: The book does say, though, I’ll tell you this. The one thing I feel good about, we interviewed, I interviewed 275 people, and 90-plus percent of them are on the record.
HH: Yeah, I just don’t think lawyers generally talk about their clients, so I wouldn’t credit it against Miers that she wouldn’t talk to you.
PB: Oh, no, I don’t, it’s her, everybody’s choice, and I didn’t credit against anybody. But I do want to make sure I understood her side, that’s why I tried several times.
PB: But her problem, she got a lot of grief from the conservative side, obviously, right?
PB: And that’s what we, and you were talking about that at the time. I think that what really, though, was going on, we discovered in going back on it, the thing that really hurt her nomination was the fact that she just really wasn’t prepared for these kind of Constitutional issues that were going to come up in these hearings. You know, the White House lawyers went and tried to prep her for some of these sessions, and they felt she just didn’t have a nuanced understanding of some of these 4th Amendment search and seizure rules, and 5th Amendment self-incrimination rules. And they worried that she would be crucified up there. She was a corporate lawyer. She hadn’t had that kind of background, yet.
HH: Yeah, but this is a five star compliment. What you made me think of that is new is that the whole process, I’ve criticized it for years that it’s not supposed to be a group of appellate lawyers as the Supreme Court.
HH: But if the preparation process and the hearings process requires a certain discipline, I mean, I’ve been teaching Con Law for fifteen years. I don’t know about the 4th Amendment. That’s Crim Pro. And I don’t know that anyone can get ready for these hearings anymore that isn’t an appellate judge.
PB: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, look, John Roberts, before he became an appellate judge, had obviously gone before the Court some forty times.
PB: He probably would have been fine. But it does, you’re right. We now have, with the exception of Elena Kagan, who was Harvard Law School dean, we have a Supreme Court of eight former appellate judges, and that was not the way it was until the last couple decades.
HH: And she was the S.G. She was the tenth justice anyway.
HH: And so they’re immersed in this sort of footnote land, law review land, that no one else reads or cares about.
HH: In fact, your colleague, Adam Liptak, wrote a great piece a couple of weeks ago about how absurd law reviews have become…
HH: …and completely useless. All right, back to the book on this. Part of the drama, of course, are the surveillance techniques, the prisoners, enhanced interrogation, and the great debate that raged, and still rages. Charles Krauthammer’s coming up next hour. He wrote an essay on Bush Derangement Syndrome, which maybe I’ll get to as I talk to him about it. As you reviewed the historical record, are the people who hate Bush genuinely unable to understand the choices that were being made and the difficulty of them?
PB: Well, you know, that’s a good question. I think that they A) think he made wrong choices, and they think that he hurt the country’s moral standing, and they think that he compromised in ways that we shouldn’t have compromised. I think there are people who just, you know, who hate him, and people who hate Obama, I mean, we’re just in a culture today where people feel very strongly and passionately. And they at a certain point close down in wanting to sort of put themselves in the position of our leaders, try to understand the choices they make. And that’s why, what I tried to do with this book, Days Of Fire, is to put you in the room as they made these decisions, not to take side.
HH: No, it’s not sympathetic. It’s objective.
HH: I mean, you kept a very good distance. I have a very good friend, I’ve told you off-air who it is, and he commented to me, served Clinton, that we’ve become enmeshed in hating the opponent’s leader. And actually, I don’t. I never hated, I still don’t, I dislike the policies of President Obama, but I wish him only well, and I like and respect his family and all that kind of stuff. But there are people out there who are now invested in hating whoever is the president.
PB: That’s right, and we have to somehow, there’s somehow a difference between a robust and healthy debate, right, about choices and policies and issues and the more extraordinary kind of personalized politics that unfortunately happens too much. And I’ll be honest, Hugh, that’s one of the reasons I love your show, is because in fact, you have a very strong point of view, you have good questions, but you’re interested in the answers as well. And it’s not about one point of view or another, it’s about having a smart discussion about them.
HH: But I don’t know that the stakes are getting lost. And I wonder, Peter Baker, as you sit around with your colleagues, not at the Times, but in the White House Press Pool, there are still thousands of people who would gladly kill millions of Americans. And I don’t know that that sense that you capture so well in Days Of Fire of the first two or three years after 9/11 isn’t completely gone until the next one?
PB: Yeah, no, we obviously at a certain point lose that sense of urgency and fear and anger and so on that happens immediately after an event like this. And I think that’s one of the things people have to understand when you talk about Iraq, right? So how did we get into Iraq? They didn’t have the weapons, it obviously proved to be a much harder war than we ever expected. The results are still ambiguous at best, right? How did we get there? So that’s what I think you have to remember. What was that atmosphere like? And in post-9/11, it wasn’t just 9/11. It was the anthrax attacks, which at the time nobody knew where they came from…
HH: Malvo and Muhammad, yeah.
