American history, biographies, book reviews, George W Bush, Peter Baker, presidential biographies, US Presidents
“Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House” is Peter Baker’s 2013 review of the two-term Bush administration. Baker is Chief White House Correspondent for The New York Times and was a reporter for The Washington Post for two decades. He is the author of books on Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the rise of Vladimir Putin and a recent biography of Barack Obama.
Based on hundreds of interviews and thousands of pages of notes and internal documents, this book is brimming with eyewitness accounts of almost every consequential moment of Bush’s presidency. But it is more than just a survey of Bush’s eight years in the White House – it is also an in-depth examination of the intriguing Bush-Cheney political partnership.
The clear focus of this 653-page book is undeniably the Bush presidency, but Baker does a nice job introducing both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. While not providing an exhaustive introduction to either man, “Days of Fire” sets the stage almost perfectly by comparing (and contrasting) their childhoods, early careers, characters and personalities.
Baker’s narrative is very much an “as it happened” behind the scenes history. The reader re-lives important moments essentially as they unfold, and it often seems Baker was the “fly on the wall” for these eight years…recording and transcribing everything of interest. This is the foundation for the book’s most significant strength: it is a monumental collection of conversations, debates, deliberations and introspection stitched together with narrative glue.
Other high points include Baker’s notable lack of political bias or slant, a riveting description of the events of 9/11 (particularly relating to Bush’s activities that day) and observations relating to the evolving relationship between Bush and Cheney. Finally, while Baker wisely avoids passing final judgment on Bush’s legacy, he does make a number of interesting observations and historical comparisons in the book’s last chapter.
While many readers will enjoy the day-to-day focus Baker provides, this book is far from perfect – particularly judged as a biography. It consistently exhibits a fact-heavy and dialogue-rich style of reporting and lacks a smooth narrative flow. This causes the book to feel dense, sterile and occasionally tedious; it is usually interesting, but can be difficult to push through.
And surprising given Baker’s penchant for attending to important matters, much of Bush’s first-term domestic agenda is comparatively neglected. The split between Bush and Cheney over same-sex marriage, for example, gets far more attention than the prescription drug benefit plan or the Bush tax cuts.
In addition, Baker generally does not foreshadow important events or provide a “road map” for where events are heading. Reading “Days of Fire” occasionally resembles driving quickly along a winding road at night; the narrative is often exciting but the reader can only see what is directly in front of him or her and there is little sense of what to expect – or why – outside the narrow beam of focus.
Overall, as an impressively sourced and richly detailed behind-the-scenes review of the Bush administration “Days of Fire” may be the best reference which will ever be published. As an exploration of the enigmatic Bush-Cheney relationship it is revealing and often nicely nuanced. But as a traditional biography of George W. Bush, or a reflective analysis of his presidency, it comes up short.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
Christopher Saunders said:
I found this book a very stenographic approach to Bush’s presidency, more of a record of what happened and when than the why. Sort of like, say, Richard Reeves’ books on JFK and Nixon only flatter. This approach isn’t bad and it’s certainly more objective than Smith’s book, but I didn’t find Baker a lively or insightful enough writer for it to really grab me. I’m glad that I read it but I’m not eager to revisit it any time soon.
I decided to do something similar to your idea but going backwards (starting with Bush and making my way through his predecessors). This was one of the first books I picked up (I don’t mind that it isn’t a traditional biography). That being said, it can be a bit challenging to get through. The attention to detail is exhausting. I have massive respect for Baker but he doesn’t necessarily write the most thrilling books. Another of his that I have on my shelf is “The Breach” which is about the Clinton Impeachment. Never thought such a thrilling aspect of history could be portrayed so dully. I would not recommend that one. A Bush book I would stay away from on a follow up is Robert Draper’s “Dead Certain.” Like Baker, Draper focuses on Bush’s Presidency but doesn’t cover it in nearly the same detail as Baker.