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Books: "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency"

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Barton Gellman
Washington Post National Reporter
Wednesday, September 17, 2008; 12:00 PM

Washington Post national reporter Barton Gellman has finished transforming his investigative series Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency into a full-length book. He was online Wednesday, Sept. 17 at noon ET to discuss the new information in this volume, and to provide perspective on the Bush administration as it winds down in its final few months.

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The transcript follows.

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Fairfax County, Va.: Barton, I never met you, but I was at Princeton in the 1980s when you were editor of the Daily Princetonian. Since then, I have watched as your name steadily has risen with ever more important and deeper stories in The Washington Post. With the Sunday article about major unconstitutional operations based out of the vice president's office (I am posting this on Sunday), you have made your greatest contribution yet to the course of American history and the hope we can return of a government of laws and not of men. Reporting like yours is essential to us safe against the fatal seductions of power and secrecy that pose a threat to our nation just as serious as external enemies. Thank you for your work.

Barton Gellman: Hi, and thanks for that compliment. Sorry I'm a few minutes late -- let's go straight to your questions.

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Arlington, Va.: In one of the excerpts you show how the president was blindsided in the issue of Justice Department opposition to the eavesdropping program. In the book, do you discuss the Bush-Cheney relationship in much detail? The conventional inside-the-Beltway wisdom, which I know is highly fallible, has been that Bush is intimidated by Cheney. How much truth do you see in this?

Barton Gellman: One of the main narrative arcs of the book describes that relationship. In some ways it remains opaque, but I was able to turn up a surprising amount of information about it because people observed them in small and large meetings; saw the "inputs and outputs" of their one-on-one meetings; and in the case of people like Dan Bartlett, Condi Rice, Andy Card, Josh Bolten and Steve Hadley -- all of whom spoke to me on the record -- they heard from the president what happened between him and Cheney. Bottom line: I do not believe that George Bush ever was intimidated by Cheney. That's not how Cheney acquired his power.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: Today you used an Ali reference, but got it a bit wrong -- it was his fit vs. George Foreman where he unveiled the rope-a-dope, not his fights with Smokin' Joe. Great work on Cheney.

washingtonpost.com: Rope-a-Dope (Wikipedia)

Barton Gellman: I'll take your word for it. But I could have sworn I saw a fight where Ali used it very effectively on Frazier.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: I really look forward to reading your book, but I have a question which is slightly off topic. I remember well that, right after the election in 2000, there was a so called "medical expert" interviewed on the air who forthrightly predicted that Cheney's heart was such that he'd never make it through even one term. That qualifies as one of the worst predictions of all time, but my question is this: When he disappears at times, is Cheney undergoing some sort of therapy or treatment? Have any of your sources alluded to Cheney's health? Does he works a truncated schedule, interrupted by long periods of rest?

Barton Gellman: Anyone who has not examined Cheney should be pretty shy of making a medical evaluation. That should have been true, as well, for the cardiac surgeon who was showcased by the 2000 campaign as vouching for Cheney's health. In Chapter 1 of "Angler," which tells the story of Cheney's selection as running mate, I have an interview with that doctor, who says he never actually met Cheney or examined his medical records. Cheney has disclosed eight "cardiac events," some serious, since his nomination. I strongly doubt there are others still kept secret. On the other hand, the vice president has certainly not released all his cardiac records for independent evaluation.

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London: It seems clear (from Judge Lamberth's quote near the beginning of Part Two) that the Bush administration's main aim has been to entrench broad executive powers to such an extent that they would survive through future administrations. Do you think it has succeeded? How difficult would it be for a future administration to reverse this expansion of presidential authority?

Barton Gellman: A president can reverse an executive order, or disregard powers claimed previously. There are other executive powers that have been seeded throughout the bureaucracy, for instance, in regulations and procedures. It would be a big job to dig them all out, and I don't see why a future president would do it. People in power don't normally throw powers away. My guess is that many of them will be saved for a rainy day.

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Peaks Island, Maine: What do your sources say on the suggestions -- raised by Brent Scowcroft and others -- that Cheney the vice president is not the Cheney they once knew?