PB: Right. Absolutely. There was a botulism scare at the White House, where the President and the Vice President were told they might have been infected with a deadly pathogen. It was the Pakistani nuclear scientists who were meeting with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Day after day, literally, they were getting these intelligence reports telling them about all the different ways people want to kill Americans.
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HH: One aspect, Peter Baker, is that you might as well have titled it Bush, Cheney and Rice in the White House, because she is the third figure here.
HH: And her rise from staffer to equal in the policy and guidance is really a book within a book.
PB: No, absolutely right. You’re absolutely right. She’s a fascinating figure in so many ways, and she becomes, especially in the second term, Bush’s proxy in some of these debates about what to do, right? He empowers her by moving her to secretary of State. She now is no longer staff. She gets to be something of an equal, or at least a semi-peer to the Vice President and to Secretary Rumsfeld while he’s still there. And she becomes sort of the, she either channels President Bush, or she, however you want to put it, in a different direction as the years move on.
HH: One of the things I thought was a travesty about, of the last year, was that she was not invited to the anniversary of the Martin Luther King speech. In her memoir, Extraordinary Ordinary People, about growing up in Birmingham, she’s a remarkable story. And one of the problems with Secretary Rumsfeld is he just didn’t get along with her. And we talked about it on the show when his memoir came out. They clashed all the time, but of course, Rumsfeld always had Cheney on his side.
PB: He did, yeah, and it was something, there was something, it just didn’t work between the two of them, A) ideologically, but also B) there was sort of a personal lack of chemistry, I guess. They even see the same moments and remember them differently. In her memoir, she remembers him saying to her, or actually, the two of them are walking through, down the colonnade saying, after some fight about something, and she says to him, you know, Don, what is it? I mean, we used to get along. And he says you know, I don’t know, he says, I think you’re bright enough, and so I don’t know why we’re…
PB: And she really took this comment about being bright enough or whatever, she saw it derogatory in a way.
HH: It came off as condescending as hell, right?
HH: I mean, yeah, that…
PB: He didn’t mean it that way. When it came out, I asked him about that, and he said well, I don’t remember, I certainly didn’t mean anything by that. So it’s, they just saw the world through different lenses.
HH: Well, and Rumsfeld is one of these figures as well who is very carefully chronicled in Days Of Fire, and I spent a lot of time interviewing him, and I admire and respect him greatly, almost completely unaware of the impact he has on people when it comes to the intimidation factor, which I think Cheney had a lot of as well. And it’s that gravitas that simply comes from having been there and done that so long in D.C.
PB: No, I think that’s true. I think you’re right. I think people actually were, there’s this question, okay, so why is it that nobody ever asked Bush for more troops, really, right? There were a couple of times people tried to. But what he says is look, you know, nobody ever came to me and said, I always said that you have enough. And what some people say today is there was this, you know, expectation that Rumsfeld would say no. He was very intent on having this new light footprint style of warfare, and he will tell you they didn’t ask me for more troops. And I think what you’d get from the military side is they think well, we didn’t think he’d say yes. And there was this intimidation factor. So it kind of became a disconnect.
HH: Question from my notes, you record the reactions of Bush and Cheney to the naming of Sarah Palin, and specifically that the Vice President was not impressed. And the merits of that aside, is that partly at least in part because they knew Condoleezza Rice and all that she brought to the job, and how the governor of a small and somewhat remote state simply wouldn’t be up to that task?
PB: Well, it’s interesting. I don’t know that they thought that Condoleezza Rice would be a candidate, per se. I think that they just thought that, you know, Cheney took this very seriously. He thought it was a, you know, it’s still a dangerous moment in American history, and that she just, you know, she just seemed not to have, in his view, the wherewithal for the moment.
HH: But is it the same Steven Schmidt that wrote this is the end of the presidency who was John McCain’s campaign manager?
PB: Yup. Yeah, the very same.
HH: So how do you add that up? I mean, how does he go from being Cheney’s guy to picking Palin, or at least urging John McCain to do so?
PB: Well, I mean, if you interviewed him, I’m sure you have, he would tell you he made a mistake, right?
PB: I think that they thought Sarah Palin was something more than she was, or different than she was. They were attracted to the maverick image. They were attracted to the sort of, the notion that she had stood up to the Republican establishment in Alaska, had been a reformer, that she was a very appealing figure and a good speaker, and they didn’t really do the research to figure out if she had some of the preparation that would have been necessary for that job.
