How Propaganda Can Slowly Repair the Image of an Utterly Disgraced Public Figure Like George W. Bush

Peter Baker’s book, “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House” is one of the latest efforts in an audacious rebranding effort.

This review of “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker” (DoubleDay) originally appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and is reprinted here with permission.

It is a testament to the degree to which presentation overshadows practice in modern political life that 49 percent of Americans approve of George W. Bush. Here is a President not only on the wrong side of history in almost every particular, but one whose misjudgments continue to constrain the country in measurable ways into the present. He is the author of two wars, one entered into based on faulty information, that have cost thousands of American, Iraqi and Afghani lives and further destabilized the Middle East, delivering it to the machinations of Islamic militants and increasing threats to our national security. To fund these wars, he employed deficit spending that could have been used to grow human and material capital through investments in infrastructure, education, clean energy and scientific research, among other areas. In the process of ballooning the deficit, he put further pressure on entitlement programs that were already moving toward unsustainability, helping precipitate a political crisis 20 years earlier than necessary. His concrete domestic innovation is a sprawling and convoluted defense bureaucracy lacking adequate oversight. His signature domestic initiative, a stillborn plan to privatize social security and create an “ownership society,” appears, five years into an economic downturn precipitated by unwise investments, astonishingly ill-conceived. His two most successful decisions, the 2007 “surge” and the 2008 bailout, were reversals of errors that he either caused or compounded. This would not, in sum, seem to be a politician who merits much affection from the electorate based on his policies. Yet here he is enjoying a 49 percent approval rating, the result of a successful rebranding in which his professed purity of motives have come to count for more than the quality of his actual performance.

This rebranding had several sources. The first was historical logic: the dissatisfaction that Bush helped precipitate among Republicans ended up empowering figures so radical that he appeared prudent by comparison. The second was Bush’s own canny performance once he was out of office: unlike, say, Dick Cheney, he stayed on the political sidelines and devoted himself to benign initiatives helping African AIDs victims and U.S. veterans. The third, and most instrumental, was a Washington press corps habitually focused on stark narrative contrasts, which helped publicize the benign storyline that the former president was quietly crafting (Bush vs. the Tea Partiers, Bush vs. Cheney). The opening of the Bush Presidential Library in April functioned as the opportunity for this process to go public, and, specifically, for longtime Bush supporters to press their case for redemption in a newly receptive environment. Against the backdrop of partisan logjam in Washington, the event was portrayed in the rosy hues of reunion: in Peggy Noonan’s unabashed rendering, “What was nice was that all of them – the Bush family, the Carters and Clintons – seemed like the old days. ‘The way we were.’” The exhibition itself included prominent places for Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley and Andrew Card, those figures marginally less tarnished by the Administration’s blunders, and none at all for the reviled troika of Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove. Political commentary tended to revolve around the President’s charitable initiatives or, more insistently, his “character.”

Writing in The Washington Post, with the rather elaborate caveat that “[Bush’s] two terms defy summary, just as a snapshot can’t capture Niagara Falls during a lightning storm,” Michael Gerson proceeded to offer up a summary of the president himself as a man of “principle” and “undivided sentiments.” Under the headline “Bush’s Legacy is More than Iraq,” Kathleen Parker generously conceded that “what a president says and does is fair game for criticism” but put forward for “the public record” a recounting of a private act of kindness Bush had once done her, a hug followed by a personal note. Stephen F. Knott attacked the issue of Bush’s standing among historians, which he portrayed as a product of personal animosity, noting that “[Bush] may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and […] the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.” Richard Cohen devoted a column to praising, in strikingly unembarrassed terms, Bush’s lack of introspection: “Among the many things [Bush] lacks is self-doubt. It is a gift.” The common tactic, in other words, was not so much to defend or engage but to redirect focus, largely toward the personal. The man of the hour put in an arresting performance that dovetailed smoothly with these commentaries: “It was the honor of a lifetime to lead a country as brave and as noble as the United States,” Bush said in closing, eyes welling, “Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation’s best days lie ahead.” In her Wall Street Journal column the next day, Peggy Noonan reliably hit the ball he’d teed up for her:

At the end Mr. Bush wept, and not only because the Bush men are weepers but because he means every word of what he says, and because he loves his country, and was moved. John Boehner weeps too when he speaks about what America means to him. You know why they do that? Because their hearts are engaged. And really, that’s not the worst thing.

