Brow Beat

Reconsidering Dick Cheney

Former Vice President Dick Cheney speaks at the Long Island Association fall luncheon at the Crest Hollow Country Club on October 18, 2012 in Woodbury, New York.

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Some audience members were upset by The World According to Dick Cheney. That much was clear from the questioning the filmmakers faced after the world premiere at Sundance. Where was the proof that Cheney started the Iraq War to funnel profits back to Haliburton? What about Cheney’s role in authorizing the torture at Abu Ghraib, or the secret plans for war on Iran? “A wasted opportunity,” is how one woman described it to me.

The World According to Dick Cheney will not satisfy those who regard Cheney as a figure roughly analogous to Joseph Stalin in his methods and legacy. Some may ask whether producer R.J. Cutler had a duty to make a documentary that inspires greater rage or thirst for punishment. The film centers on four days of interviews with Cheney himself, recalling Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (an interview with Robert McNamara) or the original Frost/Nixon sessions. And by sticking closely to the facts, the film is more damning than any screed would be.

The first part, covering Cheney’s rise to power, is a kind of wet dream for a would-be Washington power obsessive. Cheney had an inauspicious start to his career: He was a college dropout who was jailed for repeated drunk-driving in Wyoming. But it all turns around when, as a graduate student, he spends a year as a Congressional fellow. People in such positions often have as much influence on policy as a group of D.C. tourists. But Cheney manages to leverage his way into Donald Rumsfeld’s office in the White House, and, by age 34, rises to become chief of staff for President Ford. He works with Rumsfeld to engineer a coup of sorts—the “Halloween Massacre”—that purges the moderates from the Ford Administration. Cheney even out-maneuvers and exiles Henry Kissinger, a great power himself.

Most of the film, though, centers on the first term of the George W. Bush administration, the zenith of Cheney’s powers. Bush was insecure and overly trusting of his advisors, and Cheney ran circles around him. Late in 2000, Bush let his Vice President choose almost the entire Administration, ensuring a power structure more personally loyal to Cheney than to the president. After the 9/11 attacks, Cheney for a while actually seems to run the country, using his favorite technique: controlling what information the President is exposed to.

Cheney will ultimately be judged by the one decision he personally did the most to engineer: the invasion of Iraq, which toppled Saddam Hussein but also cost more than $1 trillion and the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. The film tells us what we already knew: that Cheney was absolutely convinced that Saddam Hussein had large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and would not be swayed any lack of evidence. What the interview reveals is that Cheney still believes that Hussein had the WMDs or was about to get them. Even in retrospect, says Cheney, if there were even a 1 percent chance that Hussein had the weapons, the war was justified. It’s part of a larger pattern of Cheney’s defense of his decisions: “not one step backward,” as Stalin said when the Germans were approaching Stalingrad.

Damningly, the documentary show that Cheney believes he has a special access to the truth, and is willing to lie in service of it. We learn how, in a secret meeting, he convinces a highly reluctant Dick Armey, then House Majority leader, to vote for the Iraq War resolution. Armey thinks Saddam is a clown who is bluffing about his WMDs. Cheney wins him over by revealing that Iraq is on the verge of developing briefcase-sized nuclear weapons that al Qaeda will use to level American cities. Not true, but a lie in support of a larger truth, in Cheney’s eyes.

News to me was the story of how Cheney lost much of his power over the second term of the Bush presidency. At some point Cheney hid too much information from the President for too long. Cheney and his legal counsel, David Addington, had limited regard for the Watergate-era statutes meant to limit the power of the president. The Justice Department leadership, in contrast, believed the administration must obey laws even when they happened to disagree with them, and they refuse to approve an illegal wireless wiretapping law they consider illegal. Cheney leaves Bush in the dark until Bush finds out, independently, that much of the leadership of the Justice Department is about to resign in protest, creating a major scandal before the 2004 election. Blindsided, Bush finally begins to distrust Cheney; by the end of his presidency, he refuses Cheney’s phone calls and meetings. Besides being duped and manipulated for the first four years of his presidency, Bush comes across better than some might expect.

Today’s Congress, with its endless fights between the two parties, can make one dream of a different kind of politician: someone insensitive to short-term electoral concerns, who simply does what he thinks best for the nation. It is important to understand that Dick Cheney is one of the clearest examples of what that looks like in practice. “If you want to be loved,” he says to the camera, “go be a movie star.” The World According to Dick Cheney ultimately vindicates not Cheney, but the U.S. Constitution. For you have to think that James Madison had a man like Cheney in mind when he separated the powers in the American government.