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Vice: The Dispiriting Legacy of Dick Cheney | The Nation

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Vice: The Dispiriting Legacy of Dick Cheney

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HARVEY GEORGES/AP IMAGESDick Cheney (left) and Donald Rumsfeld in 1975

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Stephen Holmes
Stephen Holmes teaches at the New York University School of Law. His most recent book is The Matador's Cape: America's...

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Having catapulted himself back into the national spotlight as "the highest-profile critic of the new administration," in the words of the New York Times, Dick Cheney has also invited us, inadvertently, to revisit his dispiriting legacy. Along with his support of cruel interrogations, Cheney's everyday resort to stealth and subterfuge during his eight-year tenure in the Bush White House inspired certain administration insiders, privately and not necessarily derisively, to call the former vice president "Dark Side." Angler, Barton Gellman's study of the Cheney vice presidency, provides the most probing and comprehensive account we have, based on hundreds of original interviews, of Cheney's behind-the-scenes maneuvering, not only in the "war on terror" but also in energy policy, environmental policy, tax policy and executive-legislative relations. But Gellman helps us explore an even more tenebrous domain. As it turns out, the proportions of calculating underhandedness and heady delusion commingled in Cheney's political style remain frustratingly difficult to assess.

His recent, ongoing media campaign for the release of a few classified CIA memos is a case in point. Does he truly believe that in-house memorandums, containing publicly unchallenged and untested allegations, could conclusively prove that harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, produced intelligence that helped disrupt an imminent terror attack? Or is he playing smoke and mirrors, seeding the airwaves with sensational talking points to put his critics on the defensive? Such a maneuver might be unethical but would not be particularly irrational.

Consider, in the same light, the identical letters Cheney composed for his six grandchildren nearly two years ago, in July 2007, when President Bush was undergoing a colonoscopy and the vice president had assumed the role of acting president for several hours. Gellman has reproduced the remarkable text:

As I write this, our nation is engaged in a war with terrorists of global reach. My principal focus as vice president has been to protect the American people in our way of life. As you grow, you will come to understand the sacrifices that each generation makes to preserve freedom and democracy for future generations. I ask you as my grandchildren that you always strive in your lives to do what is right. Signed, Acting President of the United States, Grandpa Cheney

It is no doubt possible to discover some form of shrewd propaganda in this stilted message from a cardboard patriarch--words that were, after all, released to the public. But that is not the most plausible reading of these few lines. Cheney eulogizes himself as a nobly selfless leader who has been willing to make not only tough choices but also great personal sacrifices to defend freedom, democracy and the American way. Yet crowing before his children's children as "Acting President of the United States" seems more delusional than instrumental. Temporarily the head of the executive branch, an office whose power he worked furtively and ferociously to expand during his years in government, Cheney turned the occasion into an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, decorated with dime-store clichés.

In trying to fathom how Cheney accumulated, maintained and gradually lost power within the executive branch, Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Washington Post, proceeds as a clinician rather than a prosecutor. Consequently, Angler touches only lightly on decisions of Cheney's involving potential conflicts of interest. (The title of Gellman's book refers to another Cheney moniker, one coined by the Secret Service and inspired by his passion for fly-fishing.) Acknowledging that the former vice president granted special and secretive access to business groups with substantial stakes in government policy, Gellman draws no damning conclusions about the long-term no-bid contracts awarded to Halliburton in Iraq, even though Cheney, before helping to steer his country into war, had been that controversial company's CEO. After thoroughly investigating the matter, Gellman reports that he found "no evidence of self-dealing behavior in office, involving Halliburton or anything else."

For tenacious Cheney watchers, this may be an aggravating conclusion, but for the purpose of examining Cheney's hold on power in the Bush White House it may also be beside the point. Whether or not Cheney profited financially from the policies he promoted, his concept of the national interest was and remains clearly aligned with the economic interests of his onetime business associates. Gellman makes this point, indirectly, by claiming that the vice president "was fundamentally honest about his objectives." Such allusions to Cheney's candor seem baffling until we realize that the objectives in question boil down to liberating business from regulation, cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans and responding to foreign threats by swelling the power of the presidency vis-à-vis Congress and the courts. Honesty about goals, we soon learn, was accompanied by a lusty embrace of dishonesty in their pursuit.

Gellman lavishes most of his attention on the fabrications Cheney used to enable the executive branch to circumvent constitutional checks and balances. One of the boldest involved the Bush administration's ongoing program for intercepting domestic communications without a judicial warrant, which Gellman describes as an "operation conceived and supervised by the office of the vice president." When briefing the Republican and Democratic heads of Congress's Intelligence Committees about this program in early 2004, Cheney (with White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, National Security Agency director Michael Hayden and others) connived to hide the fact that high-ranking lawyers from the NSA and Justice Department had expressed grave doubts about the program's legality. "Cheney, who chaired briefings for select members of Congress, said repeatedly that the NSA's top law and ethics officers had approved what their agency was doing," Gellman explains. Cheney was not vague about the facts of the case but conveyed inaccurate information about the legal opinions of others. To thwart Congressional oversight and thus eliminate outside review and potential criticism of a favored White House program, Cheney knowingly misled key members of a constitutionally coequal branch.

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