Behind the Curtain
The Cheney Vice Presidency
By Barton Gellman
Penguin Press. 483 pp. $27.95
Once a generation or so, an individual comes to master the inner workings of Washington in such a way as to change history. Lyndon Johnson understood Congress like no one else, and the result was pathbreaking civil rights legislation. Henry Kissinger figured out the foreign-policy bureaucracy and altered the dynamics of the Cold War.
And so it is with Vice President Dick Cheney, who thoroughly dominated the executive branch after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He knew from long experience in Washington how decisions were made, how papers flowed, how meetings worked, how to get his way. The dark aspects of the Bush administration's campaign against terrorism, from Guantanamo Bay to waterboarding to domestic surveillance, all bear Cheney's imprint.
Until now, I assumed it would take decades, the eventual declassification of documents and considerably more historical perspective for an author (say, some future Robert Caro) to uncover and describe Cheney's secretive role. But Barton Gellman's outstanding new book, Angler, could well turn out to be the most revealing account of Cheney's activities as vice president that ever gets written.
Gellman first examined Cheney in a series he co-wrote (with Jo Becker) for The Washington Post last year. This book goes far beyond the earlier newspaper articles; it is full of fresh information and insights about the vice president in particular and the Bush administration in general. We discover, for example, the depths of the internal crisis over domestic surveillance: In early 2004, the acting attorney general, FBI director and several Justice Department officials all threatened to quit at once over the White House's assertion of unlimited presidential authority.
How Cheney became vice president seems by now a familiar, one-line story. As we all know, Bush put him in charge of the search to find a candidate, and in the end Cheney himself got the job. Yet in Gellman's chapter about this episode, we learn something new. Cheney required the prospective candidates to submit to unprecedented scrutiny of their finances, their marriages, even their blood pressure and prostate exams. Cheney, meanwhile, never filled out the forms or subjected himself to the same inquiries. Then, soon after the 2000 election, he or his associates apparently leaked information from these files to undermine Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating as a candidate for attorney general.
In explaining Cheney's role, Gellman avoids clichés or simple formulas. He says the administration was run by Bush, not Cheney. Yet for the first several years, Cheney often acted on his own, filling in the large spaces where the president gave no instructions or paid no attention to details. "He did not defy the commander in chief, but he certainly did not always wait for orders," Gellman concludes. The vice president's influence declined during the second term, after Bush recognized that Cheney's zeal to expand presidential authority could cause political damage. When the threat of Justice Department resignations raised the prospect of Watergate-style turmoil, for example, Bush retreated. "A president could not operate as Cheney did, doctrinally unbending come what may," Gellman writes.
Again and again, Angler deftly probes the logic of Cheney's actions. Examining one executive order drafted by Cheney's aide David Addington, Gellman provides this simple translation: "The president, according to the president, now had final word on whether the president was complying with his obligation to prevent cruel treatment of captives."
The book has a few minor flaws. It sometimes seems that the author has compiled two narratives -- a general one about Cheney as vice president and a more specific one about Cheney's and Addington's efforts to carve out unprecedented power for the executive branch -- and the two fine accounts sometimes compete with one another. The last couple of chapters are a bit sketchy and hurried, perhaps inevitably, since footnotes show that Gellman was still doing interviews three months ago.
When Dan Quayle tried to tell Cheney in 2001 that his job would involve lots of traveling to funerals and fund-raisers, Gellman notes, Cheney "did that thing he does with one raised eyebrow, a smile on just the left side of his face." A couple of decades from now, readers may not know what he means. But Gellman's book is meant to be read right now, and it should be. There will almost certainly be no vice president as powerful as Cheney for decades, and no account of what he has wrought that is as compelling as this book. ·
James Mann is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet."