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A Heartbeat Away

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In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir

By Dick Cheney
Threshold Editions, 2011

Garrett Augustus Hobart was perhaps the first modern vice president. He was not privy to cabinet meetings, like those in his position are today, but to an uncommon degree members of the McKinley administration relied on him for advice, none more than the president. A mutual acquaintance described the two as “coadjustors in the fixing of the policies of the Administration to an extent never before known.”

When the battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, members of the US Senate, then a body less chary of making foreign policy, began to call for war. After the president’s friend William Mason of Illinois joined in, a demonstration broke out on the chamber floor and Hobart, who was presiding over the Senate, couldn’t restore order. He went to McKinley, who had long tried to avoid war with Spain, and explained that the president could either lead or be lead by Congress. McKinley relented, and called upon the legislature to declare war. When it was time to sign the declaration, Hobart sent his own pen.

Victory came in only six months. McKinley forswore occupation of Cuba, but after praying to the Lord decided to keep the Philippines, because “there was nothing left for us to do but to take [every island], and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.” As the Senate was debating the Treaty of Paris, which concluded the war, Georgia Democrat Augustus Bacon proposed an amendment which would grant independence to the island nation as long as it formed a stable government. But when the amendment came to vote, some of McKinley’s supporters were absent (the lemming-like behavior of the moment, which we charitably call “party discipline,” grew slowly out of the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s). The upshot was a tie. Hobart cast the tie-breaking vote and the amendment was scuttled. The Philippines would finally gain independence on July 4, 1946.

A vice president, as Dick Cheney writes in In My Time, his deceitful new memoir, has just two constitutionally mandated duties. One is to preside over the Senate, which includes casting the decisive vote in the event of a stalemate. John Adams cast twenty-nine of these votes, a total unmatched to this day, but his lecturing and overbearing style prompted the Senate to contemplate regulations that would silence him. Thereafter he was docile, and until Hobart, most vice presidents declined to play an active role in the Senate. The second responsibility is to assume the “powers and duties” of the presidency, should the president be incapacitated. Cheney sometimes exercised the former and exercised the latter only once, while George W. Bush was having a colonoscopy. He made it clear from the beginning that he would not seek the presidency when George W. Bush retired. Yet Cheney’s influence dwarfed all predecessors. He did not receive it from the Constitution, or laws of Congress, which during the 20th century granted the vice president a seat on the National Security Council, to render future succession more fluid. Instead, Cheney gained power as Hobart did: through his relationship with the president.

“My role depended on George W. Bush,” he writes.

I had no line responsibility. I wasn’t technically in charge of anything. I could only give advice. And the impact of my advice depended first and foremost on my relationship with the president. At the end of the day, it wouldn’t have mattered how many years of experience I had or how many other offices I’d held, if the president wasn’t interested in what I had to say.

But he was: “From day one,” he says, “George Bush made clear he wanted me to help govern.” This would in fact entail a tremendous amount of line responsibility, and Cheney would also be in charge of many things, even before he took office. Before he was elected he made some of his most fateful decisions, which George Bush, a callow self-styled “decider,” merely ratified. It began with the search for a vice president, which Cheney ran. He ultimately settled on himself. Months later, while high-powered legal teams grappled for Florida’s votes, Cheney was put in charge of the Bush campaign’s transition team, an innocuous-sounding post that nobody pays much attention to. From that perch he chose most of Bush’s government.

For Secretary of Defense, Cheney selected his mentor from the Nixon Administration, Donald Rumsfeld (who chose Paul Wolfowitz, whom Cheney had also worked with, as his deputy). A friend from the Ford Administration, Paul O’Neill, would helm Treasury. Cheney wanted a strong hand in economic policy, so he made sure he had an ally in the Office of Management and Budget, which allocates all federal spending and evaluates Congressional legislation; Sean O’Keefe, Secretary of the Navy and Pentagon comptroller when Cheney was Secretary of Defense, would be the OMB’s deputy director. John Ashcroft, a dour, self-righteous man who had recently joined the ranks of the infamous by losing his Senate seat to a corpse, was plucked from oblivion to be made Attorney General. Christine Todd Whitman, a Cheney subordinate from the Nixon Administration, was tapped for the EPA. From his years in the first Bush presidency, Cheney picked Robert Zoellick to be U.S. trade representative, and Spencer Abraham for Energy, a department whose existence Abraham had once questioned. For Interior and Agriculture, Cheney relied on friends he made when he was in the House of Representatives to choose suitably conservative candidates.

