Felice Belman, the editor of the new, expanded Forum pages at the Concord Monitor, emailed three weeks ago and asked me to review Days of Fire. This is Peter Baker’s new book on the George W. Bush years. The subtitle is Bush and Cheney in the White House. I said yes. Reluctantly.
I’m one of those people who tried to forget the Bush years even as they were happening. This was difficult, as I was the Monitor’s editor throughout his two terms, and presidential politics is New Hampshire’s official state pastime. A few months before his second term ended, my brother Robin gave me one of those baseball caps sporting the legend “1-20-09,” the day Bush was to leave office. I wore the cap – not in public, where my neutrality was vital to my work – but when I walked in the woods.
So, with what I consider the Bush-Cheney nightmare finally fading, I was not eager to read an 800-page book about their administration.
But Peter Baker has delivered an account that is informative, entertaining and straight down the middle. Baker has been a top-level political reporter for 20 years, much of it covering the White House. It is as a reporter, not a historian, that he approached the story of the Bush administration. His research was prodigious: 400 interviews, memoirs by key White House players, documents public now that were not public then.
I interviewed Baker by phone the other day, and he described his intentions for the book. A newspaper reporter gets only a snatch of what happens on a given day and distills the information into a deadline story that captures the essence and the broad strokes of an event. Only later are the participants willing to fill in the larger picture. And that was Baker’s aim in Days of Fire: to give readers the more nuanced story of the Bush presidency – an account unavailable as events were unfolding. He wasn’t out to make a point or posit a major historical revision.
Baker is a companionable writer. His prose is vivid and moves quickly, and he explains complex issues without dragging the reader away from the story. After interviewing most of the participants in a meeting where a big issue was decided, he can – and does – put the reader in the room.
For me, the joy of reading history is to see major characters come alive. The central figure in Baker’s book is, of course, George W. Bush himself. Baker's Bush is a three-dimensional character, a flawed human being but in some ways a sympathetic one. His ego vacillates between neediness and hubris. Baker delves into his relationship with his father, his fanatic bicycle riding, his recovery from alcoholism, his maddening blind spots, his competitiveness and his stubborn streak.
I don’t want to give away too much – or repeat myself – before the Monitor publishes the review and interview a week from tomorrow. As I’m sure you can guess, despite my reservations about a major dose of Bush and Cheney so soon after their White House years, I enjoyed the assignment.