Is my Obama book, Power Wars, less “prosecutorial” than my Bush book, Takeover? Yes, some – and here’s why.

Last week, The Weekly Standard published a lengthy review of Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency by Gabriel Schoenfeld. I was grateful for the engagement with the book, though of course as with any review, I agreed with and liked some parts of it more than others. He and I had a private exchange about one part of what he wrote, and I decided I wanted to say publicly what I had explained to him. It centers on a comparison of Power Wars to my book about the Bush administration, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy.

Schoenfeld observed:

From the wealth of material assembled here, one could readily construct a withering indictment of Barack Obama’s handling of national security matters. But constructing such an indictment is hardly Savage’s purpose. Quite the contrary: If Savage hangs out a great deal of team Obama’s dirty laundry, he does so not to disparage the administration but as part of a cleansing process. Time and again, Savage presents a bill of particulars, and time and again he proceeds to defend the president and his men from the charge sheet. To be sure, he is unsparing in acknowledging abundant shortcomings of Obama and his aides, but by offering arguments and counterarguments, and often tracing failings to spurious Republican attacks and reflexive congressional resistance, he constructs the best possible case for them nonetheless.
Savage’s effort to be scrupulously fair to the Obama administration is both impressive and admirable. It also stands in sharp contrast to his consistently uncharitable assessment of the Bush administration in his previous book, Takeover (2007), which warned of “an emerging threat to the checks and balances devised by our Founding Fathers” and decried the “subversion of American democracy.” Whatever political predispositions explain the discrepancy between the prosecutorial tone of Savage’s first book and the excusatory stance of the second, Power Wars definitely deserves commendation for its candor, even if it is not consistently convincing.

So, even as Schoenfeld acknowledges that Power Wars is unsparing in surfacing Obama’s dirty laundry, he also suggests that I let political bias color my presentation of this material in comparison to my attitude eight years ago about the Bush administration’s shortcomings. Two things about this, and then a story about what someone in government told me about the difference between the two books:

First, neither of the two quotes that Schoenfeld cites as representing Takeover – that it warned of “an emerging threat to the checks and balances devised by our Founding Fathers” and decried the “subversion of American democracy” – are inside that book. The first is from the dust jacket and the second is from the subtitle – in other words, they are the marketing, not the content. I have long disliked both, finding them to be more strident than the tone of the book I wrote. As a second-time author this time around, I was more aggressive with Little Brown in keeping the tone of such things for Power Wars more neutral, in line with the tone of the content. Perhaps too much so – maybe its more aggressive subtitle and jacket is a factor in why Takeover reached the bestseller list and Power Wars has not, even though the latter is, I think, a better book.

That said, however, I do think it is accurate that the tone of Takeover (the actual book) is somewhat more prosecutorial than Power Wars in the following sense: a lot of Takeover’s material is framed as proving a case: that the Bush administration, especially during its Cheney-dominated years, was driven by an ideological desire to expand executive power as an end to itself – an agenda stemming from Cheney’s experiences in the Ford administration after Watergate and Vietnam and during the Church Committee investigation, when Congress was curbing the “imperial presidency” that had grown up during the early Cold War. That is the thesis of the book, and it recurs over and over: I describe this or that or the other episode, and I show how it, too, fit within that master narrative. Here’s what they wanted to do, here’s why, and here’s how that explains both what they did and how they went about doing it.

Power Wars is different because the Obama administration has been more of a muddle, both as a government and as the subject of a book. Obama and his team did not come into office with an overarching agenda to expand executive power, or to do anything else in the national security policy realm that so easily boils down to snappy thesis. They had a lofty, but vague, agenda that they wanted to fight terrorism pragmatically, while obeying a mainstream understanding of the rule of law — unlike Bush. But because the law in this area is often indeterminate, even without invoking exotic constitutional theories of preclusive commander-in-chief powers like Bush’s team, there turned out to be a lot of room for them to disagree with each other or for critics to disagree with their approach – even before you get to episodes where arguably they fell short of their own standards. As a result, while  the stories in the book are inherently interesting and important in and of themselves, they don’t all push in the same direction. So there is less of that recurring thesis-proving, prosecutorial-style master narrative framing – less see, they were doing X yet again!

A story: a few months ago I had a conversation with a career government official who works on national security legal policy issues and who had read both books. This official told me that Takeover was a valuable history of what happened and why in the immediate years following 9/11. But, the official said, because a big part of that explanation turned on Cheney’s idiosyncratic personal/intellectual history and outsized role for a VP, and how the combination of those two things had bestowed the Bush-Cheney administration with its peculiar fixations, the story of that moment was a little weird – and therefore the book’s insights were often limited to that particular moment, when those particular officials were in power.  By contrast, this official said, Power Wars captures the decision-making environment and what it is like to grapple with national security legal policy dilemmas inside a “normal” administration, in a way no book has done before. For that reason, lessons and insights of general applicability can be drawn from it; the official, flatteringly, said people coming into the government to work on such issues, including in future “normal” GOP administrations, should be required to read Power Wars in order to understand what their professional lives are going to be like.