During a memorable scene early in Adam McKay’s new film, “Vice,” a biopic about Dick Cheney, the protagonist stands outside the stark government office of Donald Rumsfeld, for whom he has just gone to work. They are at the Office of Economic Opportunity, the first in a string of jobs Rumsfeld held in the Nixon and Ford administrations in which he hired Cheney as his top assistant. The young Cheney asks his boss what they believe in. Rumsfeld just laughs uproariously, making clear that the answer is nothing — and, as he watches Rumsfeld go back into his office, Cheney laughs heartily along with him. The message: Our antihero is all about acquiring power, by whatever means necessary. The ideas for which power might be used are, well, irrelevant.
It’s a disastrous misreading of the former vice president. By disregarding his views and ideology (and several important historical moments that helped form them), “Vice” suggests that Cheney’s legacy is a soulless quest for power, rather than the advancement of fallacious beliefs that seriously damaged our nation: his unilateral approach to foreign policy, his preference for military force over diplomacy, his considerable overestimation of American strength and his desire to reshape the Middle East.
In “Vice,” Cheney’s push to increase the power of the executive branch seems to come from nowhere — and looks like just a power grab. That’s because the film omits several epochal events that formed his convictions, such as the Vietnam War. Cheney was serving as President Gerald Ford’s deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff when, in reaction to Vietnam, Congress passed a series of laws limiting the power of the executive branch in foreign policy. The film also skips the Iran-contra affair, which prompted Cheney, as a leading Republican congressman, to set down his fullest statement of executive power. Cheney directed the Republican minority report on the scandal, which denounced “aggrandizing” intrusions by Congress into foreign policy, saying, “The boundless view of Congressional power began to take hold in the 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam War.”
Most amazingly, there’s barely a few seconds’ mention of Cheney’s role as defense secretary during the Persian Gulf War — perhaps because it might have complicated the movie’s one-dimensional portrait. In that period, after the United States flattened Iraq’s military on the way to Baghdad, the public perceptions of Cheney were largely positive. He and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell rode in a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York, a laurel previously accorded to Charles Lindbergh, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and the Apollo astronauts. In a story in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd, then a reporter, portrayed Cheney as a possible presidential candidate.
Yet, while “Vice” passes over the Persian Gulf conflict, it helps explain the origins of some of Cheney’s convictions and where they went astray. The American military triumph in Iraq came just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States was suddenly the world’s unchallenged superpower. How should it use its new, unrivaled power? Should it seek to perpetuate the status quo, or should it try to upend the existing order in favor of new arrangements — such as, for example, a Middle East more favorable to the United States (and to Israel)? Should America give the same weight to its allies as it had during the Cold War?
Cheney’s answers to these questions — a unilateral view of American power — were distilled in what was originally called the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992 (issued under Cheney’s own name as he was leaving office). That document argues, contrary to the movie’s suggestion, that Cheney was far more interested in increasing America’s power in the world and in preventing any challenges to it than in simply augmenting his own bureaucratic influence.
“Vice” is so invested in turning Cheney into the source of everything bad from the George W. Bush administration that it ascribes to him even more than the considerable clout he really had. McKay’s Cheney seems to be the force behind Bush’s tax cuts, even though the president had promised them in his campaign long before Cheney joined the ticket. (The vice president cast the deciding vote in the Senate but wasn’t the lead architect.) The film version of Cheney also comes up with the idea to have Powell, then secretary of state, make the case for the Iraq war at the United Nations; this was actually Bush’s idea.
Since the movie doesn’t deal with Cheney’s views, it doesn’t show what happened on those occasions when they collided with reality. It doesn’t show the way he minimized the obstacles to the use of force or to other assertions of American power. When interviewer Tim Russert asked him on “Meet the Press” on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq if he thought Americans were prepared for a “long, costly and bloody” war, Cheney replied, “Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators.” He said more than once that the Iraqi insurgency that followed the American invasion was in its “last throes,” when it wasn’t.
Stripping Cheney of ideology makes him look vaguely like a forerunner of President Trump. It suggests that the same forces — ignorant voters, sinister manipulators — were at work. “Vice” includes fleeting shots of Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions, who were at best marginal to Cheney’s career. It may well be that, in the entertainment industry, all conservatives seem alike. But Cheney was an uber-hawk, while Trump is a pseudo-populist, and they are not the same. Trump has spent the past couple of weeks pulling American troops from Syria, a decision that runs directly contrary to Cheney’s core beliefs: As vice president, he consistently avowed a strong U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Later, he lambasted President Barack Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
And Trump wants desperately to curtail the flow of people into our country. Immigration wasn’t a major issue for Cheney, but to the extent he talked about it, he was largely supportive. Along with Bush, Cheney pushed unsuccessfully for legislation that would have opened a way to legal status for more than 10 million immigrants. Three years ago, Cheney upbraided Trump for trying to bar Muslims from the United States. “This whole notion that somehow we can just say no more Muslims, just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for,” Cheney told interviewer Hugh Hewitt. Cheney was also a free trader, where Trump is decidedly not.
In the end, the Cheney of “Vice” comes across as a cartoon Darth Vader, and a peculiar one at that. Past depictions of Cheney-as-Vader usually showed him leading the way toward American domination of the Middle East — or of the whole world. The new Cheney-Vader of “Vice” cares about nothing but his own dominion. He has no beliefs. In this way “Vice” misses the most important aspect of the real-life Dick Cheney:
He was wrong.