Whistlestop Blog

Reading Politics and Reading History

Reading Peter Baker's Days of Fire:  Bush and Cheney in the White House has prompted some thoughts on reading books that bridge journalism and history.  I confess that I rarely read such ambitious "contemporary history" books.  I figure I lived through it, so why re-hash what I remember well enough anyway?  I read the Wall Street Journal every day; I read dozens of magazines from Foreign Affairs to Science News; I skim many more, from the New Yorker and the Nation to Esquire and Vanity Fair.  There are advantages to owning a book store, yes.  When you think you keep up, then, and when there is so much to read in so many other fields, why read what you already know?

To test your mental settlements.  I am a scandal to many of my friends in that I am a registered Republican and have been since I was 18.  It's too complicated to get into without being in a pub, but essentially I have been a republican in governmental process, a liberal in social policy, and a libertarian in many issues of government-to-individual relationships.  This complex usually leaves me on the outs with many ideologies.  In the 1980s I was deeply skeptical of the Reagan administration's foreign and domestic policies, and it was easy enough to transfer that skepticism to Ronald Reagan himself.  Eventually, however, I read Edmund Morris's Dutch:  A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, a biography that is still controversial for its subversion of conventions of the discipline.  It had started out as an authorized biography and ended up pleasing no one.  You can see how I was interested in a contrary spirit.  At any rate, I liked it very much.  It changed the way I thought about Reagan, and it taught me to always be wary of conflating biography with history and vice-versa.

The Bush and Cheney administration was 7+ years of rollercoaster excitement, sometimes horror, sometimes mystification, sometimes disbelief.  (The first eight months were boring.)  Many, many bad books and many, many good books have been published about the Bush II era, and it is difficult to sort through them all in our currently polarized political and publishing worlds.  I sell them, but I am skeptical of them all, in a sense.  When Peter Baker's book arrived, however, I remembered my lesson from Edmund Morris (read outside your comfort zone and your presumed knowledge) and began it with more resolve than anticipation.  

Turned out it was very good -- as journalism, I want to stress.  It was rigorously not analytical until the epilogue, and that was after 700 pages.  Baker writes well; he is organized; and he keeps all the characters straight even in the swirl of events during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  He has cleaned up my memory files, re-set them, and created a clear chronology for those eight years.  Baker wanted to do this, and he succeeded.  I regret his restraint on analysis, however, although I acknowledge why he wanted to write an unbiased account (there are so few of them).  The epilogue is excellent in its analysis -- just too brief, not a bad problem to have in this field.  Days of Fire loosened up my thinking on George Bush, which I appreciate.  Cheney, not so much -- his obsession with defending torture is consistent from the administration to this day, for instance.  Overall, however, I am thankful to Edmund Morris and  thankful to Peter Baker for keeping me on my toes, mentally and historically and politically.