The Philadelphia Inquirer, in its Sunday commentary section, staged a point-counterpoint about Dick Cheney and his legacy. Paul Mirengoff, the popular conservative blogger at Powerline, made the case for Cheney. I was asked to make the case against Cheney. (It was not exactly heavy lifting; I didn't even bother to mention "last throes" or "they will greet us as liberators"). Here’s an expanded version of what I wrote in print:
I last saw Dick Cheney at a Colorado rodeo arena, in August of 2004, flashing his grin-grimace on a stage flanked by bales of hay, his hands seemingly glued to the thick thighs encased in cowboy jeans, and it was painfully obvious that he wanted to rid himself of these campaign rituals and return to a secret undisclosed location.
He had little patience for his fans, even when they yelled nice things at him (“knock it off,” he yelled back), and after posing for their digital cameras, he parted the curtain and vanished. Which made perfect sense, because, unlike your typical politician and vice president, this was truly a guy who lived in the shadows, like a mushroom. He thrived where nobody could see him.
And that’s where he did the most damage to the very notion of honest, democratic self-rule.
It’s impossible to critique the failures of the Bush era without targeting the de facto deputy president, an historically unique veep who did the policy work and the dirty work for his detail-averse boss. Not that Cheney would care what I think. Or what you think. His governing style was always predicated on the notion that he knew best, and that public opinion was a mere irritant, as consequential as a fly buzzing a picnic basket. And it was always his basket, to restock as he pleased.
Cheney biographer Barton Gellman, whose ground-breaking new book, Angler, has been praised even by Cheney supporters, wrote: “Cheney’s most troubling quality was a sense of mission so acute that it drove him to seek power without limit….(He) did not much admire the way his fellow Americans made decisions. Our fickle loyalties, our emotional swings, our uneven grasp of facts, our failure to see the main point, our logical errors – all the things that made our collective conversation so unlike Dick Cheney’s conversation with himself – brought the vice president close to saying he need not bother listening.”
Nor did he bother communicating, at least in ways that approximated the truth.
The Bush administration went into free fall for a host of reasons – such as its documented incompetence in Iraq and New Orleans – but it can fairly be argued that, at some point, a landslide majority of Americans simply decided that the White House was telling too many lies. And Cheney was a prime offender. No leader, even a legendarily skillful infighter like Cheney, can repeatedly insult the public and get away with it indefinitely.
He viewed the average citizen as moldable clay, and he crafted his pre-war propaganda accordingly. He shaped the intelligence on Iraq to reflect his post-9/11 fixation on Iraq; as our British allies wrote on July 23, 2002, in a now-infamous memo, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” And then he went out and sold us on the fix.
He declared publicly in August 2002 that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us." In reality, intelligence officials had been voicing their doubts, and reporting their doubts, all year. But Cheney opted not to share those doubts with the citizens who would have to finance the war and, in some cases, send their kids to fight it.
And whereas Cheney kept publicly telling us in 2002 that Saddam Hussein had been in close cahoots with Osama bin Laden, the president’s own Daily Brief of Sept. 21, 2001 said there was “scant credible evidence” of any “significant collaborative ties.” Moreover, in the autumn of ‘02, various FBI and CIA sources were already telling reporters that there was no such link between Saddam and Osama – a conclusion since endorsed by the 9/11 Commission report in 2004 and reiterated in greater detail by a Pentagon report in 2008.
But if my take on Cheney isn’t sufficiently persuasive, consider this one:
A career intelligence professional recently complained that Cheney and his ally at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, steered America toward war in Iraq simply by ignoring the skeptical intel and favoring the material that fit their needs: “Their political faith and convictions influenced how they took information and interpreted it…When you don’t like the answer and you set up your own thing, you tend to get the answer you want. You hire people who think like you do or want to satisfy the boss.” As a result, Cheney and Rumsfeld “have gotten results that in my view now have been disastrous.”
So said Admiral Mike McConnell, the current Director of National Intelligence, in November 2006. He reiterated his concerns nine months later on Meet the Press.
Cheney’s characteristic debasement of factual empiricism was not limited to the war, of course. Even after voters booted the GOP out of power on Capitol Hill in 2006, he sought to deny statistical reality. He said the Democrats had only won “a narrow victory,” whereas, actually, the aggregate tally of all contested House races showed the Democrats winning by 6.6 percentage points nationwide – a wider margin than when Newt Gingrich and the GOP captured the House in 1994. And the swing-voting independents favored the Democrats in 2006 by 18 points – a portent of the Democratic seizure of the center in 2008.
Yet even though Cheney is currently playing out the string with the lowest favorability rating of any veep in modern polling (scraping bottom with Dan Quayle, which says a lot), and even though he no longer has the clout that he enjoyed when Rumsfeld ran the Pentagon (biographer Gellman writes that Cheney "created the conditions for his own defeat"), there is nary a hint that he will ever confess error or lighten his hubris with a dose of humility.
On ABC News the other day, Cheney was still trying to justify the Iraq invasion, claiming that the postwar inspectors had determined “that Saddam Hussein still had the technology to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the technology, he had the people, he had the basic feedstocks.” This was yet another lie. The authoritative postwar Duelfer Report concluded four years ago that Hussein’s mass weapons programs had “progressively decayed” since 1991, and that inspectors found no evidence of any “concerted efforts to restart the program.” (And notice how Cheney, to the bitter end, is still trying to shift the goal posts. Six years ago, he claimed there was “no doubt” that Hussein possessed WMDs; today, he’s merely claiming – falsely – that Hussein had the capability to make WMDs.)
His contempt for the public has even been codified in a new federal rule that is intended to keep secret his official deliberations. His office drew up Executive Order 13233, which broadly shields vice presidential records from public release. Cheney even came up with a new classification – SCI, or “sensitive compartmentalized information – in order to keep these workaday records locked away in the National Archives, secure from the prying eyes of future historians. And when one top National Archives official clashed with Cheney over a related secrecy issue, Cheney’s legal counsel retaliated by trying to erase the official’s job from the federal budget.
Gellman’s heavily-reported book, Angler (praised even by Cheney, who recently remarked that the author “did his homework”), is nevertheless proof that judgments about Cheney can rendered right now, regardless of the vice president’s attempts to twist facts and suppress information. But perhaps Cheney’s fellow Republicans should have the final word:
During the GOP presidential primaries last winter, one of the candidates was asked, “Would you grant your vice president as much authority and as much independence as President Bush has granted to Vice President Cheney?” The candidate, without hesitation, simply replied: “No” – whereupon the Republican spectators exploded in laughter, the correct answer obvious even to them. And that alone should be the verdict on Cheney’s legacy.