There were two important appointments that Bush didn’t rubber-stamp. He asked Condoleezza Rice, friend and confidant, to be his National Security Adviser, and Colin Powell, one of the country’s most popular figures, to be the Secretary of State. Rice didn’t inhabit Cheney’s orbit, and though Powell, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a colleague from the first Bush administration, he was also a moderate, and that wouldn’t do. (According to Cheney, before Bush made him his running mate, he “told the governor he needed to understand how deeply conservative I was. He said, ‘Dick, we know that.’ And I said, ‘No, I mean really conservative.’”)

Cabinet-level appointees weren’t the only staffing choices Cheney made; they may not even have been the most important. (Several of those, like O’Neill and Whitman, would leave early after breaking with orthodoxy.) Far more numerous were the friends and friends of friends he placed in second and third-tier positions, who could be relied upon to keep him informed and make acceptable choices. This is how he checked Powell and Rice. Steven Hadley, also from Cheney’s days at the Defense Department, became Rice’s deputy. John Bolton, like many of Cheney’s people, was a proponent of unilateral war against what they called “rogue regimes,” and a spot for him was found at State. Some choices seem oddly personal. Paul Hoffman, who directed Cheney’s congressional office in Wyoming, became deputy assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife. Cheney had contempt for the environmental movement, but more than that, his favorite pastime is fishing.

Hoffman explained Cheney’s method to Barton Gellman, whose Angler is the essential book on the 46th vice president.

What he knows as well as anyone is you can’t run all of government from the seat of the vice president’s office…. You cannot insert yourself into every branch and agency. His genius is…he picks brilliant people, he builds networks and puts the right people in the right places, and then trusts them to make well-informed decisions that comport with his overall vision…. [He has a] web of contacts – it’s the people he knows, and the people they know.

To help him run this shadow empire, Cheney used David Addington, a zealous and gifted bureaucratic fighter, as counsel to the vice president, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby as both his chief of staff and national security adviser, the latter title bestowed to blunt Rice’s influence.

Libby had a third title as well, assistant to the president, which meant that only Cheney and Bush outranked him. He was far from the only person on the vice president’s staff doing double duty in the White House; Cheney cemented the web he had grafted onto the Executive by effectively merging his staff with Bush’s in several places. “When trouble develops between a president and vice president,” he writes,

it often begins with staff conflict. To avoid that, we decided to integrate our staffs in key areas. Mary Matalin, my communications director…served as my assistant and as assistant to the president. This was also true in national security, where Scooter Libby carried both titles. In legal matters, my general counsel, David Addington, worked closely with the lawyers in the While House counsel’s office every day. My speechwriter, John McConnell, was also on of the president’s top speechwriters. Staff meetings and the policy processes were very well integrated. There were disagreements, of course, but the system worked pretty well most of the time.

This was revolutionary, but Cheney’s anodyne description aims to convince you otherwise. Staff problems may have harried this relationship in the past, but vice presidents, even Hobart, have never been co-rulers – their remit is usually small and specialized, and their staffs kept separate. With their staffs joined at the hip, Cheney, who got the president’s daily national security briefing before Bush got to the office, was able to monitor and sometimes control the flow of paperwork – the circulation of memos, policy papers, and opinions churned out by the every part of government – that laid the foundation for administration policy. Cheney occasionally mentions or alludes in his to the appointments and the paper-flow, but he never ties the strands together. Cheney’s achievement was a new kind of administration, a phalanx of smart, experienced and driven people advising and choosing the information consumed by a narrowly curious president with a lazy, yes-or-no management style.

The extent of this network is still uncommon knowledge; the results it produced are not. Cheney hated the presidency’s post-Nixon decline in power. Like Addington, who fought against Congressional oversight during the Reagan Administration, he believed in the unitary executive, a theory which holds that the Constitution gives the president nearly unlimited war-making powers. After 9-11 that theory found practice in illegal surveillance and institutionalized torture. The memos and laws outlining these policies usually originated in the vice president’s office, and were produced there or by allies in important posts, like the Office of Legal Counsel. The notorious Bybee memo, which proposed using “enhanced interrogation” as long as it didn’t cause pain comparable to death or organ failure, was written by John Yoo, then Deputy Assistant Attorney General, who with Addington and Tim Flanigan (Deputy White House Counsel and another Cheney ally), generated most of the orders and regulations for the new “war on terror.”