Barton Gellman: Complex question, also addressed at length in the book. Cheney certainly does present himself differently, and openly advocates policies much more aggressive than in the past. There also is informed speculation, though speculation nonetheless, that his ongoing heart problems have worked some changes in his personality. (Damage to blood vessels near the heart is often accompanied by damage to those in the brain.)

My own view is that other factors account for the perception of change. He always has been on the far end of the conservative spectrum, but he is unusually discreet. When he worked for moderate presidents, he espoused their views. But Scowcroft should know better than most of us: Cheney was the hard-line outlier in many debates under Bush 41, and Scowcroft and Jim Baker usually succeeded in pushing back. Now that Cheney is an independent constitutional officer, and has no rival of comparable influence and a more radical conservative in the Oval Office, he has been somewhat freer to let Cheney be Cheney.

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Pleasanton, Calif.: What is Cheney's attitude toward the American people? Apparently we need protecting, but we can't be trusted with the truth, and he has nothing but contempt for those of us who see things differently from him. Does he regard the public as not-too-bright, and in need of protection by a strong leader much wiser than the people? Or what?

Barton Gellman: I think that Cheney believes deeply in the existence of mortal threats to the nation, and that he understands better than most people what needs to be done. That leads him to the proposition that he can't allow himself to be influenced by polls. Here's a brief fragment of a much longer discussion near the end of "Angler":

"His indifference to public opinion, an important constraint on most office holders, verged on contempt. He spoke most openly in disdain of the news media and self- appointed elites, but he had a way of saying 'polls' -- the kind that measure public opinion -- that made the word sound dirty. Cheney would not put it this plainly, but the fact was he did not much admire the way his fellow Americans made decisions. Our fickle loyalties, our emotional swings, our uneven grasp of facts, our failure to see the main point, our logical errors -- all the things that made our collective conversation so unlike Dick Cheney's conversation with himself -- brought the vice president close to saying he need not bother listening."

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Metter, Ga.: What's the point of your writing and my reading such a book considering that there is absolutely nothing we readers can do about Cheney's game of politics at this stage? Of course, the fallout now would be that we will vote for the other party, but after nearly eight years much damage already has been done to the country. Makes me want to barf.

Barton Gellman: I get a lot of questions like this -- we all do, in journalism, when we reconstruct events. I think the truth has its own elemental value, and it does not need to be justified with some immediate instrumental purpose. Back when Jo Becker and I did the original series (linked up top), the commentary divided between Cheney fans (who said thank goodness someone stopped the coddling of terrorists) and critics (who said the narrative proved him terribly damaging, or worse).

We write things when we're able to find them out. In any administration, it is extraordinarily difficult to learn about closely held events in real time. We tell as much as we can as they happen, and we go back at them -- often repeatedly -- because we know that more people will talk to us after the fact, and more documents will become available. I did hundreds of interviews for "Angler," and many of my sources would not have answered the phone before. Many others would not let me talk them into speaking on the record. Take Jim Comey, who's at the center of events on the NSA/Justice meltdown of 2004 -- he never had given an interview until this one. He disregarded messages from me for more than a year. Eventually I accumulated enough information from others that he decided to do what he could to make sure I told the story accurately. It's frustrating for reporters and readers alike, but that's how it works.

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Kansas: What is your take on the recently released story that Cheney refused Bush's request that Cheney lead up the Katrina effort? Did he decline because leading up that effort was at odds with Cheney's style (he doesn't kiss babies), or his accurate perception that it was a dog of an assignment, or something else? Thanks.

Barton Gellman: The recently released stories are quoting my book. Dan Bartlett told me (as did others who did not want their names used) that Cheney ducked the Katrina assignment. I can't know his motives. Plausible reasons include his known beliefs that the federal government's responsibility should be limited in disaster response, or that he had higher priorities, or that he believed he could serve the president better elsewhere. Dan Bartlett's baby-kissing comment explained why Bartlett thought Cheney probably made the right choice. In the scene in the book that describes the Bush-Cheney interaction, by the way, Cheney does not refuse an order. He expresses a preference not to do the job unless he receives a direct order.

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Burlingame, Calif.: Does our government need more Dick Cheneys, or one fewer? If I were to be indifferent to his policies, I would have to admire his effectiveness.

Barton Gellman: There's a trajectory to Cheney's vice presidency. The stories I tell in "Angler" show that he was extraordinarily effective in the early years, and he certainly has not lost his operational skills even now, but there was a kind of Newtonian reaction in which opposing forces eventually learned to push back. Congress, courts, other executive branch leaders and the president himself placed limits on Cheney. He certainly has not run out of gas, but these days he does less driving forward of policies than braking against changes he does not like.

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Floris, Va.: So did you enjoy your stint on "The Daily Show"? And of all the TV interviews you've done so far, which interviewer was the most intelligent and acted like they actually read the book? Now to my real question: Is there anything criminal -- forgetting whether or not they'll ever be prosecuted -- in a member of the administration purposely spreading false information in order to convince members of Congress to vote for an armed invasion of another country?

washingtonpost.com: Gellman on "The Daily Show"

Barton Gellman: I had a blast on "The Daily Show," not least because Jon Stewart let my teenagers hang in the green room and came in to say hi. It was absolutely clear from our conversation afterward that Jon read the book and thought hard about it. My interview with Terry Gross on NPR's NPR's Fresh Air was another favorite. That's a long format, 40 minutes or so, and leaves plenty of time to delve into the subject. You can find a bunch of other broadcast interviews, and information about my public appearances, on my Web site.

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New York: Will you be in New York for a book signing?

Barton Gellman: Well, I live in New York and I'll be doing a signing and conversation with Adam Liptak of the New York Times at NYU tonight. There's also a reading/signing at the Barnes & Noble at 82nd and Broadway on October 1. More details on the Web site referenced above.

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New York: I love the "Newtonian reaction." Of course, you probably didn't mean Gingrich, but it does resonate on a secondary level, doesn't it? Thanks.

Barton Gellman: Funny. I leave all further puns to my creative readers.

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Washington: What was Bush's reaction when he found out he had been kept in the dark about the Department of Justice's opinion on the domestic spying program? Was he troubled? Did he say anything to Cheney? Were any new constraints put on the vice president?

Barton Gellman: What he said to Cheney, I can't know. I do discuss the aftermath (in Chapter 12) in a lot more detail than I could fit in the Washington Post excerpts over the weekend. Many executives would have reacted quite strongly. Bush certainly did not fire anyone because of this episode (he couldn't fire Cheney, but Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales also kept him in the dark), and I found no evidence that he dressed anyone down. But I do show evidence that Bush learned a lesson from the episode, and that it became a turning point in the relationship with Cheney.

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Shrewsbury, Mass.: "Eventually I accumulated enough information from others that he decided to do what he could to make sure I told the story accurately." So, it's natural for the real story to come out after the dust has settled, so to speak? But ahead of the historians. Otherwise, you'll add nothing to the contemporary dialogue. By the time historians get to it, you might as well be writing about the Hoover administration. Then again, considering who's in the White House now, a book on the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover years would be pretty timely! Thanks.

Barton Gellman: Phil Graham, the great founder/owner of The Washington Post in its modern form, famously said the newspaper was the first rough draft of history. A book like this might be the second. The more time passes, the more we learn.

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Austin, Texas: So which "think" tanks are going to be on the short list for gobbling up Cheney? And by gobble, I mean in all senses of the word. "Good words to you."

Barton Gellman: He and his wife Lynne have a longstanding relationship with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and likewise with the Hoover Institution at Stanford. The vice president has not apprised me or anyone else (in public) of his post-term plans, so your guess is as good as mine.

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San Francisco: How did Cheney go from warning against invading Iraq under the first President Bush to being one of the biggest advocates of invasion under the second? The 1994 Cheney was pretty prescient.

Barton Gellman: I'm sorry to keep referring to the book (well, not so sorry), but there's another whole chapter on that, with several of Cheney's senior foreign policy advisers speaking on the record about this for the first time. It's a long answer to a short question. The shorter answer has to do with Cheney's growing preoccupation with a potential "nexus" of terrorists and hostile states with WMD capabilities, and his aim to set an example. One adviser calls this the "demonstration effect" -- for various reasons, war with Iran and North Korea was not attractive, but Cheney wanted to dispel what he believed was America's public image as "a harmless enemy and an unreliable friend," as one confidant put it.