HH: Character a-plenty, it’s just the prep time. And John McCain comes off in that meeting in the White House not very well at all during the financial crisis.
PB: Yeah, they were not impressed. You remember, of course, he suspended his campaign in September to say I’m going to go back to Washington and try to forge and agreement on what to do about the financial crisis. And everybody in the White House kind of scratching their head and saying well, we kind of are doing that right now. But they defer to him. Bush understood that he couldn’t not do that. But they were very unimpressed with how he came into the meeting unprepared.
HH: One of the great quotes in Days Of Fire, George Bush says of one aspect of the McCain campaign, this is a five spiral crash, boys. Wow.
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HH: Peter, Victoria Taft tweeted me a question for you. Al Qaeda on the rise, says Thomas Joscelyn, noted defense analyst, please ask Peter Baker about what Bush’s advantage, if President Obama has squandered it, over al Qaeda. What do you think? Has the war on terror stayed front and center as Cheney sort of worked to make sure, and as certainly Bush repeatedly in your book makes clear was his number one priority from 9/11 forward?
PB: No, it’s changed. I mean, there’s no question it’s evolved. President Obama thinks it should be a top priority, but not the top priority, or the consuming priority that it had been. He thinks that we’re now, you know, twelve years after the war, excuse me, after the terrorist attacks, that we need to be able to do more than just that. And he gave a speech recently at the National Defense University. He said we have to begin to envision the day when the war on terror will end. And so he’s trying to pivot in that sense. But as you say, obviously, there’s still a threat out there, and I think he recognizes that. He still has a pretty robust drone strategy out there, but it’s metastasized. It’s moved beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan to places like Yemen and Somalia and North Africa, places where we have less infrastructure and bigger challenges.
HH: Now there’s a character in Days Of Fire who’s off to the side but always there, and it’s Laura Bush. In fact, one of the most memorable lines in Days Of Fire is when she gently chides the President, Bush, you gonna go get him, as sort of a tweak at him to pull back the rhetoric.
HH: The toll on the President is obviously in his hair and in many of the anecdotes used. How did she emerge from this thing?
PB: You know, it’s interesting, she’s such a together person, right?
PB: She comes across in public, and I think in private, as a very centered, right, very composed in herself, very comfortable in her skin. And you know, I think she plays an important role in his presidency, not in the Hillary Clinton-Nancy Reagan kind of way. She didn’t really weigh in a lot, I think, on some of these particular policies or personnel choices, although she did from time to time. But I think she helped center him. She was sort of the yin to his yang or whatever, so she did kind of chide him where she thinks he went too far with the rhetoric. And she saw in him the burden that the war was taking. She would make a point of inviting his brother, Marvin, to come visit at the White House on the weekends and watch basketball games or what have you, because she knew he kind of needed that. He needed some kind of relief, and Marvin, and the President, and even though they’re the most distant among the brothers, are really close. So I mean, she played an important role.
HH: You know, what’s interesting to me is that they both are married to these very strong women. I worked briefly for Lynne Cheney in the 80s, and so I know her as the extraordinary woman she is, and have met Mrs. Bush a couple of times. They both have two daughters, the Bush twins, and of course, Mary and Liz, all four wonderful daughters. You couldn’t ask for a better support system. So they are actually sort of mirror images of each other in terms of how their families hung together through this whole thing. And they’re still very, very strong. Isn’t that remarkable, given the anvil in which the hammer fell again and again for eight years?
PB: Well, I think it is. Yeah, and I think you have to have a strong family to kind of get through this, or it certainly helps, anyway. And I think President Obama and Vice President Biden both are lucky to have what seem to be at least from the outside pretty strong families. What’s interesting about Cheney, you mentioned Cheney, somebody told me, I thought this was a memorable line, that he has three people he trusts really implicitly in the world, and all of their last names are Cheney.
PB: You know, the three women in his life, Lynne Cheney, Liz Cheney, Mary Cheney, they represent a very tight core to the point where they sometimes didn’t necessarily trust outsiders, and it really was a very strong bond among them.
HH: I remember quite vividly when first John Edwards and then John Kerry attempted to make Mary Cheney an issue. And I went ballistic on the air, as did I think everyone who has ever worked in the White House. Kids are just never part of this process, or ought not to be. You cover that, and I think that made the Vice President as close…that Wolf Blitzer interview that you recall, has Wolf talked to you about this book, yet?
PB: It’s funny, I was talking about that with Wolf just the other day, and he definitely remembers that interview. He asked, of course, he asked the Vice President about, and this would have been in early 2007, was about conservative criticism of Mary Cheney’s decision to have a child in a lesbian partnership. And you know, I totally understand why the Vice President would get upset. I also think it wasn’t necessarily an illegitimate question on the part of the journalist asking the question. It wasn’t meant to be hostile. But I think it definitely pushed a button, as this issue always did with them. And as you say, Kerry and Edwards’ comments in those debates just really set them off.
