Angler, Dog-Lover, Veep

The purpose of Dick Cheney’s memoir isn’t to prove he was right so much as to prove he is human.

Dick Cheney’s memoir, In My Time, was released this week 

“From our first encounter,” writes Dick Cheney, “when I woke him up by stepping on him, Cyrano and I became close friends.” Cyrano is—sorry, was—a beloved family dog, a basset hound, accepted by the family when Cheney was working at President Richard Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity. “I took him along when the girls and I went on our Civil War excursions,” writes Cheney. “I think that Cyrano and I had an understanding.”

The last time a retired vice president wrote a memoir, when Dan Quayle gifted the airport book-buyer with Standing Firm, the goal was to prove he was serious. That’s not Cheney’s problem. The purpose of Cheney’s memoir, In My Time, is to prove he is human.

So the reader of In My Time gets a few stories about dogs. He gets snapshots of Cheney and his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, having wacky adventures. There was the time they joined Elliot Richardson on a trip to Egypt, then rode camels “in dark business suits” to see the pyramids. There was the time Cheney and Rumsfeld left the office, moved past a protest at the reflecting pool that looked like an outtake from Hair, and noticed that one of the bare-breasted protesters actually worked in their office.

These little stories are meant to humanize Cheney, which is necessary, because no one else is going to accept that mission. The first reviews of In My Time have focused on whether the former veep is lying his head off. Dahlia Lithwick looked into Cheney’s new and reheated arguments about whether the Bush administration acted legally in the war on terror, and concluded that “the reason Cheney keeps saying that torture is ‘legal’ is because he has a clutch of worthless legal memoranda saying so.”

So: Let’s make the naive assumption that the book’s audience is larger than people who already adore the veep or people who want to see their names in the index. What does everybody else learn? Cheney had wanted to be an academic. He came to Washington on a political science scholarship, and his University of Wisconsin advisers were not keen on his sabbatical from academia. “I was pretty sure that real-world experience would be an asset whether I was doing research or in the classroom,” he writes. “But what did I know about how the academic world worked?” Academics: They were wrong long before they started attacking his views of executive-branch power.

Cheney heads to Washington. His darkest suspicions are confirmed. Tasked with carrying out Nixon’s price-control policy, he concludes that the federal government can’t manage the economy and shouldn’t try. He then becomes President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff and understands the folly of the “Whip Inflation Now” campaign before Ford does. Story by story (the narrative jumps around a bit), Cheney learns that executive power works, and Congress doesn’t.

In 1987, Cheney—who rises to minority whip after only a few terms in the House—is selected for the joint committee investigating Iran-Contra. He’s disappointed that the Reagan administration didn’t consult Congress; he ignores the fact that Reagan lied about what he knew. The lesson he takes is that the people who were at fault were, like Oliver North, blessed with “unabashed patriotism.” He concludes that the administration had a kind of excuse: It had to contend with “congressional vacillation and uncertainty about our policies in Central America.”

What does this have to do with Cheney’s anecdotes about his family, friends and dogs? The popular understanding of the veep, starting some time after the rationale for the Iraq War collapsed, was that he marched heartlessly, relentlessly toward war, toward more surveillance, toward a national security state. Observers came up with theories why Ford’s chief of staff, George H.W. Bush’s secretary of defense, the man who had balked at creating a quagmire in 1991 by deposing Saddam Hussein, had become so unreasonable. The closest he gets to a mea culpa here is when he explains why he said, in May 2005, that the Iraq insurgents were “in the last throes” before defeat. “I believed they were,” writes Cheney. “At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the ultimate blame for the violence and bloodshed in Iraq after liberation lies with those who created it.”

The implication of what Cheney writes there is that the people who scorched him for “last throes” weren’t angry enough at the insurgents. That’s how the human stories connect to the war stories. He was reacting like any patriotic American, any father, would react to what was happening. His opponents weren’t.

So Cheney settles scores. The anecdotes become a little less relatable, a little more bitter. He reminisces about the 2000 convention. “I’ll never forget,” he writes, “looking out into the vast crowd and seeing George Schultz, a former secretary of state and one of America’s most dignified elder statesman, swaying back and forth and singing, “Hey hey hey, goodbye!” He remembers when George W. Bush called then-New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a “major league asshole,” and Cheney added “big time” to sweeten the insult. “The only lasting result,” he writes, “was that I became known as ‘Big Time’ around campaign headquarters and beyond.”

He settles more scores with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Brent Scowcroft, and the others who crossed him. Scowcroft, the realist whose comments would appear again and again in Cheney’s-lost-it stories, gets the most unemotional of the takedowns. “Brent was quoted later saying he believed I had changed since we’d worked together in the first Bush administration,” Cheney writes. “In reality, what had happened was that after an attack on the homeland that had killed three thousand people, the world had changed.”