Cheney’s Handiwork

Unveiling his methods, and some of his motives.

For most of American history, no one would have dreamed of writing a vice-presidential biography. From 1804, when the 12th Amendment established our current method of choosing VPs, until 1901, when William McKinley’s assassination placed Theodore Roosevelt in the Oval Office, the No. 2 position was a steppingstone to oblivion. T.R., elected in his own right in 1904, broke the pattern. Calvin Coolidge followed suit. By the mid-1970s, VPs were routinely going on to become their parties’ standard-bearers. Walter Mondale and Al Gore epitomized the vice president in the era of big government—forces to be reckoned with, armed with experience to match the president’s and portfolios and constituencies all their own.

Dick Cheney is something else altogether. As Barton Gellman astutely appreciates in Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, that is due not to the warlock-like powers some have ascribed to him but to the situation in which he has served. Both Mondale and Gore worked for detail men, presidents who would never let underlings set their most important policies. Cheney has served a man who very much likes to delegate—and to delegate to Cheney in particular. Gellman also leaves no doubt that what influence Cheney has had—which has been plenty—he has enjoyed thanks to Bush’s indulgence. “The president made it clear from the outset that the vice president is welcome at every table and at every meeting,” White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten tells Gellman. And when, after the 2006 election, Cheney’s control of the foreign policy agenda weakened, it was, Gellman explains, “because the president wanted to try a new direction.”

Perhaps a bit mischievously, Gellman goes out of his way to shower praise on the vice president. In contrast to the unreflective, superficial Bush, Cheney is routinely described with awe and reverence by many of Gellman’s sources—judgments that Gellman mostly lets stand without challenge. Old colleagues and new visitors to Cheney’s office alike paint the vice president as a quick study, exhibiting a command of policy minutiae, an iron will, and a finely honed strategic sense. In an administration that has become infamous for its incompetence, Cheney is the man who knows what he’s doing.

But so does Gellman. His praise for Cheney’s strengths as an infighter and policymaker, though no doubt sincere, are also a backhanded form of damnation, since they complete his portrait of a stealthily ruthless, hypercompetent majordomo. There can be no doubt after reading this fair but quietly withering book that Cheney’s role in shaping Bush’s presidency—governing from the right, not the center; skirting procedures to achieve his goals on taxes and the environment; and above all setting an extremist course in the war against al-Qaida—has been overwhelmingly malign.

The basic facts of Gellman’s story are not new. Like many regular newspaper readers, I had known for a long time that Cheney had supported the administration’s most legally questionable policies, from the warrantless domestic wiretapping to the treatment of military prisoners. But I don’t think I’d realized until reading Angler that so many of these policies originated with Cheney and his right-hand man David Addington (who, it should be noted, is as central a character to this bookas the vice president himself). And while Gellman is hardly the first to make much of Cheney’s remark after Sept. 11 that “We also have to work … the dark side,” I don’t think that any other journalist, with the exception of The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, has assembled so concisely and carefully the portrait of a man determined after 9/11 to use any means necessary—and some unnecessary—to go after Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida or anyone who might have anything to do with them.

Moreover, Gellman also exposes at least one case in which the vice president seems to have put his personal agenda ahead of his patron’s. In the effort to pass the 2003 tax bill—Bush’s second big round of cuts for the wealthy—the president had previously decided against deeper, politically unpopular reductions in the capital-gains tax. But according to Gellman, Cheney furtively worked behind Bush’s back to help House Republicans replace the administration bill with an alternative that included the controversial cuts—a fact that “hardly anyone, in or out of the White House, knew,” Gellman reports. Cheney himself ultimately cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to get it passed.

Little stories like this one, piled one after the next, form a picture of a man determined to use to the fullest all the power that Bush would allow him and then some. In keeping with other accounts, Cheney emerges here as a canny survivor of the Nixon and Ford White Houses, who has for decades longed to restore to the presidency the sorts of unchecked powers, at home and abroad, that Congress, the courts, and the public had worked to curtail after Watergate. And his decision at the start to rule out succeeding his boss ironically served the cause: It was a choice that buffered him from the political consequences of the policies he has worked to implement.

As much as anyone, Cheney is responsible for the Nixonian miasma that enveloped the Bush White House from early on.

Yet journalism being only the first draft of history, key questions about Cheney’s White House operations remain. Some concern the outcomes of his handiwork: For example, after a stranger-than-fiction showdown with Cheney’s allies at the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI chief Robert Mueller persuaded Bush to revise his illegal wiretapping program. But Gellman doesn’t reveal who really won the battle, resorting to vague language. “Over the next weeks and months, the program changed. It stopped doing some things, and it did other things differently.”

We also crave to know more about Cheney’s motives. Gellman suggests that Cheney favored war with Iraq not because he feared Saddam Hussein’s intentions, but because he wanted to knock off an easy target and send a message around the Middle East. I don’t find the argument persuasive—I’m inclined to think Ron Suskind had it right in emphasizing Cheney’s “1 percent doctrine,” the idea that after 9/11 the government had to take even minute probabilities of danger much more seriously—but without documents or more inside reporting from Cheney’s inner circle, we can’t know for sure. Indeed, Gellman elsewhere writes that Cheney considered the “nexus” of terrorism, rogue states, and deadly weapons to be his paramount concern—suggesting a genuine fear of a nuclear-armed rogue dictator, not the reckless gamble of using a war to test a theory. 

Most important, with so much attention given to the infighting among second-tier administration officials like Addington, Jack Goldsmith, and James Comey, the president is offstage too much of the time, and Cheney himself often lurks only in the shadows. So we remain curious about Cheney’s relationship to Bush. How much did the president know about Cheney’s active role in fashioning and refashioning policies? Did he approve? Was he aware of the bureaucratic maneuvers that, for example, gave Addington influence over the nominally more senior White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales? Why did the president—as Gellman reports—draw from the short list that Cheney had made of acceptable Supreme Court justices in picking John Roberts, only then to depart from it in nominating Harriet Miers, and then return to it for the choice of Sam Alito? And how did Cheney view Bush in all of this—with respect, affection, or disdain?

None of this is to denigrate Gellman’s reporting, since it would take a combination of Lincoln Steffens, Joe Alsop, and Bob Woodward to crack the secretive bond between the nation’s two most powerful men, neither of whom has much fondness for the news media. But we can speculate. Gellman’s portrait suggests that Bush was all too happy to defer to Cheney on the defining issues of his presidency, for the two men usually saw eye to eye. Gellman points out their many differences—in their appetite for studying detail, in their personal styles, in their political judgments. Yet they share a supreme confidence that their goals are correct, a willingness to bend or break rules to reach them, and an inflexibility about changing course. Despite the claim of White House flacks that Bush likes to hear clashing opinions, Gellman notes, he actually prefers consensus and finality. According to a Cheney aide, the president liked to be told “your senior advisers believe X”—and then to stick with that decision. It was a message, when the crises of the Bush years came, that Dick Cheney rarely failed to deliver.