THE BLOG
11/26/2013 03:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2014

Days of Fire Generates More Heat Than Light

This coming January will mark five years since George W. Bush last occupied the White House. In the interim, the American public's perception of the man has gradually transformed from the raw emotion inherent to recently transpired events into a more detached resignation commonly associated with history. Alongside this inevitable shuffling of the near present into the receding past has emerged a re-imagining of Bush as an unduly vilified leader in a complicated time.

An April 23rd article in the Washington Post is representative of this sprouting journalistic portrayal. Declaring that the former president "is experiencing something of a comeback," Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan noted, "Almost as many people (47 percent) approve of how Bush handled his eight years in office as disapprove (50 percent)." And in a reminder that Bush's favorability was not eternally underwater, Eric Pfeiffer of Yahoo News recently reported, "In the first week of November in the fifth year of their presidencies, Obama and Bush have nearly identical approval numbers."

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, written by New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker, represents a significant contribution to this growing canon. The book, checking in at a hefty 816 pages, is no hagiography. Indeed, it is hardly possible to write about Bush at such length without encountering, inadvertently or otherwise, one or another of his monumental mis-readings of the world around him. (Bush may have peered into Vladimir Putin's eyes and obtained "a sense of his soul," but he was substantially less successful in divining his foreign policy objectives.)

And yet for the apparently dwindling set of political observers who maintain visceral repulsion for the 43rd president's ruinous eight-year romp through the halls of power, Baker's recounting, via meandering tales, of Bush's love for his Crawford ranch or his agony after meeting the kin of slain soldiers resembles a sympathetic authorial attempt to mitigate the harsh necessity of a "full and fair reckoning with the legacy of the 43rd president." Indeed, it is hardly surprising that this phrase was used by Bush speechwriter David Frum to describe Baker's book -- the coiner of the jarringly ideological expression "axis of evil" praising his administration's interlocutor for lack of bias.

This is not to detract from the book's accomplishments. Days of Fire is Peter Baker doing Bob Woodward one better: all the intimate details with only half the breathlessness. The author has a way of setting a scene that all but invites readers to second-guess his sources' terrifyingly detailed memories.

Mostly, though, the terror unfurls from the Bush White House itself, as successive anecdotes weave an image of an administration stocked by hawks and uber-hawks. On September 12, 2011, Bush pulled his counterterrorism director, Richard Clarke, into the Situation Room. "Look, I know you have a lot to do and all," the president began, "but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this."

Saddam did not do this, as it turned out, but somewhere in the vicinity of 120,000 Iraqi civilian lives were eventually lost as if he had. Baker dutifully recounts each decision that resulted in such enormous tragedy, but he is unable to resist interjecting defenses and qualifications that would make a White House press secretary squirm.

For example, while antipathy towards opponents is a hallmark of every political party, it is often difficult to distinguish Baker's recounting of his characters' thoughts from those of his own. Describing the president's desire to overwhelm America's enemies in Afghanistan, Baker writes, "Bush did not want to be like Clinton flailing ineffectually at shadows," an assessment whose originator -- Bush or Baker -- is left unclear. Later, Ed Gillespie, the then-Republican National Committee chairman, becomes concerned about "Bush fatigue," a sentiment that Baker is careful to attribute to "everyday voters," whose apparently valid frustration is contrasted favorably against "the blinding hate felt by many liberals who were never going to vote for him."

This linguistic flexibility ensnares Baker's reporting on the Scooter Libby case as well, a period that would forever mar Bush's relationship with Dick Cheney. Libby, Baker writes, was finally convicted by a jury "in a largely Democratic city," unsubtly implying that the verdict was more political than juridical. And Cheney himself, wishing to dismiss an inconvenient intelligence report in 2007 stating that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program, was prevented from rewriting it because, Baker writes, "no matter how clean the motives, it would be perceived as manipulating the intelligence."

And what an odd perception that would have been: the inferring of corruption due to a political figure rewriting an intelligence report in order to satisfy his own foreign policy objectives. One shudders to imagine what would constitute an "unclean" motive.

Fortunately, Baker is in possession of just such a vivid imagination. In concluding his book, he summarizes Bush's presidency: "The unnecessary controversies combined with the devastating misjudgments in Iraq ended up detracting from what otherwise might have been a solid record for the 43rd president." This is true in precisely the same sense that John Kerry could have become President in 2004 if only he had won the election.

Baker, in his acknowledgments, hopes that readers comprehend "the value in attempting a neutral history of a White House about which almost no one is neutral." But here he stumbles down the well-worn path of journalists like his colleague (and former Times executive editor) Bill Keller, whose tired defense of reportorial objectivity masks, time and again, their own inevitable -- precisely because they are human, not because they are flawed -- prejudices.

Chief among Baker's faux neutralities is his characterization of the CIA's brutal interrogations, which he fastidiously avoids calling torture. At one point, Baker describes the methodology as "the interrogation program that many called torture." Elsewhere, a National Security Council press secretary refused to defend "the interrogation program many considered torture." Later on, Baker writes that Bush "pared back the harsh interrogation techniques that critics called torture," echoing his earlier characterization of waterboarding as a practice that (ostensibly subjectively) "was deemed torture by the rest of the world."

Baker's semantic tap dance on the subject mirrors his former editor Keller's, who, in a recent written exchange with the journalist Glenn Greenwald, addressed his own equivocations: "Of course, I regard waterboarding as torture. But if a journalist gives me a vivid description of waterboarding, notes the long line of monstrous regimes that have practiced it, and then lays out the legal debate over whether it violates a specific statute or international accord, I don't care whether he uses the word or not."

This is, of course, a specious distinction. If rigid journalistic objectivity is the goal, then how is "[noting] the long line of monstrous regimes that have practiced" waterboarding any less insidious a prejudice than calling it torture outright? Why should the method's use by unsavory foreign governments be the contextual baseline rather than, say, Bush and Cheney's defense of the practice as a security measure that saved American lives?

For Keller, objectivity is a strictly linguistic property, but one with no apparent bearing on context. This paradox produces starkly dichotomous outcomes: equating waterboarding to torture is dangerous, but sneaking in an entirely unsubtle comparison to tyrannical regimes is simply standard journalistic practice.

In addition to this argument's internal contradiction, Keller's own record at the helm of the Times further undermines his point, and (by extension) Baker's: the Gray Lady indeed called waterboarding torture, but only when practiced by foreigners. A now-famous 2010 Harvard Kennedy School study found that The New York Times equated waterboarding to torture in 85.8 percent of all cases in which a foreign country had committed it, but only in a paltry 7.69 percent of all cases describing its practice by Americans.

A dissection of Keller's logical fallacies could fill another 816-page missive all on its own. But insofar as his embrace of "view from nowhere" journalism regarding torture is mimicked by Baker, the underlying logic must be critiqued similarly in both cases.

Indeed, this is how Days of Fire became a distinctly sympathetic piece of journalism to its principal subjects, one that elicited the enthusiastic thumbs-up of a key administration official like Frum even while covering virtually ever major failure of the Bush administration in detail. The errors are cushioned, and the mistakes favorably contextualized. Exclusive meeting scenes set in the Oval Office feel as if they are being narrated by each of the characters themselves, creating a disorienting sensation in which everyone is somehow cast in the best possible light simultaneously.

In the end, one completes the book having read an exhaustive account of the inner workings of an incompetent presidential administration with nary a feeling of anger or betrayal. Is this hagiography? No, but neither is it "a neutral history of a White House" -- an idea as phantasmal, in its own way, as those elusive weapons of mass destruction.