By Chris Suellentrop,
a former staff writer and editor for Slate who is now a writer in Boston
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency
By Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein
Random House. 261 pp. $24.95
Bill Clinton used to claim that Al Gore was the most influential vice president ever, seemingly for Gore's role in breaking an ashtray on "Late Show With David Letterman." That judgment now looks laughable. Dick Cheney has unarguably eclipsed Gore to become the most powerful vice president in U.S. history. His role in helping to formulate the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will ensure that he survives in history as more than the answer to a trivia question: the first sitting vice president since Aaron Burr to shoot another man with a gun.
Cheney hasn't done much of his work under the bright lights of national TV, but if Texas journalists Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein are to be believed, for the past six years he's been taking a hammer and whacking not at an ashtray but at the foundations of the constitutional system of government. With Molly Ivins, Dubose wrote "Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush," which was published during Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. "Vice" is clearly intended as a sequel, but it also comes off as a sort of apology for picking the wrong subject last time.
As their subtitle indicates, Dubose and Bernstein (the executive editor of the Texas Observer) argue that Cheney is more than merely the Most Powerful Veep Ever. They regard him as the power behind the throne, the regent for Bush's boy president. They put it this way: On Sept. 11, while the president was skittering around the country on Air Force One, "the right guy, Dick Cheney, was in Washington and in charge."
As that sentence indicates, the authors aren't without admiration for their subject. They quote Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, saying that Cheney is "so smart he's intimidating," with an intellect that rivals Clinton's. They suggest he was an able congressman who worked closely with Democrats, and they regard him as a terrific defense secretary during both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Just Cause in Panama. (It was during the second U.S. war in Iraq -- one that might have been given the code name Operation Just 'Cause -- that things went south.)
The book's thesis can't be overstated: Dubose and Bernstein think Cheney is a threat to the republic on a scale unseen since the Civil War. (No, really.) They don't quite make the sale for that, partly because to build the case for Cheney's world-historical menace they embrace two contradictory propositions. The first is that his entire political career, dating back to the Ford administration, has involved the single-minded pursuit of one ambition: expanding the institutional power of the executive branch, which Cheney believes was unduly weakened by post-Watergate reforms. Dubose and Bernstein note that Zern Jenner, the fictional president in wife Lynne Cheney's 1979 political thriller "Executive Privilege," argues for executive secrecy in terms similar to those a very real vice president would use more than 20 years later to defend his energy task force. They also detail Dick Cheney's zealous defense, as a member of the House Republican leadership, of President Reagan's presidential powers during the Iran-contra scandal.
But Dubose and Bernstein suggest at the same time that 9/11 radicalized Cheney, who was transformed from a sober and moderate conservative into a "strategic hysteric." Or perhaps it wasn't 9/11: In one of the book's more distasteful passages, the authors speculate that Cheney's health problems have caused a physiological change in personality. "It is unknown if Cheney suffered any brain damage from his numerous heart attacks," they write. They provide no evidence for the supposition.
"Vice" overflows with similar conjectures, in sentences that are qualified with maybes, seemses and perhapses. In one notable example, Dubose and Bernstein write that it "appears" that Cheney absconded with his papers at the end of the Ford administration instead of donating them to the Ford Presidential Library. Great nugget, if it's true. But Dubose and Bernstein don't reveal the basis for the inference, which would allow the reader to weigh the merits of the charge.
Beyond the frequent guesswork and an excessive reliance on anonymous sources, the book's biggest flaw is that a work this partisan (at one point Dubose and Bernstein approvingly cite Le Monde's comparison of Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman to Eliot Ness) should be more fun. There's the occasional bit of dish, such as the story of how Lynne Cheney persuaded Dick to dump his girlfriend of 3 1/2 years (and her friend from first grade) when Lynne found herself without a prom date. The authors also dig up a Seattle appearance after the Persian Gulf War ended with Saddam Hussein still in power, in which Cheney said, "And the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many." There's also a shocking revelation when Wilkerson says that Cheney's staffers read all the e-mail traffic of the National Security Council staff. "Members of the president's staff sometimes walk from office to office to avoid Cheney's people monitoring their discussions," he tells the authors.
"Vice" isn't entertaining enough for liberal true believers, who already agree with the authors that Cheney is the prime mover behind today's "largely invisible . . . constitutional crisis." And it isn't exhaustive enough for skeptics, who will want more than a nice summary treatment of Cheney's pre-vice-presidential career and, once he reaches the White House, a credulous account of the Valerie Plame affair.
A compelling case can be made that Cheney is a 21st-century Andrew Jackson who has told the country, in effect: "Congress has made its decisions. Now let it enforce them." But when "Vice" ends with a list of 25 questions for Cheney, all of them worthy, it comes across as a confession from Dubose and Bernstein that they've written a book that doesn't provide enough answers.