By Barton Gellman
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Vice presidential power was a term of mirth in governments past. Not anymore. Vice President Cheney may be the nearest thing we have had to a deputy president, and that hasn't escaped the notice of the candidates vying to succeed him. At the vice presidential debate, Sen. Joe Biden called Cheney "the most dangerous vice president" in U.S. history for his efforts to "aggrandize the power of a unitary executive." Gov. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, praised Cheney for "tapping into that position" and the Founding Fathers for "allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president."
Imagining Palin as "Cheney: The Sequel" is now fodder for cable television news. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked me the other day whether Palin could reprise Cheney's role, I gave a quick TV reply: Ambition and capability are two different things. Palin lacks Cheney's Washington savvy and policy depth. But that's not the end of the story. Anyone can learn Cheney's methods. For busy aspirants, I offer an executive summary of the Cheney Rules.
Fly Under the Radar.
When candidate George W. Bush asked Cheney to help choose a running mate in 2000, Cheney devised the most intrusive vetting process ever used in a presidential campaign. He insisted on waivers that gave him unrestricted access to the medical, IRS and (via the Freedom of Information Act) FBI files of each contender. He asked them to specify in writing whether they were vulnerable to blackmail and, if so, why. (Note to applicants: If you have to think twice about that one, discard the questionnaire.) But when Cheney became Bush's choice, he did not fill out his own paperwork. The cardiac surgeon who vouched for Cheney's heart now says he never met the man or reviewed a page of his records. Cheney "went down through everybody's negatives," former vice president Dan Quayle told me. "And everybody has negatives. . . . And nobody really vetted him on what his negatives were."
2. Winning Is Easy When the Other Side Doesn't Know About the Game.
See Rule No. 1. During his tenure as White House chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, Cheney emphasized the importance of letting all the president's advisers be heard in policy debate. "Be an honest broker," he advised a successor. But as vice president, Cheney cared more about winning. Just ask Colin Powell, Christine Todd Whitman, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft and other very senior Bush aides, all of whom learned about historic, Cheney-driven shifts of policy only after the fact. When Rice's lawyer, John B. Bellinger III, complained in 2002 to David Addington, Cheney's hard-driving counsel, that he had not been consulted about the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, Addington made no apologies for cutting out the National Security Council staff: "I'm not going to tell you whether there is or isn't such a program. But if there were such a program, you'd better go tell your little friends at the FBI and the CIA to keep their mouths shut."
3. You Can't Be Fired.
Cheney styled himself no more than an adviser to Bush, but he served at his own pleasure, not the president's. The vice president is a "constitutional officer, elected same as he is," Cheney said, referring to Bush. It takes a lot to push a veep overboard, as Cheney learned in his chief-of-staff days when he persuaded Ford to bounce Vice President Nelson Rockefeller from the ticket for reelection in 1976. Bush did not make the same choice in 2004, but he did lose some confidence in his No. 2 that year when Cheney's attempt to overrule the Justice Department on domestic espionage nearly brought about a mass exodus of Bush appointees.
4. Everyone Else Can Be.
Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey and other people you've probably never heard of -- for instance, a CIA analyst named Benjamin Miller working on the National Security Council's staff -- became obstacles to Cheney and lost their jobs. Most people learned to get out of his way. Edward P. Lazear, who chairs the Council of Economic Advisers, has the customary self-regard of a man at the top of his profession. But he told my former colleague Jo Becker that he could not name a time when he kept up a disagreement with Cheney. "I might fight for 10 minutes or so, and you know, kind of try to argue it out with him. . . . But it's clear, by the time we've talked something through, I agree with him. I can't think of a case where he hasn't persuaded me."
5. Silence Is Powerful.
Cheney has a way of spooking people with no more than an expressionless stare. His longtime aide David J. Gribbin III described an encounter with Stephen J. Hadley, now the national security adviser, in a Pentagon hallway in the early 1990s after Hadley had just finished a briefing. "You know, Cheney somehow intimidates me," Hadley told Gribbin. "He's not trying to intimidate me, but when I'm sitting there briefing him, I'm talking a little fast, and my voice is a little high."