Peter Baker’s book “Days of Fire” is the first book-length treatment of the Bush Presidency since the Beltway Press began reminding us that, for all his faults, the former President is “not the worst thing,” and it takes its bearings from this recently minted wisdom of the Establishment. It is an exercise in a certain type of reportage: the type practiced by journalists close to the political action in Washington, D.C., whose beat is the personalities and interactions that comprise the day-by-day of the governing of this country. Their position is a perilous one, where proximity and drama create a culture in which the Administration’s carrot of guaranteed access and the market’s stick of compelling narrative tend to edge out incentives for objectivity. It is this culture which the Bush Administration played expertly in its first term, especially during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the 2004 election, feeding the press stories emotionally pitched to sell copy while ruthlessly marginalizing reporters who deviated from the script. Baker’s treatment of the Bush Presidency is a latter-day study in the analytical perils of this kind of insiderism. Through relying on his legions of Administration sources and on a sharply reductive narrative schema, Baker manages to misconstrue both the Bush White House’s mode of operation and the figure at the center of the Administration.


The most immediately disconcerting aspect about this book is that it is mapping territory that has already been comprehensively explored. The mechanics of the Bush Administration’s disastrous tenure have been revealed by journalists and academics like Barton Gellman and Mark Danner: the former in a widely read 2007 Washington Post series on Dick Cheney’s influence that he later turned into a book, “Angler;” the latter through a series of articles in The New York Review of Books, most notably “Iraq: The War of the Imagination,” in 2006. Less analytically acute but equally damning in its cumulative and exacting portrait was Bob Woodward’s 2006 “State of Denial” and his 2008 “The War Within.” Seymour Hersh reported for the New Yorker on the Abu Ghraib scandals and the deficiencies in the chain of command that made them possible. In “Against All Enemies,” former Chief Counterterrorism Advisor Richard Clarke detailed the Administration’s unwillingness to heed agency warnings about either an upcoming attack in 2001 or the perils of the Iraq invasion in 2003. Ron Suskind and Robert Draper have contributed valuable studies of Bush’s character and its effect on the structure of governance. One commonality between these accounts is their reliance on exhaustive research about the Administration’s decision-making structure and the communications between key actors on different levels of bureaucracy. The other similarity is the portrait that emerges from them.

According to this portrait, the woes that the Bush Administration brought on itself and the country were the product of an inexperienced young president restless for transformational status and short on administrative savvy: someone whose yearnings and limitations created a vacuum close to the center of power in which radical fantasies could take root after 9/11. One of these fantasies was Dick Cheney’s: the need to protect the country at all costs, above any other value, famously expressed as “the one percent doctrine,” and the necessity of reposing unlimited power in the executive in order to do so. The closely aligned fantasy was Donald Rumsfeld’s, who wanted to make a military still lumbering in Cold War mindset fast on its feet, effective at the quick strikes he saw as the modus operandi of a unipolar world. What united Cheney and Rumsfeld was an idea of American power derived most obviously from Imperial Rome: the ability to punish those who would thwart America’s goals into submission through the brute application of military force. The third fantasy originated with several sources and made itself felt most forcefully through George W. Bush, particularly as the Iraq invasion begun in “shock and awe” bogged down into a bloody stalemate. This was the notion of a crusade for freedom, promoted by Bush’s evangelical base, by highly placed neoconservatives like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and by dissidents from abroad who served as personal inspirations to the President.

