We’ve now had three self-serving memoirs from the past administration: the memoirs of Bush, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney. Future historians who have the stomach to try to figure out what happened under our 43rd president will be frustrated by all three books, because none of them wrestles with the enormous issues raised by this pugnacious administration and the world-changing messes it left for its successors to clean up.
For Cheney and his daughter Liz, whom Cheney describes as “my collaborator and the CEO of our book team,” the only real point of writing about the vice presidential years is to make clear how right Cheney always was, and how wrongheaded were his critics and bureaucratic rivals. More than once he tells us he would do again exactly what he did the first time, “in a heartbeat.” He acknowledges no serious regrets about anything.
This big book is not just about being vice president. Its first 255 pages are devoted to Cheney’s eventful life before the day Bush asked him to lead the effort to find him the right running mate for the 2000 campaign. The story of his rise from humble origins (his father was a federal civil servant and a staunch Democrat) is a good one and is briskly told. But at every juncture where it might have actually been revealing, Cheney avoids self-examination or revelation.
So he tells us how he got to Yale on a scholarship with the help of an enthusiastic alumnus who was a Wyoming oilman, and fell in with “some kindred souls, young men like me who were not adjusting very well [to Yale] and shared my opinion that beer was one of the essentials of life.” He flunked out, came back, flunked out again. What was that about? The question isn’t asked or answered. He never even explains how and why he became a conservative Republican.
Once launched on his vice presidential adventure, Cheney’s story rarely departs from versions he has already told repeatedly in speeches and interviews.
He does not try to explain why Bush ended up choosing the head of his vice presidential search team (Cheney) as his running mate, but his pride in being selected is obvious. Remember, Cheney had actually formed an exploratory committee to consider a presidential run himself in 1996, so the brass ring of American politics had been on his mind for some time.
His interest was not in pomp and circumstance but power. Nevertheless, the unusually influential role Cheney assumed once in office, he writes, wasn’t just his idea: “From day one George Bush made clear he wanted me to help govern. . . . To the extent that this created a unique arrangement in our history, with a vice president playing a significant role in the key policy issues of the day, it was George Bush’s arrangement.”
Cheney is far from candid about the many ways he exploited that unique arrangement. There isn’t space in a book review to retell the story, but curious readers should compare, for example, two accounts of the fight waged by the vice president and his staff attorney, David Addington, against the Department of Justice over the legality of post-9/11 eavesdropping on U.S. citizens.
One account, which appears in the best book on the Cheney vice presidency, “Angler,” by former Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, describes how Cheney and Addington provoked “a flat out rebellion” in the Department of Justice, prompting most of its top officials and the director of the FBI to draft letters of resignation in the spring of 2004, to be used if the White House refused to change course. This raised the specter of a Watergate-like scandal. Gellman shows how Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card kept Bush in the dark about this battle royal until the very last minute. When he learned about it, Bush took DOJ’s side and ordered changes in the surveillance program.
Cheney’s account of the same episode is much briefer and far less dramatic or detailed. It ends this way:
“Faced with threats of resignation, the president decided to alter the [National Security Agency] program, even though he and his advisors were confident of his constitutional authority to continue the program unchanged.” Cheney does not say who threatened to resign, nor does he note that the entire senior staff of Bush’s Justice Department disagreed with his legal interpretation.
Those who followed the Cheney story from 2001 to 2009 will be impressed by how many key events and important developments he manages to slight or ignore in this book. It is a long list, including:
●Warnings about the threat to the United States from al-Qaeda early in the Bush administration, including stark ones from Richard Clarke, the terrorism expert on the National Security Council staff. Cheney ignores the possibility that 9/11 might have been prevented.
●The administration’s failure to exploit the opportunity, at Tora Bora, to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the early phase of the war in Afghanistan. Later, he fails to mention the decision to shift military resources from Afghanistan to Iraq long before Afghanistan had been stabilized.
●How and why the administration decided to wage two wars without asking Congress or the country for any revenue to pay for them. This is part of a larger issue that Cheney glides past: how it happened that the “conservative” administration in which he served turned the healthy budget surplus it inherited into gargantuan deficits that it never tried seriously to control. He does boast several times about his role in the Bush tax cuts, including casting a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to enact the second round of reductions in 2003. Then, at the end of his book, Cheney warns that “we are living beyond our means, but we have not shown the political will to change that.”
●Why the war in Iraq went so badly from the moment that Saddam Hussein’s government fell, and how the one-word title of a book by former Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks came to summarize the entire enterprise: “Fiasco.”
●How his administration, or his friend Alan Greenspan, might have contributed to the Great Crash of 2008, creating the worst economic conditions in the United States in many decades. Cheney treats the crash as something caused by forces beyond the government’s control. He slips right past the foreclosures, job losses and other economic pain that the crash has caused, and that will be an important part of the Bush administration’s legacy.
Cheney does not ignore his instrumental role in promoting the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that President Obama, John McCain and many others have concluded were torture, but he refuses to engage in any debate about whether they constituted a departure from traditional American values. He simply declares that they did not: “The United States has never lost its moral bearings,” he assures us. For Cheney, as he tells us repeatedly, “9/11 changed everything.” But he never asks just how or why.
Cheney’s principal preoccupation, in his account of his vice presidency as it was during his time in office, is Hussein and the war in Iraq. Here, too, he avoids a great deal. For instance, he simply insists that there were important connections between Hussein and al-Qaeda before 9/11 that justified making the invasion of Iraq part of the War on Terror (always capitalized in this book). No intelligence agency has ever endorsed that view, despite Cheney’s personal, herculean efforts to push the CIA into doing so. He never comes to grips with the fact — so frustrating to him, obviously — that Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. He recounts aspects of his own role in stoking the fires for war but ignores many of his most famous personal gaffes.
For example, he quotes a speech he gave to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 2002 but ignores the endorsement it contained of Henry Kissinger’s view that preemptive military action against Hussein was “imperative” — at a time when President Bush was at least pretending that he hadn’t made up his mind. And Cheney ignores this passage from that speech:
“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”
So much of the Cheney oeuvre, first as vice president and now as memoirist, was “simply stated.” Too simply?
Robert Kaiser, an associate editor at The Post, is author of “So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government” and other books.