Vice: The Dispiriting Legacy of Dick Cheney
Only a short step separates the brazenly asserted right of the president to defy the will of Congress and the courts to the tacitly insinuated right of the president to mislead Congress and the courts. Cheney's sovereign executive, in fact, may be inherently and inescapably duplicitous. Given the proclivity of Congress and the courts to ask embarrassingly probing questions, the executive branch can defend its "near-hermetic secrecy" only by resorting frequently to deliberate untruths, delivered preferably in informal settings, not under oath. This dubious constitutional argument is supplemented with a dubious contextual one. The president has the right and responsibility, as part of his national security powers, to mislead hostile foreign powers. But it is sometimes impossible to conduct an effective disinformation campaign against enemies without subjecting Congress and the courts to the very same deception.
Gellman's account of executive branch mendacity raises several intriguing questions. Was Cheney's devotion to unrestrained executive power, including the right to mislead supposedly coequal branches, partisan or nonpartisan? Is Cheney a man of rigid principles, heedless of political consequences, or an opportunist, embracing and dropping principles as expediency demands? Was his zeal to restore the Imperial Presidency, as it had been fully imagined but incompletely realized by Nixon, an expression of factional loyalty or of constitutional conviction? Did he do it for the sake of Bush and his political goals, or for the sake of the executive branch, present and future?
Politicians sometimes act for the reasons they allege. But expressed justification does not always open a window onto private motivation. That Cheney's prettifying rationales for his own actions needn't always be taken seriously is a conclusion strongly suggested by Angler. Cheney's public position on executive branch secrecy is a case in point. He regularly defended the right to withhold important information from Congress and the courts, by invoking the need to receive candid or unvarnished advice from people who would be intimidated and inhibited by the thought that their private communications might someday become public. Yet Cheney's practice of leaking confidential information in order to injure rivals and adversaries, detailed by Gellman, raises doubts about the sincerity of this defense of secret government. It seems more likely that Cheney favored hiding the ball for a tactical reason: it is easier to win if your political and bureaucratic rivals inside government do not even know a deadly game is afoot.
The same is true of Cheney's claim that the threat of nuclear terrorism revealed by 9/11 justifies his spirited defense of unchecked executive power. This claim is disingenuous for several reasons. First, Cheney's commitment to extreme executive discretion didn't originate with 9/11. Since 1974, in fact, his driving passion had been to restore the president's power to escape liability for actions undertaken in the name of national security and without legislative or judicial oversight. Second, while serving as vice president, Cheney regularly invoked presidential prerogative for purposes with little or no connection to national security, such as allowing snowmobiles into national parks and the construction of coal-fired power plants in their vicinity. Finally, the notion that the executive branch needs extraordinary powers to enable it to react rapidly in a crisis, especially when thousands of American lives are at stake, is undermined by the response of the Bush administration in general, and the vice president in particular, to the human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. The paralysis the government displayed as a major American city was being destroyed suggests that Cheney's desire to monopolize power reflects just that, and not a serious commitment to emergency preparedness or the preservation of American lives.
Cheney also relished the presidency's independent power of action because it allowed him to push a hardline agenda without having to make compromises with the opposition. Even after he and Bush eked out their contested victory in 2000, he refused to seek common ground with the party that had won the popular vote. This obstinacy was perfectly in character. Cheney had been suggesting for decades that the Republican Party was the natural party of power, just as the Democratic Party, if not a fifth column, was emboldening America's enemies by its post-Vietnam reluctance to deploy overwhelming military force abroad. And once in office, Cheney set about designing a national security policy that could be sustained only if the other party were permanently excluded from the presidency. That the Democrats do not deserve to occupy the White House seems self-evident to Cheney, who, with Limbaughesque vulgarity, has slandered unnamed members of Obama's team as "people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans."
At one point Gellman suggests that aggrandizement of executive branch power for its own sake, regardless of which party occupies the White House, was Cheney's true agenda. Cheney did occasionally seem more obsessed with means than with ends, as if his sheer hunger for power might be leading him to discover or invent justifying missions. But Gellman also makes the opposite case: that Cheney sought limitless power to achieve purely partisan aims. It was his "sense of mission" that drove him "to seek power without limit," Gellman says. Cheney's allegedly nonpartisan commitment to executive discretion, on neutrally institutional grounds, has recently been thrown into doubt by his serial attacks on the president as soft on terrorism. Not only has he trash-talked Obama, calling him "someone who would 'never make it in the major leagues,'" as The New Yorker recently reported; he has also denounced Obama for using executive discretion to close Guantánamo, wind down the Iraq War and outlaw waterboarding, not to mention for imposing ethics standards on government officials and regulating businesses for the sake of the environment. It is easier to see the partisanship than the principle, especially in his requests for the administration to declassify still-secret memos, however pernicious a precedent such a release might set.
But identifying partisan zeal and personal arrogance as the wellsprings of Cheney's extraordinary theory of the sovereign executive does not explain his success in concentrating unprecedented power in the traditionally weak Office of the Vice President (OVP). How was Cheney, at least during Bush's first term, able to outmaneuver serious rivals and seize, in Gellman's words, "a brief so wide-ranging and autonomous that he was the nearest thing we have had to a deputy president?" As Gellman demonstrates, the key to answering this question lies in palace intrigue.