Dick Cheney should have a hurricane named after him, since he's done much more lasting damage to the country than the fury of Irene. And yet he has the nerve to come out with a book while we're still picking up the pieces from his thunder, lightning, and rain.
Brace yourself friends, because when his memoir In My Time is published this week, we'll have live flashbacks of the Svengali-like vice president for President George W. Bush. No other vice president in American history comes close to his trifecta of traits: secretive, belligerent and pernicious. Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson's intriguing vice president, shot Alexander Hamilton dead in a tragic duel and was tried for treason—but Burr was a great guy, a barrel of fun compared to grim Cheney. The Bush-Cheney reign was akin to an eight-year Siberian sentence on a thriving nation—but that was another country, so ten years ago.
Oh, let me count the ways.
The 9-11 terrorist attacks played out perfectly for Cheney, as a pretext for what he intended the administration to do anyway—invade Iraq. When he was Defense Secretary during the first Persian Gulf War, Commander-in-Chief George H.W. Bush decided to draw the line on the border between Iraq and Kuwait—and did not send desert troops to Baghdad. He hewed true to the plan for multi-national forces and kept the warfight in Kuwait. Cheney, who absorbed neocon anger after this 1991 decision over the years, personally promised Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia (our best frenemy) that Saddam Hussein would be "toast" this time around, according to a Washington Post preview of the book. [See a slide show of 6 vulnerable terrorist targets.]
Cheney also bragged in a media interview that the forthcoming book would explode a lot of heads in Washington—or some such elegant threat. Well, guess what. Nothing he'd say now could explode my head anymore than he already has. Nothing he'd apologize for would do any good. And I'm just getting started, sir. I wouldn't even be able to shake his hand; will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean? As for his dark heart, all the world's doctors can't really cure what ails it.
Cheney settles scores with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, being a sore winner who prevailed in almost all arguments on their way into the Oval Office. He let Secretary of State Powell play the Fool in front of the United Nations, making the completely wrong case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Then he persuaded the president to dump Powell after one term, for not being a team player. But Cheney has no remorse for departing from national historical precedent and starting a foreign war—much less on false premises. (The CIA takes the fall here for the WMD debacle.) As for our "enhanced" torture techniques used on detainees who hardly see the light of day, he does not disown them, either. On the contrary, he would not do anything differently on that front, standing by a brutal torture policy which dimmed the claim that America lights the world. [Vote: Osama bin Laden Is Dead—Does Obama or Bush Deserve the Credit?]
As a public man who steered the nation hard right every chance he got, Cheney gives no quarter to his critics. Unlike most politicians, he doesn't need to be liked by the public. This memoir is written by a warrior who was never in uniform, but will never lay down his arms. As a self-portrait, it rarely looks in the mirror, but rather to outside forces and events. The aim is not to reflect and reveal so much as to vindicate the protagonist, an intimidating presence who has a talent for bringing out the worst in people, including the American people.
After two—or, as you like it, three—wars of choice prosecuted to no avail, an unrepentant Cheney has a lot to answer for. Then there's an economy driven downward by draining those trillions of dollars, an American people wondering what was so great about tax cuts for the wealthy and the assault on civil liberties that started before the sun set on Sept. 11, 2001. He is the true architect of the misbegotten "War on Terror" and the PATRIOT Act, which opened the way for us to be spied on by our government, down to our library books. He invited us to be part of a society under siege, suspicious of strangers, changing the character of our public squares. Very nice. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
We should have known from the start when the vice presidential search committee Cheney headed in 2000 came up with him as the best running mate. Establishment Washington raved at the "choice." Veteran sage Bob Schieffer of CBS News, who's rarely wrong, got it wrong, saying how reassuring it was to have Cheney and his seasoned, reasoned judgment on the Republican ticket. A sense that Cheney was one of Washington's "wise men" circulated among the cognescenti and the politerati. Good old Dick, bound to be a calming influence on the younger, rough-hewn Texas governor—so the spin went round. This cordial fiction helps account for the deferential hands-off treatment the news media gave the Bush-Cheney White House and the Iraq War for four or five years of their time. Only with the domestic tragedy of a beguiling city drowning in 2005 for all to see did that veneer finally vanish.
