In the moment of executive excess, when abuses of the powers of the presidency and — thanks to Dick Cheney’s contributions to the crisis — the vice presidency are so threatening to the Republic, it is important to remember that this is not a new fight. Cheney was the prime defender of the “right” of the executive branch to disregard Congress and the Constitution during the Iran-Contra scandal of the late 1980s, contributing a chilling dissent to the bipartisan Congressional report that accused the Reagan administration of “secrecy, deception and disdain for the law.”
In that dissent, the man who then represented Wyoming in the House chastised Congress for “abusing its power” by seeking to limit the ability of the president and his aides to spend money as they chose in support of the Nicaraguan Contras. “Congress must recognize that effective foreign policy requires, and the Constitution mandates, the President to be the country’s foreign policy leader,” argued Cheney, it what remains one of history’s most dramatic misreads of the Constitutional mandates with regard to the Constitutional system of checks and balances.
This messianic faith that the executive branch is above the law, which Cheney first spelled out as a member of Congress, has only hardened during his tenure as the most powerful vice president in history. Now, with the war in Iraq fully degenerated into quagmire and with the “war on terror” being used as an excuse for everything from warrantless wiretapping to extension of the Patriot Act, the Cheney doctrine infects the body politic as a cancer so widespread that is raises honest concern about the health and future of the American experiment.
It is important to recall, however, that the dangers inherent in Cheney’s views were diagnosed almost two decades ago, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra debacle.
Historian Theodore Draper, who has died at age 93, penned a brilliant assessment of the specific scandal and the broader concern, A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs (Hill & Wang: 1991) which used congressional testimony and private depositions to explain the controversy that erupted after it was revealed that the Reagan administration had set up an entirely illegal scheme to sell arms to Iranian fundmentalists in order to raise money that funded Contra terrorism against the Nicaraguan government and people. The title of the book refers to what Draper saw as “a very thin line (separating) the legitimate from the illegitimate exercise of power in our government.”
To Draper’s view, the Iran-Contra scandal was “symptomatic of a far deeper disorder in the American body politic” — a malady characterized by the misguided view that the United States can or should disregard the system of checks and balances in order to create “a president almighty in foreign policy.”
Draper warned us well about that “deeper disorder. Unfortunately, his was a warning unheeded. Now, as we struggle with its deadly ramifications, we would do well to return to Draper’s text — not merely to honor a visionary historian who saw both the past and the future, but to arm ourselves for the fight over whether this country will be governed by the rule of law or the rule of Cheney.
John Nichols’s book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher’s Weekly describes it as “a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney” and Esquire magazine says it “reveals the inner Cheney.”