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Evanston, Ill.: How does your book compare with Stephen Hayes's hagiography of the vice president?

Barton Gellman: I'm not sure it's fair to call the Hayes book a hagiography. Obviously it is highly sympathetic to Cheney and depends heavily on information that Cheney provided or caused to be provided. But I learned a lot from it, especially about Cheney's early life and career. My book has more of an outsider's perspective. I learned a great deal from the vice president's present and former advisers, but Cheney and David Addington did not speak to me as they did to Hayes. Most of what I learned came from the many, many other people who interacted with the vice president and his office, some of them allies (John Yoo, Doug Feith, William Haynes, etc) and some of them decidedly not.

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Fort Bragg, Calif.: Could you talk a bit about Cheney's role in selecting Attorney General Mukasey, and also his relationship with John McCain?

Barton Gellman: Don't know much about the Mukasey relationship. The relationship with McCain was never terribly warm and chilled solid as the Bush years went on. It's fair to say McCain is the very last man in the GOP field who Cheney would have wanted to succeed Bush.

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New York: I have just ordered your book and I'm sure the answer to this question lies therein, but, if Bush was not intimidated by Cheney, and "that's not how he got his power," just how did he get his power?

Barton Gellman: Another complicated answer that's hard to describe in a few lines ... but ... he won Bush's confidence, he knew a great deal more about the federal government than pretty much anyone else in the administration, he was a detail man working for a president who preferred to enunciate broad goals and visions, he reached down to lower levels of government to influence the options brought to the Oval Office, he knew exactly what he wanted (a surprisingly rare trait, even among leaders), and he had exceptional skill at finding pivot points in the bureaucracy. "Pivot Points" is actually the title of one of my chapters.

I just want to be clear, though: Bush really was the Decider. If something rose to his attention, and he disagreed with Cheney, there was no doubt at all who made the call. This was not a Cheney administration, and I tell a lot of stories that prove it.

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Tucson, Ariz.: Cheney's contempt for the average American's intelligence and grasp of the real issues seems to extend to Congress. To my view it even extends to the founding fathers' vision of a balance of power and limits of executive authority. I'm at a loss to see what Cheney sees worth protecting with such great vigor, if it is not our form democracy; would you venture a guess?

Barton Gellman: This is a little bit like a common charge that Cheney does not care about the Constitution. I don't agree. Cheney has a well-developed view about what the Constitution -- and separation of powers -- actually means. Like many of his views, it begins with a widely accepted premise (e.g. that the president can't execute law without interpreting it) and takes it well beyond the boundaries of mainstream debate about how to draw the lines (e.g. that the president is free to disregard legislative and judicial interventions that "purport to" limit his powers as chief legal officer). He believes in democracy as well, but he espouses a concept of representation (the "trustee" model) that was largely left behind in 18th century England when the founders crossed the Atlantic.

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Hull, Mass.: I'm interested in the final comments in the excerpted series -- that Cheney acted in this, and presumably in other struggles, out of "pure" intentions. He is surely an intelligent man as well as a sly, clever and pugnacious one, and surely an intelligent person who cared for the nation as given to us (a representative democracy and a republic) understood that claiming ultimate power for the executive -- the power to define and interpret, even to chose whether to abide by, any law or directive from either other branch -- would destroy our democracy. Are you saying that his motives were "pure" in the sense that nothing allayed his focus on building an executive office with dictatorial powers, or "pure" in some other sense?

Barton Gellman: Pure in the sense that he believed he was serving the national interest, and upholding rightful presidential powers that had been fecklessly relinquished over the years. To elaborate briefly on my last answer, and this oversimplifies things, he is skeptical of the dominant jurisprudential view that the three branches of government have shared and overlapping powers. He has a fairly strict interpretation of separation of powers, and defines the executive's exclusive realm very broadly. As for democracy, he has said that voters should choose wisely and then let the president govern. Sort of like picking a surgeon: Do your research when selecting one, but don't try to tell him where to cut.

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Barton Gellman: So many questions, so little time. I've gone 10 minutes over, and would love to get to more, but I'm afraid we have to stop. You may find more answers on bartongellman.com.

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