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‘Days of Fire’ unveils complicated Bush-Cheney partnership

October 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, says Dick Cheney was arguably the most influential vice president, but that his relationship with President George W. Bush was quite complicated and unique. Baker joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his new book, "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House."
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GWEN IFILL: And now to a look at a complicated partnership between President George W. Bush and his vice president, a relationship that shaped more than a decade’s worth of war and politics.

That’s the focus of a new book, “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House,” by Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times.

Judy Woodruff talked to him recently.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Baker, thank you for joining us.

PETER BAKER, The New York Times: Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An exhaustively reported book, a wonderful read. Congratulations.

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PETER BAKER: Thank you. I appreciate that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you write that Vice President Cheney wasn’t the puppet master, President Bush wasn’t the pawn. And if that wasn’t their relationship, then what was it?

PETER BAKER: It was much more complicated than that.

I think we oversimplified what was a rather unique partnership. Vice President Cheney was by all estimates the most influential vice president, no question about that. He had a mastery of Washington, he had a mastery of national security and issues that were not familiar at that time to the new president.

But, at the same time, this — you know, George W. Bush wasn’t a shrinking violet. People described rooms when they were making decisions as, he was the one running the meeting. Vice President Cheney actually stayed quiet. He didn’t actually offer his opinion in many meetings.

But where his power came from was, when every other adviser left the room, Cheney stayed behind. And what advice he gave then to the new president, obviously, people don’t know.

But it was a situation where, at any number of times, you could find where President Bush pushed back even in the early days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you do write, though, in the first term in particular, the vice president very influential with the president. But I want to — specifically about the Iraq war.

PETER BAKER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of that was the president and how much of that was the vice president? Would it have happened if it hadn’t been for the vice president…

PETER BAKER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … and the secretary of defense?

PETER BAKER: I mean, that’s the great question. Right?

Obviously, Colin Powell was skeptical. Condi Rice was following the president’s lead. Would it have happened without Vice President Cheney? Very likely. I mean, the truth is, I think that when Vice President Cheney was pushing — and he did push on Iraq — he was pushing on an open door.

At that point, George W. Bush was focused on Iraq, just like his vice president. And, in fact, he actually was going as far as Vice President Cheney wanted to. In July of 2002, seven, eight months before the actual invasion began, Cheney and Rumsfeld went the president and said, you need to go ahead and attack Iraq now, because there’s a chemical weapons facility in Northern Iraq, and Bush said no.

So there were moments where Bush kind of resisted the train and said, no, we are going to do it my way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet — and yet there were also moments when President Bush was going around the world making sure everybody was comfortable long after the vice president was absolutely certain this was the right thing to do.

PETER BAKER: Yes, yes.

I do think that Cheney’s certitude, his unflinching “We have to do this” view of this certainly encouraged those instincts within Bush. And there is no question about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What — why did President Bush grow to be less dependent on the vice president?

PETER BAKER: Right.

The evolution of their relationship is really fascinating. It’s really almost Shakespearian. On the day the war starts in March 2003, he has been given intelligence about where Saddam Hussein might be, and he meets with his adviser. Do we go ahead and go right away or not?

And then he kicks them out all, except for Cheney. It’s just the two of them. They come out of the office and then Bush says go. By the second term, it is no longer quite the same thing. He’s no longer relying on Cheney the same way. As Iraq goes bad, the relationship begins to move apart.

Cheney remains focused on his view of protecting America as he sees it with firm, sometimes even harsh policies. And Bush begins to turn more towards diplomacy, more toward repairing relations with the allies, trying different ways to shape his legacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so was it — was it a matter of facts on the ground not working out, or was it — was there something, the chemistry in their relationship? Do you feel you got to the bottom of that?

PETER BAKER: Oh, I don’t think we will ever really get to the bottom of it. It’s like a marriage. You know, defining the relationship between any two people is hard outside of those two people, particularly because so much of it happened in one-on-one lunches that they had every week.

No aides were inside, no record kept. But I do think that, as Condi Rice said, the first term was about breaking china.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

PETER BAKER: After 9/11, they felt they had to do things that were very striking to save the country. But, by the second term, as she said, it was time to try to build something. And her view was, the vice president wanted to keep breaking china.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How seriously did the president think of replacing Dick Cheney as his vice president?

PETER BAKER: Well, the first two — Dick Cheney offered to drop off the ticket, thinking maybe it would be a political boon to the president to have somebody else there. He recognized his dark reputation.

The first two times he said he offered it to the president, he says, President Bush didn’t really pay attention to it, didn’t really react. So he went back a third time. And this time, President Bush said he did consider it, several weeks, he said. And even came up with a possible replacement, Bill Frist, the senator from Tennessee.

In the end, he — and — and what he said about why he was thinking about it was interesting. He says, it would show people who was really in charge, which suggests how much that had gotten under his skin by that point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why didn’t he go ahead and do it then?

PETER BAKER: I think he decided that it was — in modern times, replace vice presidents becomes a sign of weakness. It shows that the very first decision that you made, now you question. And that’s not his style.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was it — you write a couple of other things I want to ask you.

You said in the second term, Cheney seemed drained politically and physically. You quote somebody saying he was a spent force, which makes one wonder, what if something had happened the president and Dick Cheney had had to step in as president? Was there thought — he was falling asleep, you write, in the Oval Office.

PETER BAKER: Yes. Yes.

And he now has a book about his own health issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

PETER BAKER: We now know, of course, how severe those issues really were.

And, no, I never found anybody talking about anything with regard to replacing him or anything like that. But, clearly, it was affecting him these last couple of years. His heart was weak. He had had four heart attacks by this point, several major surgeries.

So, his schedulers started trying to make it a little easier, telling briefers to be quicker and more concise. And so you could tell that he was sort of drained to an extent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, looking back, Peter Baker, it’s impossible to talk about a legacy so soon after this presidency ended.

PETER BAKER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, if you had to, what would you say it is?

PETER BAKER: Well, I mean, I think, obviously, Iraq is going to be the central — central issue.

I think what President Bush would like to say is, he protected the country, and Vice President Cheney would like to say that as well. And they did get through the rest of their term without a major attack in America, something they will always be able to talk about.

But Iraq hovers over everything. All the other things he wanted to do, Medicare Part D, which he expanded coverage of drugs, AIDS program in Africa, all these things might have been the pieces of a very solid legacy that Iraq overshadows in so many ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Baker, the book is “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.”

Thank you very much.

PETER BAKER: Thank you. Appreciate it.