DAYS OF FIRE. By Peter Baker. Doubleday. 653 pages. $35.

Never judge a book by its cover, Momma told you. She should have said the same about presidents, not to mention political rabble rousers.

It's too easy for contemptuous talking heads to caricature real live human beings performing unenviable duties under excruciating and sometimes harrowing duress. That's the takeaway from this engaging, in-depth look at the evolving relationship between former president George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, his vice president.

If you're a "George Bush's puppeteer" critic of Cheney, you might come away a little unstrung. If you wear a "Miss Me Yet?" T-shirt emblazoned with Bush's image, you might just want to rethink the sentiment.

Baker is exhaustive, providing at times almost a minute-by-minute chronicle of events and dialogue between the people who lived them. The figures who emerge are two far more complex, nuanced and driven individuals than conveyed in gargoyle-like popular images cast to leave people frothing as if they were real.

At one point during the worst of the Iraq liberation debacle, Baker talks about Bush fighting back tears as a dead soldier's widow with two children teared up trying to talk to him:

"While the public saw Bush's swagger, his private meetings with families that had lost sons and daughters and husbands and wives revealed a different side, one kept out of the media. Typically in such encounters, Bush sat down with each family separately, joined only by a single aide ... 'I do the best I can to cry with them or, you know, laugh with them if they wanna laugh, and hug them,' he said. It took a toll. After such meetings, he was drained."

Baker gets a read on Bush as he sets aside a deeply held trust in the free market to push through bailouts that saved the economic system during the 2008 collapse:

"But he sounded almost as if he were trying to convince himself, almost as if he could not believe that an ardent capitalist would shuck six decades of beliefs for the most intrusive government intervention in the private marketplace of his lifetime. 'With the situation becoming more precarious by the day,' Bush said, 'I faced a choice - to step in with dramatic government action or to stand back and allow the irresponsible actions of some to undermine the financial security of all.' "

Despite all the popular critiquing, the buck stopped with a decisive Bush throughout the trying presidency. Cheney acted as a veteran counsel and partner early on, but faded as Bush grappled with the job decision by decision. Baker's depiction details the frictions as well as the fellowship.

"(Treasury secretary) Henry Paulson at least negotiated terms to his liking. He would run economic policy, not the White House, and not the vice president, who to the outside world seemed to have his hand in every pot.

"Actually, Cheney's role was shrinking by the hour. Even as Paulson was boxing him out of economic policy, Rice was elbowing him out of foreign policy."

It's hard to read this book and not want to hop on a mountain bike alongside Bush, whose enthusiasm on one trail at 62 years old left Gen. David Petraeus skidding into a tree and Petraeus' son with a broken finger.

"Other than his response to September 11, Bush's two greatest moments in office were arguably his responses to (the failing Iraq liberation and the financial crisis), ignoring political peril and discarding ideology to do what was necessary to turn things around."

So much for talking heads' "puppeteering" presidents. The next time one starts yanking, better check to see just whose strings are being pulled.

Reviewer Bo Petersen is a reporter at The Post and Courier.