Days of Fire, by Peter Baker

Presidential history is a venerable and popular art. Vice presidential history, not so much. One of Franklin Roose­velt’s vice presidents, John Nance Garner, famously complained that the office is “not worth a bucket of warm piss,” and few historians—or vice presidents—have contested the metaphor.

It is therefore symptomatic of the exceptional character of the vice presidency of Dick Cheney that little surprise is occasioned by Peter Baker’s treatment of Cheney as a costar with President George W. Bush in this entertaining if superficial first draft of the history of Bush’s years in the Oval Office. Few Americans today could identify any of FDR’s vice presidents. And when was the last time you heard the current administration referred to as the Obama-Biden White House? Yet most of us regard the phrase “Bush-Cheney regime” as apt. Even those, such as me, who hold Cheney in very low esteem would not deny his powerful influence on the politics and public policy of the early years of the new century.

The Cheney vice presidency raises a number of crucial questions: Just how powerful was he? How did he secure his power? How did he exercise it? Why did he use it for the ends he did? Baker addresses these questions by way of a highly detailed, sometimes day-by-day narrative in which he attempts to create “a neutral history” of the Bush years. But by pursuing a strictly narrative approach, Baker fails to provide much of an answer to these questions, which require analysis and not simply a story. And by eschewing judgment on the persuasiveness of competing claims about what happened and why, thereby confusing neutrality with objectivity, Baker leaves his readers with the impression that answers to these questions are more elusive than they are.