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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.