HH: Oh, the Cheney reaction ought to go into a primer for every candidate on how to deal with your family and defend them fiercely, because I think people in America respect that. Let me talk to you about Alberto Gonzalez, much misunderstood, much criticized, but perhaps the appointment that if you had a do-over, the one you’d find him a different job to do than Justice, maybe not the White House Counsel. Is that the consensus?
PB: Yeah, I think that a lot of people in the Bush administration respected Alberto Gonzalez, but felt that he wasn’t necessarily well cast in that role. Certainly, he became a target anyway for Democrats, and he wasn’t necessarily able to deflect their attacks, or give a good explanation for the actions that he had either taken or overseen, in effect. You know, at times, he resisted it. They tried to prep him before some of his testimony, and he kind of pushed back a little bit against some of the political people who were trying to help him out, and that didn’t work out for him.
HH: Now something I’m going to talk about with Krauthammer next hour is John Roberts. And he’s an old colleague of mine from White House days. But so it mike Luttig. And this decision to pick him over Luttig, especially post-Obamacare, which I think is increasingly a decision of genius for reasons which are revealing themselves in real time, it’s falling apart on its own, and had he struck it down, it would have been a political nightmare. But do the Bushies regret that choice? Do they wish they’d gone with Luttig over Roberts now?
PB: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t think so. I think that they still think very highly of John Roberts, even if they don’t agree with him on every decision. I think that they think that he’s very capable, smart, and you know, while obviously is controversial on some level on some decisions, they think he represents their views on the Supreme Court very effectively.
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HH: I want to thank my guest, Peter Baker, author of Days Of Fire: Bush And Cheney In The White House, of course, New York Times correspondent. A couple of quick closing questions, Peter. There are some very fierce and talented, ferocious, even, critics of the conduct of the war like Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, et cetera. Have you heard from any of those? And here I’m talking about genuine, sincere, deeply critical people of the war. Have they read Days Of Fire and commented, yet? Do they think you let him off easy? What’s their reaction?
PB: You know, that’s a good question. I haven’t heard from folks like that, yet. I’ve got a little bit of sniping from the right, a little bit of sniping from the left, but I think most people think that it’s meant to be a down the middle, fair-minded approach. And I think frankly if you think that mistakes were made in Iraq, this book will provide information for you to both understand how that happened and perhaps even to fortify your arguments. I think a lot of people from different points of view can find things in this book that are of interest.
HH: No, I think if you had to find a book that you had to get a Republican and a Democrat to agree to give to someone, they actually had to agree to give to someone to sort of introduce them to the war, someone just woke up from the time machine, you have a good chance of having Days Of Fire go there. There’s so much that’s surprising in there. One of those things that I made a note of, the Cheney people confronted with the climate change argument, perhaps they wanted to go with a carbon tax over cap and trade. I just sat down and said what? I never heard that before. What’s the most surprising thing you learned, Peter Baker?
PB: Well, to be fair, what they thought was if you’re going to do something, a carbon tax is a purer, more logical policy option.
PB: But I don’t think they are advocating that.
PB: They just simply said that they thought cap and trade was a terrible idea.
PB: But you know, I think what was surprising overall was just sort of like the larger trend of their partnership, and how far apart they had grown by the end.
HH: And when you said Shakespearian…
HH: The Vice President didn’t know what you meant, so I’m going to ask you. What did you mean?
PB: (laughing) I saw you asked him about that. He didn’t quarrel with it.
PB: He simply said I don’t know what he means. But you know, look, if you’ll pardon perhaps a little dramatic flourish, I just think that their, because they had been so important to each other, because they had been such a powerful tandem, for them to have split apart on so many different issues by the end was a striking evolution.
HH: Oh, the split on Syria is amazing and surprising.
HH: But is there a, it’s not so much a tragedy, it’s not a comedy, I don’t know what it is. It’s just two serious men going in different directions towards the end.
PB: Yes, yes, exactly. And it’s not personal in the sense that I don’t think that they were sniping at each other in a personal way or anything. And Clinton and Gore had a pretty tough end, and they were really personally upset with each other. I think these guys just went in different directions on important policies. And they were upset about the Scooter Libby thing, but I think that they just began to have a different view of what the right approach was.
HH: Peter Baker, a wonderful book, great interview. I appreciate you spending the time with me. Days Of Fire: Bush And Cheney In The White House, available in bookstores everywhere, linked at www.hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.