In the Vice-Presidential debate, Sarah Palin, in one of her few unscripted moments, gave wholehearted support for Dick Cheney’s dangerous expansion of Vice Presidential power. Joe Biden vigourosly disagreed, calling Cheney “the most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history.” I have to agree with Biden.
Obviously, George Bush has been the most unpopular President in the United States since Presidential polling began. However, it is Dick Cheney, his Vice President, who is responsible for many of the disastrous policy mistakes that has discredited the United States Presidency around the globe. Barton Gellman has written an interesting book, Angler: The Shadow Presidency of Dick Cheney, that chronicles how Cheney is responsible for much of what ails America, in foreign policy and domestically.
When he leaves Washington, we must be clear that no U.S. Vice President should ever be allowed to exercise the degree of power as has Cheney.
The Vice Presidential debate comments are in the video below:
Unquestionably, Dick Cheney has been the most influential vice-president in U.S. history. Especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he took a remarkably expansive view of the ill-defined powers of his office. He energetically enlarged his own role relative to that of the president, and the power of the White House relative to that of other branches of government. It was nothing less than a constitutional revolution. Angler (the title comes from Cheney’s Secret Service codename) is the best account so far of the vice-president’s drive for “power without limit”. It is an absorbing if depressing book.
Barton Gellman bases his narrative on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles that he and Jo Becker (now with The New York Times) wrote for The Washington Post last year. He draws on the reporting of other journalists too. Readers familiar with the original articles in The Post, and steeped in recent books by Jane Mayer (The Dark Side), Jack Goldsmith (The Terror Presidency), Bob Woodward (too many to mention), and others, will find no striking new disclosures. But they will find, in one place, a remarkable tale extremely well told.
Cheney emerges as a difficult man to like and one who prides himself on the fact. Yet he is not the one-dimensional monster of popular lore, a tyrant for all seasons, driven by lust for power for its own sake. He “served the country with devotion, at some cost to himself”, Gellman writes. He “suffered eight cardiac events in eight years. He relinquished millions of dollars in stock options and income forgone. The author found no evidence of self-dealing … involving Halliburton or anything else.” In Cheney’s mind, the administration he co-led overthrew not the constitution but one contested – and, after 9/11, suicidal – interpretation of the constitution. He believed that the country was in mortal danger and did what he deemed necessary.
From the beginning he was a shrewd manipulator of the people around him, no respecter of custom or precedent, and a believer in the maxim “personnel is policy”. Cheney had served as President Ford’s chief of staff and the first President Bush’s defence secretary. As vice-president, there was little he did not already know about Washington power politics and the importance of putting the right ally in the right place. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the third member of the new ruling triumvirate, was an old and trusted friend. Hired as the vice-president’s lawyer, David Addington became the main architect of the new constitution.
Cheney’s relationship with Bush was solid. He had been the head of Bush’s vice-presidential search committee. Bush chose him without interviewing anybody else. They had an understanding and the pattern was set. The president was content to lean on his deputy. Cheney could not have appointed a better boss – better even than having the top job himself, since that involved a lot of useless ceremonial and pandering to public opinion.
To talk of Cheney as co-president is scarcely an exaggeration, the book shows – especially during the first term. After 2004, and what was almost a mass exodus from the Justice Department over torture, secret surveillance and presidential prerogatives, Bush was a little less trusting of Cheney’s judgment and began paying more attention to other advisers. Still, reading Angler one often feels that at crucial moments Bush even chose to be the junior partner.
In an interview this year, Cheney was asked what he thought of the fact that most Americans, according to polls, believed the Iraq war was a mistake. “So?” he replied. The interviewer pressed on: “You don’t care what people think?” Cheney said: “Think about what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had paid attention to polls, if they had had polls during the civil war. He never would have succeeded … ”
Yes, says the author, Lincoln ploughed on when doing so was unpopular. But that was not all. “He rallied the people and won them over … It was not mere force of will that distinguished Lincoln, but successful leadership of a public nearing despair.” Cheney saw no need to bring the country along. That was not his idea of leadership and it is why his remorseless drive for presidential power has left the presidency so enfeebled.
Clive Crook is the FT’s chief Washington commentator