The fatal planning for the occupation of Iraq was lead by Rumsfeld, supported by the Cheney network. In My Time is nearly bare of that record, though Cheney records a “nagging concern” about stability sometime in 2006. Most of the blame is laid elsewhere. In one of many digs at the State Department, for example, Cheney muses that had the Secretary of State and his people been more open to working with exiles, much of the chaos of post-war Iraq would have been averted. Nouri al-Malaki and Ayad Allawi, he notes, Iraq’s two Prime Ministers thus far, are exiles. (Incidentally, Malaki is now ruling through an increasingly brutal regime of politically motivated arrests, torture, media harassment, and suppression of Sunni enfranchisement.) What Cheney does not say is that the exile he and his people favored was Ahmed Chalabi, a slick thug and liar who funneled phony intelligence to the US government and whose people inaugurated their relocation to Baghdad by hoarding Saddam-era documents and carjacking anyone with a German vehicle. Nor does he mention the near-pathological extent of the efforts he and Rumsfeld made to keep State out of post-war operations.

The vice president was just as firmly ensconced in domestic policy. The Bush Administration set up task forces to determine policy in several major areas, and Cheney took charge of the most important ones. He lead the search for Supreme Court candidates (both of his choices were eventually nominated and confirmed), whom he ensured were suitably conservative and friendly to executive power. His energy task force, which met in secret and kept its attendees anonymous, was sued unsuccessfully under the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to learn the identities of those advising it. Cheney felt the secrecy was justified because “I believed,” he writes, “and the president backed me up, that we had the right to consult with whomever we choose – and no obligation to tell the press or Congress or anybody else whom we were talking to.” Cheney didn’t want their guests to “worry about lawsuits or being called before congressional committees.” “We sought advice from thousands of outsiders,” but he omits the fact that conservation and environmental groups were shoe-horned into a single day for meetings that he did not bother to attend, and doesn’t seem to grasp that the formation of America’s energy policy is something it’s citizens might want to be transparent.

The vice president’s sway with Congress reinforced his influence elsewhere. Every vice president is entitled to an office in the Senate’s wing of the Capitol, but they were usually excluded from the meetings where matters of substance were discussed, in order to preserve Congressional autonomy, as Lyndon Johnson, a powerful former senator, discovered when he assumed nation’s second-highest office. Johnson wanted to preside over Democratic caucus meetings, but vociferous objections soon disabused him of his ambitions, as they had done to John Adams 170 years before. Cheney, by contrast, attended Senate Republican policy meetings as the voice of the White House. He also took a space on the House side, another unprecedented position for a vice president. “To my knowledge,” he demurely writes, “no vice president before or since has had an office on the House side of the Capitol, and I used it for meetings with House members when we were working on key pieces of legislation.” Among those was the Bush Administration’s $1.3 trillion tax cut (there would be several more, including capitol gains), a sum Reagan could not have imagined. Cheney negotiated this number for the White House, and it accounts for about ten percent of the deficit belaboring the country today.

