It is now well noted that former Vice President Dick Cheney’s memoir makes no apologies for the Bush-Cheney administration’s deadly errors and misdeeds on the international stage.
But Cheney is just as unrepentant regarding domestic disasters.
As Americans mark the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, a nightmare collision of natural disaster and official neglect that left more than 1,800 people dead, there is much somber reflection on what might have been done better.
Except by Cheney.
The former vice president was famously dismissive of the Katrina crisis and controversy at the time at the time when something might have been done, creating an awkward moment in which former President Bush — who was stung by the furor over his own initial disengagement from a human catastrophe that grew to epic proportions — reportedly explained to a Cabinet meeting that he had encouraged Cheney to lead a Cabinet-level task force on Katrina only to be rebuffed. "I asked Dick if he’d be interested in spearheading this," Bush recalled. "Let’s just say I didn’t get the most positive response."
When Bush asked if Cheney would at least lead a fact-finding mission to the storm-battered region, the vice president replied curtly: "That’ll probably be the extent of it, Mr. President, unless you order otherwise."
Cheney finally did make it to Gulfport, Mississippi, two weeks after the storm hit, only to be greeted by an emergency-room physician who shouted: "Go f**k yourself, Mr. Cheney."
With his memoir, In My Time, Cheney responds in kind to the region that is still recovering from a disaster made worse by the slow, unfocused and tone-deaf response of an administration that always seemed to be more interested in declaring "Mission Accomplished" — as evidenced by Bush’s bizarre praise for soon-to-be-removed FEMA director Micheal Brown: "Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job" — than in actually doing the job.
In the 565-page tome that went on sale Tuesday, Cheney portrays Bush not as an out-of-touch executive cheerleading for an obviously out-of-his-depth political appointee but as an epic commander-in-chief who “personally” took charge of the Hurricane Katrina detail work — which Cheney, the administration’s actual detail man, wanted no part of — and devoted “hundreds of hours not only to ensuring an effective federal response but to reaching out to people who needed to know that their government cared about them.”
Cheney acknowledges that things did not go perfectly in the aftermath of Katrina, and even suggests that "we could have done a few things better." But if there is blame to be assigned, well, that goes to the Democrats — especially former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who the steadily partisan Cheney repeatedly trashes in his two-page account. As for that refusal to chair the task force, Cheney recasts the report so that his refusal to engage with what he describes as "one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the United States" as a rejection of "a figurehead" role. And, while Cheney recalls the trip to Gulfport, the angry physician is somehow written out of the story.
In the old Soviet Union, commissars were frequently accused of "rewriting history" so that their wrongdoing, ineptness and failures disappeared from the official record. All that remained in the depths of the Cold War were accounts of "grand heroism" and "glorious success."
So it is with the memoir of America’s last Cold Warrior. The only problem for Cheney is that there are still a lot of people in New Orleans, Gulfport and the rest of American who remember what really happened when a self-absorbed president failed to recognize the urgency of a crisis on the home front, and a supposedly more competent vice president couldn’t be bothered to care.
(John Nichols is the author of a critically acclaimed biography of the former vice president Dick: The Man Who Is President [The New Press]. It appeared in Europe and in an updated paperback version as The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney [The New Press].)