Also on deep background, remember the only office Cheney ever got elected to at the ballot box (on his own) was Congress, as the lone House representative from sparsely peopled rural Wyoming, back in the 1980s. There he distinguished himself as an opponent of a safe water drinking act. No man of the American people, he.
And then our trip down Memory Lane takes a turn toward the hunchback ruler Richard Nixon. Cheney is an old man who was never young, shown by his political imprinting in the Nixon administration roughly 40 years ago. That's where he bonded with the equally scheming and ambitious Donald Rumsfeld. (Cheney is 70 now.) Earlier, Cheney was the perhaps the only graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the late '60s who wasn't on Bascom Hill protesting the Vietnam War—but he got a draft deferment, anyway. David Maraniss, author of the fine They Marched Into Sunlight, gives him a cameo. Cheney's subsequent work in Washington—for Presidents Nixon and Ford—gave him exactly the wrong ideas about how to govern a country. To Cheney, Watergate was not a tragedy of a president keeping evil deeds secret; it was a tragedy of a president not keeping those deeds secret enough from Congress, the press, and the public. Like hungry Scarlett O'Hara in the potato patch, Dick Cheney was never going to let that happen again. [Read: 8 Politicos Who Survived Scandals]
Cheney's quest to enlarge the power of the presidency was hard at work and given perfect expression in the wake of 9-11. State secrets are hard to keep in a democracy, but he managed to keep a lock on several, which with his fear-mongering about terrorism, weakened our democracy. Where he slept at night was even made into an officious secret. By then, some were starting to wake up and smell the morning coffee: the only man in America who would be a worse president than Bush was Cheney! A strong brew of irony.
Leaving Iraq's civil society in shambles because the president and he favored Rumsfeld's Pentagon over Powell's State is a bit unfortunate, in Cheney's book. But nothing he and Lynne lost sleep over. It was much sadder when he shot a friend while quail hunting on Maryland's Eastern Shore, near his lavish digs in St. Michaels. The shooting party incident resulted in a minor injury. That was one of the saddest days of Cheney's life.
Like every warmonger and tribal leader, Cheney prizes personal loyalty above all. Yet he breaks the code in the book by scolding Bush for not pardoning his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, known as "Scooter," for his role in exposing Valerie Plame Wilson as a spy. Robert Novak, the late news columnist, identified her in print as a C.I.A. agent. Libby was found guilty in federal court of lying to federal investigators about the leak. Scooter carried out his boss's machinations, designs, and Nixonian "work-ups" on citizen critics like Ambassador Joseph Wilson (Plame's husband, who had challenged a State of the Union address statement on uranium in Niger, since he travelled there.) So loyal was Libby to his boss that Cheney had to be disloyal to Bush in the endgame. Bush had left a body on the battlefield, or some such bloody metaphor. In fact, Bush spared Libby incarceration. Also late in the game, Bush gleaned bits and pieces of the true Cheney, especially when the vice-president's enormous dog viciously chased the president's little dog, as Maureen Dowd noted in her column in The New York Times.
In My Time is the saddest story in our time. During a political famine, Cheney actively sought to tamp down dissent, erect high fences around the presidency, and start shadowy wars at odds with American foreign policy at its best. His power complex eclipsed that of any other man in that office. Presidents usually keep them firmly in check.
So my only praise is faint. The book may lend explanatory power to why we just suffered a demoralizing decade like the 1930s Great Depression. It even explains the week we just went through on the East Coast. For Cheney, all the world's a dangerous place—like The Tempest.
- Check out our editorial cartoons on Afghanistan.
- See photos of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.
- Read Brad Bannon: Obama, Not Bush, Gets Credit for bin Laden Killing