photo by Gage Skidmore

When he disagreed with one of the president’s ideas, Cheney often stayed out of things, as he did when Bush pushed for an expansion of Medicare. But sometimes he worked quietly to subvert official policy. One incident in particular demonstrates how Cheney brought the various arms of his influence machine to bear. It may seem ludicrous now, but George W. Bush entered office promising to “establish mandatory reduction targets” on “all power plants” emitting carbon dioxide. Christine Todd Whitman was to carry this through at the EPA. On March 6, 2001, two days after Whitman reiterated this policy at a Group of Eight meeting, four Republican senators, in reproach, sent Bush a letter asking for “clarification of your Administration’s policy on climate change.” Cheney despised that policy, and had his staff produce a response that would correspond with the senator’s wishes and his own. Barton Gellman called it “a case study in the management of an errant boss.” Though it “may appear to differ with our campaign statement,” the memo read, the president should take the position that “the current state of scientific knowledge about causes and solutions to global warming is inconclusive…. Therefore, it would be premature at this time for the President to propose any specific policy or approach.” The media should be told that previous statements by the administration “did not fully reflect the President’s decision.” Though Whitman was not privy to the memo (Cheney did what he could to isolate those who disagreed with him from White House’s hard copy), she felt something was wrong, and scheduled an appointment with the president for 10 AM on the 13th. Colin Powell, wary of offending allies, found out about the memo and was heading for the White House that same morning. But Cheney monitored Bush’s calendar: when Whitman finally made her way into the Oval Office, she saw Cheney walking out with an envelope. It was the memo for the senators, now signed by the president, which made Cheney’s views official. The vice president would deliver it himself.
This low-key defiance became intermittent petulance as his influence waned. By 2006 the Bush administration was in tatters, and many of Cheney’s allies were gone, as a result of incompetence, unpopularity, and the attrition inherent in any presidency. Bush was chastened by his failures and Republican losses in the recent elections. Rumsfeld was the only person in his administration who approached Cheney in unpopularity (a trough the vice president inhabited alone for eight years), so, in the executive parlance that litters the memoirs of the Bush administration’s biggest figures, the president “decided to make a change.” During the first term, Cheney’s voice was usually the last Bush heard before a decision was made. The president no doubt found debating difficult with Cheney, who usually gave his views when the two were alone. Bush informed his vice president of his choice in an unusual way. The anecdote, as Cheney relates it, is telling:

On October 31, 2006, after the president and I had finished our morning briefings in the Oval Office, he said, ‘Dick, can I talk to you for a second?’ We went down the small hallway that leads to the private dining room where we held our weekly lunches. “I’ve decided to make a change at Defense,” the president said, “and I’m looking at Bob Gates to replace Rumsfeld.” He was informing me of his decision, not soliciting my views. He already knew them, since twice before I had argued against replacing Rumsfeld…

This time the president didn’t wait around after he told me he had made up his mind. He turned and was out the door fast. He knew I’d be opposed, and I suspect he didn’t want to hear the arguments he knew I’d make.

The nomination of Gates, a dreaded moderate, was part of a larger trend. Condoleeza Rice was coming into her own as Secretary of State, using her close relationship with the president to convince him to alter course in foreign policy, with North Korea for example, a country with whom she wanted to negotiate. Cheney favored a hard line but was kept at arm’s length while the rest of the administration deliberated. The Bush-Cheney relationship deteriorated further when the president refused to grant a full pardon to Scooter Libby, just convicted of perjury. Outside the White House, Supreme Court decisions in the Bush administration’s final years pushed back against the new frontiers of presidential power Cheney had won, while Congress attempted renew oversight of the executive branch, a role abdicated for the better part of a decade.

For his failures and others Cheney’s In My Time hews to the cowardly approach pioneered by Rumsfeld and Bush himself: if you bother to mention a mistake at all the fault lies elsewhere. Bush, in Decision Points, favors the silent approach. Rumsfeld and Cheney marry evasion and accusation in equal measure by omitting unpleasant facts and blaming chance, the State Department, and anyone not sufficiently aggressive for the blood that inevitably followed. These memoirs are really criminal defense briefs vacant of the introspection honesty requires. All three are a crashing bore, each a droning accumulation of elementary declarative sentences, synthetic patriotism and boardroom lingo. That is somehow fitting.

By the end of the Bush-Cheney Administration the country was tired. It embroiled the United States in two draining, violent, poorly-planned wars, accelerated the accumulation of debt alongside the deregulation of finance, and created an extensive regime of illegal surveillance and brutal detention, matching moral to military and economic deterioration; a hastening of America’s relative decline in the world. As Cheney saw it, he and Bush had restored to the presidency its traditional remit in war, moved the country closer to pure capitalism, and asserted clear and aggressive global leadership. Those gains were now in danger.

But there was little Cheney could do about it. A vice president is weak without the president’s support, and Bush had withdrawn it. For all the effort, Cheney’s victory appeared temporary. This is why his criticism of the Obama administration, unheard of in a former vice president, has been so bitterly angry. He is an old curmudgeon shouting at the rafters because the man in the White House will not listen to his advice.

Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.

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