6. Shouting Is Powerful, Too.
During my reporting for my book "Angler," I did not find a single occasion when the vice president raised his voice. But that does not go for his counsel. One day, a pair of lawyers from the National Security Agency drove to the Justice Department to check on the legality of a program they supervised. Addington showed up uninvited and bellowed at them, "You are not going to see the opinions!" The towering, glowering Addington had no authority over anyone in the room, and the lawyers could have told him to mind his own business. Somehow, that just about never happened to a member of the vice president's staff.
7. Know Thine Enemy.
It took three years for people on the National Security Council staff to learn that their e-mails and policy memos were bcc'd to the vice president's office. One of Rice's advisers discovered the secret arrangement after preparing a speech in which Bush would denounce the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners at Abu Ghraib and demand an explanation from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Cheney slipped the proposal to his old friend Rumsfeld, who mobilized a counterattack before the memo even found its way to Bush. Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's deputy, called Hadley to complain, and the draft speech never reached the Oval Office. Nor was this type of intelligence-gathering limited to e-mails: Cheney's office sometimes used NSA transcripts to keep track of what policy rivals were saying overseas.
8. Don't Write It Down.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the man who got Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, convicted of perjury, once asked his target, "You're not big on e-mail, I take it?" Libby's reply: "No, not in this job." When Cheney's advisers did use e-mail, they omitted subject lines. For printed documents, they made up official-looking stamps that said, "Treated As: SECRET/SCI." Though the stamps had no legal basis, they instructed future archivists to protect routine paperwork -- for instance, the talking points for Cheney's press office -- as though it were "sensitive compartmented information," a designation used for the innermost secrets of national security. Palin showed much the same instinct as Alaska governor, using personal e-mail to shield official business, but she proved herself a newbie to stealth by choosing email@example.com as her address and letting her account get hacked.
9. Watch the Boss's Diet.
Cheney often told the White House staff to keep problems off the president's plate as much as possible. If Cheney cared about an issue, he did what he did with barbecue when his wife, Lynne, wasn't looking: He piled his own plate high. When Cabinet officers brought spending complaints to the White House, Cheney, not Bush, chaired the review panel. When Attorney General John Ashcroft objected to military tribunals for alleged terrorists, he found Cheney, not Bush, awaiting him in the Roosevelt Room. A top adviser to the president could always insist on a meeting with Bush, but how many times does anyone want to dip into that well? Ashcroft turned left as he left the meeting, away from the Oval Office and back out onto the street.
10. The President Really Is the Decider.
Just after the inauguration in 2001, Quayle paid a call on Cheney with some friendly advice -- one vice president to another. Expect to see a lot of state funerals and rubber-chicken fundraisers, Quayle said, adding that he had put a few hundred thousand miles on Air Force Two. Cheney replied that he had "a different understanding with the president." Quayle said that the deal can change, and in Cheney's case, it did. As time went on, Bush took Cheney's advice less often. In his productive years, Cheney was the engine of historic change, from the shape of tax cuts to the war in Iraq. But toward the end, Cheney's power has become more like a foot on the brakes, slowing the reversal of his previous success. Seldom now does Cheney have the wheel.
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Even amid setbacks, the No. 2 need not despair. The vice presidency comes with its own seal, its own anthem ("Hail Columbia") and the power to make everyone stand when you arrive. Everybody takes your calls, and your rank will get you inside just about any room.
Note to Biden and Palin: If you make it to the White House, keep Cheney's West Wing real estate. He declined the perk of a corner office, preferring a spot located exactly between the national security adviser and the chief of staff. Literally and figuratively, he stood astride the corridors of power.
Barton Gellmanis a reporter for
The Washington Postand the