By now, it should be clear to all but the most loyal Republicans that the government of the United States is controlled by madmen. In the beginning, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney seemed comparatively normal; their first few months in office were a relief after the farcical second term of Bill Clinton. It was only after the horrific attacks of September 11 that the true nature of the Bush administration began to emerge.
Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer for the Weekly Standard and the author of Cheney, has a different view of the Vice President and his boss. According to its dust jacket, Cheney reveals a “very different Dick Cheney from the one America thinks it knows.” To the extent that it debunks left-wing fantasies that the Vice President is actually Satan, it does as promised. Beyond that, Hayes details the high points of the veep’s life while offering no real insight into the man’s character.
Cheney’s life has been marked by his ability to bounce back from adversity and his knack for being at the right place at the right time. His first big setback came from Yale University. Cheney was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League institution with a full ride but failed out and lost his scholarship. He returned only to flunk a second time and went back to Wyoming, where he eventually received a degree from the state university in Laramie.
Another obstacle he had to overcome was his health. Hayes relates how Cheney, while running for Congress in 1978,
was awakened by a tingling sensation in the ring and pinkie fingers on his left hand. It felt as though he had bumped his elbow, but he was in bed and until only moments earlier had been fast asleep. He was only thirty-seven years old; heart trouble seemed like a remote possibility.
But that is what it was, only the first of several episodes that would plague him. (Cheney even has an index entry for “heart attacks.”)
The defining issue of Dick Cheney’s career, as depicted by Hayes, is his support for executive power. While Cheney describes the House of Representatives as his political home, his most important experiences have been in the executive branch. He started in the Nixon administration as a protégé of Donald Rumsfeld. The two men worked together at the Office of Economic Opportunity, starting in 1969.
This was, as Hayes describes it, a “decision point” for Cheney. He came to Washington as a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin to work as a congressional intern. Taking the government job effectively ended his academic career. Hayes writes that
the years Cheney spent at Rumsfeld’s side would provide the young political scientist with a political education that wasn’t available at Yale, Wyoming, or Wisconsin. And what he saw would shape his views for the rest of his political career.
Cheney followed Rumsfeld to the Cost of Living Council (which enforced wage-and-price controls) and to the White House staff under Gerald Ford. The two parted ways when Rumsfeld left for his first term at the helm of the Pentagon, while Cheney stayed on at the White House as chief of staff.
It was during these years that Cheney’s political views solidified. His experience attempting to regulate prices led him to be suspicious of government interference in the economy. Government interference in the private lives of Americans and in the affairs of foreign governments was a different matter. When the New York Times published Seymour Hersh’s exposé detailing the illegal domestic spying and other CIA abuses of power in December 1974, Cheney was as much concerned with protecting the prerogatives of the executive branch as he was with containing the rogue intelligence agency. Hayes quotes from a Cheney memo citing the need to protect the CIA from “overreaction by Congress, which could inhibit their ability to perform their primary function.”
Hayes details the supposedly crippling effects such oversight would have on the CIA, because of the “political whims—and grandstanding” of the Congress.
The reforms produced lawyering and legislative second-guessing that would lead to near-paralysis of the intelligence community . . . [I]n the months before the first Gulf War, an Air Force general discussed the possibility of targeting leaders of the Iraqi regime . . . Cheney’s strong rebuke included a warning that such “decapitation” strikes might violate the ban on political assassinations that dated from the Ford administration.
Hayes also attributes the failure of the government to get Osama bin Laden in the 1990’s to congressional intervention in the affairs of the CIA in the 1970’s, in spite of the fact that the Clinton administration’s cruise-missile attack on abandoned terrorist camps in Afghanistan, although ineffectual, was clearly an attempt to kill Bin Laden.
While in the House during the 1980’s, Cheney got another opportunity to defend the prerogatives of the presidency, when the Reagan administration decided to wage a private war in Central America, funded by the sale of arms to Iran. For Cheney, it was “not an option” to decline to intervene in Central America. According to Hayes, Cheney believed that restricting funding for the Nicaraguan Contras was the “worst kind of congressional micromanaging of U.S. foreign policy.”
Cheney was able to defend this view when the Iran-Contra scandal unraveled in 1986 by serving on the House select committee to investigate the affair. He used his position to serve as an advocate for the administration instead of as an investigator. His closing remarks contain an astonishing admission, couched in such low-key language that it is easily overlooked. In the course of presenting mitigating excuses for the Reagan administration’s policies, Cheney remarked that “[t]he vital importance of keeping the Nicaraguan democratic resistance alive until Congress could reverse itself and repeal the Boland Amendment” made the administration’s actions “understandable.” In other words, Cheney was willing to excuse the usurpation by the president of Congress’s spending power until such time as Congress changed its mind on the matter.
The peak of Cheney’s career occurred when George W. Bush selected him to run for vice president. Not surprisingly, Stephen Hayes devotes almost half of the book to the years since 2000. Hayes covers the important points from the disputed election in Florida to the Vice President’s conflicts with Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson that ultimately led to Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, being convicted of perjury.
The final half of the book focuses on Cheney’s ever-present concern for the supposedly eroding powers of the presidency, and on a defense by Hayes and his subject of the disastrous invasion of Iraq by the United States. To that end, it reads like a very fat issue of the Weekly Standard. Hayes rehashes arguments over pre-war intelligence on Iraq and the Prague vacations of Mohammed Atta, oblivious to the fact that, even if he could produce authenticated photos of Saddam buying plane tickets for the September 11 hijackers, it would make no difference. Saddam’s regime toppled like a statue, but the postwar occupation has been a failure, premised as it was on absurd beliefs about the ease of planting liberal democracy in the arid Iraqi soil. Defects in the war’s premise were compounded by the incompetence of the Bush administration—in particular, of Cheney’s former mentor, Donald Rumsfeld. Invading Iraq to contain a threat from Saddam has worked as well as burning down a house to protect it from burglars.
Stephen Hayes includes a lengthy quotation from Defense Secretary Cheney in 1992, explaining why the costs of occupying Iraq after the Gulf War were greater than any benefits that would accrue. It is clear that Dick Cheney showed far better judgment in George H.W. Bush’s administration than he has displayed in that of Bush fils. The essential failure of Cheney is that Stephen Hayes offers no insight into why this change occurred, presumably because he thinks that the change is perfectly rational.
Cheney will sit largely unread on the shelves of the dwindling band of Bush enthusiasts. Meanwhile, the story of how a sensible and moderate person such as Dick Cheney transformed himself into a reckless advocate of aggressive war awaits an author.
[Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President, by Stephen F. Hayes (New York: HarperCollins) 578 pp., $27.95]