The shared assumption behind all of these fantasies was that the established bureaucracy of government – the one which has historically served as a conduit for the decisions of the executive branch, not only carrying out the President’s will but informing him of what is possible and what is not – had to be circumvented. The mentality behind this assumption was memorably expressed to Ron Suskind in 2004 by an anonymous official, later revealed to be Karl Rove:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” […] “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

Crucial in insulating the President from the influence of those suspected of a commitment to the “judicious study of discernable reality” was Cheney, a longtime expert in the workings of the bureaucracy from his days as Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford, when he and Rumsfeld had been nicknamed “the little Praetorians” for their willingness to manipulate the system to marginalize rivals. Since Watergate, Cheney had been engaged on a highly personal crusade to restore to the presidency the power he felt Congress had usurped from it, and with Bush’s blessing he spent most of the first five years of his vice presidency doing exactly that. Rumsfeld, too, was a participant, instructed by Bush two weeks after Sept. 11 to “develop a plan to invade Ir[aq]. Do it outside the normal channels. Do it creatively so we don’t have to take so much cover.” A week later, according to Mark Danner, Rumsfeld came back with a plan, one to which the Administration committed itself despite the persistent murmurings of caution from the “reality-based community”:

A key war aim would be to persuade or compel States to stop supporting terrorism. The regimes of such States should see that it will be fatal to host terrorists who attack the U.S. … If the war does not significantly change the world’s political map, the U.S. will not achieve its aim. … The [U.S. government] should envision a goal along these lines:

*New regimes in Afghanistan and another key State (or two) that supports terrorism …

According to these accounts, this was how the biggest of Bush’s many train wrecks happened. The process, of certainty bolstered by insularity, explains similar missteps: Afghanistan, illegal wiretapping, indefinite detention, Abu Ghraib, the politicization of the justice department. The majority of Bush’s second term was an attempt to correct for these missteps, and to cope with the fallout of an economic policy consisting of tax cuts and deregulation, one meant to satisfy the President’s business supporters and give him the space to pursue his transformational goals. In other words, George W. Bush’s trajectory was in three stages: pre-9/11 aimlessness turned to post 9/11 radicalism turned to a desperate attempt to salvage the wreckage he’d created. For this last stage he extended his hand to the reality-based community whose main representative in the Administration, at least to the extent it did not damage her standing with the President, was Condi Rice.

We knew all this by late 2007, when the White House had entered into negotiations with North Korea, formerly dismissed as a rogue state, and refused to bomb the Syrian reactors, despite urgings from Israel. Anyone with access to Time Magazinecould have read a cover story that year about the Vice President’s diminishing influence and Rice’s new role as presidential right hand. Anyone with access to The New York Times could have read former Ambassador to the United Nations and Cheney ally John Bolton lambast the Administration’s new diplomatic outlook. The trajectory of the Bush White House, in other words, was clear. So too was the character of the man at its center. We knew from these investigations that the President was rigidly idealistic, aloof from policy formulation and management, energized by the abstract and deflated by the concrete, reluctant to question the decisions of subordinates, and loathe to change strategy during periods of both unprecedented popularity and alienation from the electorate. In this context, a new treatment of the Bush White House advertising itself as definitive needed to be justified rather distinctly.


Yet the question “Days of Fire” sets out to answer is one that could be nothing less than clear based on the preceding portrait: who was in charge of the Bush Presidency, Cheney or Bush? Baker’s answer, as revealed by Gwen Ifill in a blurb for the back of the book, is that “George W. Bush was no puppet, and Dick Cheney no puppet master.” In the context of what actually happened, this seems at best a sharply reductive narrative framework. At worst it looks like a straw man: a way to redirect attention, to channel readers’ focus through a lens so blunted by false comparatives that Bush can only end up looking relatively more competent underneath it. In Baker’s words, as if this is the main point that needs to be established in what is billed as a “monumental and definitive” exploration of the Bush presidency, “Bush, in the end, was the Decider. His successes and his failures through all the days of fire were his own.” Since no one who has seriously examined the Bush White House, and no one whose view of human relationships does not derive from high school, would argue otherwise, there is no explanatory purpose to a book which makes this its central premise.

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