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Denebola » Article » Angler, The Cheney Vice-Presidency
Book Review

Angler, The Cheney Vice-Presidency

By George Abbott White
Published: November 2008

Author: Barton Gellman

It’s a good thing our President-Elect taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

Alongside saving the economy, managing two wars, rebuilding America’s relations with virtually every country on the planet, reversing global warming and effecting U.S. energy independence, Barack Obama’s most important task may well be setting the nation’s legal house in order.

Actually, more like reversing the disorder into which it has been cast the past eight years at all levels of government. Where the rule of law has not been broken outright or twisted like a pretzel, so many laws, rulings and policies laarge and small have been ignored, reframed or stretched.

All thanks to Richard Bruce Cheney, the man Vice-President elect Joseph Biden characterized as ‘Ëœthe most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history.’

Dangerous in what sense?

1′€the name of the game

Author: Barton Gellman
Although Barton Gellman in Angler: the Cheney Vice Presidency is as non-ideological in this respect as his subject was ideological, dangerous in the sense of Cheney’s serving over four decades in and out of public office not merely conservative but often deeply reactionary interests.

If Gellman’s study’€a greatly expanded version of what originally appeared as a four-part Washington Post series’€reads like a cross between Machiavelli’s Prince and Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, it is because the George W. Bush presidency is a drama about much more than whether Rumsfeld slighted Powell and insulted Rice.

As Gellman makes clear’€all these personages are serious players, yet none more serious, well-equipped, and resolute at the end of the day than Cheney.

Despite a fascinating interplay of colorful, fractious, conflicting, and complex personalities who make their way over 400 pages (and 70 more in Notes), the story worth hearing is not one of status sought or wealth acquired, sex or perversity, but power, power in both street and high grade versions.

Political power these past eight years in Washington and the way in which it was gained, guarded, focused and enacted’€less in the figure of Bush than in Cheney’€in a disarmingly lesser figure .

Power to dry up Native American salmon streams in Oregon but more significantly, power to invade a Middle East nation and spend hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives in the process. Power to “mine millions of Americans’ personal and electronic records and to detain thousands of “terrorists, without benefit of Geneva Convention or American due process. Power to extract information from detainees in Cuba’s Guantanamo and “black sites around the world¦by any means necessary.

Among the dozens of important occasions and decisions Gellman tracks, four highlight what Cheney accomplished and how he accomplished it: choosing Bush’s VP; 9/11 and post-9/1l planning; NSA and other agency domestic surveillance; Gitmo and non-torture torture. About them, and the “unitary or “Imperial Presidency in a moment. About Cheney, now.

2′€Cheney the man

Other accounts chronicle in greater detail Cheney’s far western origins, his academic failings (sent home from Yale twice) and later academic successes (honors work at the University of Wyoming, scholarships at the University of Wisconsin and ABD in Political Science).

Stocky, balding, gray, undramatic in appearance, and’€except for an almost intimidating sense of attentiveness’€the most powerful vice president in American history has seldom shown himself the stuff of a John Wayne western. As much the “sleeper as the terrorists Cheney himself obsessively pursues, Gellman at many junctures suggests impressive containment and calculating self-control, a man always with purpose who prepares exhaustively, listens intently, plays his cards exceedingly close and keeps his wallet on the dresser at home.

3′€Cheney’s politics

Gellman’s even-handed narrative reminds us no event is without its history.

This Big Sky son of “loyal democrats hitched his political wagon early on, while a graduate student, to a rising Republican Congressman Steiger, who in Nixon’s administration, passed this reliable, conscientious, hard working “number man on to similarly rising young men, like Donald Rumsfeld.

Cheney became President Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff, then Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign manager, five-term Republican Congressman from Wyoming, late 80s, House Minority Whip and finally Secretary of Defense for the first Bush.

A western politician could hardly not support oil, gas, and coal interests, aggressive mining and unrestricted timber and land use during his years in Congress, long time fly fishing enthusiast notwithstanding (hence, Cheney’s Secret Service code name.)

Worth noticing: Cheney voted for and against making King’s birthday a national holiday, against creation of the Department of Education, against funding Head Start as well as against imposing economic sanctions on apartheid South Africa.

4′€“stealth, “misdirection, & “secrecy

Frank Keating, Governor of Oklahoma, receives a call from Dick Cheney as Governor Bush prepares to select a vice president for the 2000 presidential election.

Keating is encouraged to believe himself a serious candidate by Cheney, encouraged to such an extent that his fills out an exhaustive questionnaire, one also exhaustively personal in its requests for not only basic and obvious information but open-ended medical and financial documentation.

The Cheney form had close to 200 questions under 79 headings, requiring answers that covered the whole span of adulthood.

While some of Cheney’s inquiries “were more or less standard in the vetting of potential running mates, on issues of mental health or spouses or past sexual or marital problems, “the structure of Cheney’s questionnaire bespoke unusual distrust of those who filled it out, with a corresponding demand for access to primary evidence.

Such as?

Copies of all medical records¦plus clinical notes and lab results. Anything to do with psychology or counseling, military service records and “intimate details of parents, children, siblings, spouses, and in-laws.

Anything legal was fair game, including sealed court records.

The kicker, of course, is not the all-inclusiveness of data, but what happens to it’€only Cheney and three others in the world ultimately see it, process it, and remember it. Keating, Lamar Alexander, Bill Frist, Tom Ridge, John Engler et al generate this mountain of intimate information about themselves and everyone they’ve known since pre-school, ship it to Cheney¦and?

Cheney, Lo and Behold, is “selected as Bush’s VP. And it dawns on the uninvited that Bush’s VP Cheney now knows everything (every thing) about his rivals.

5′€’ËœI have a different understanding with the President’

Cheney not only assembled and directed President Bush’s Transition Team and all its information’€while the chads were still hanging in Florida’€but immediately began inserting himself into all decision making involving the president.

Uninterested in the traditional role of ceremonial international trips and fund-raising, Cheney made clear his interests would be virtually all-encompassing, from national security and the budget process, to foreign policy, the military and party politics.

By virtue of highly selective staff choice and networking that drew upon three decades of private and public service, Cheney put into motion organizational and personal structures that guaranteed not only essential information would be routed through him and his office and legal counsel but would also be the exit point for crucial information to expand and enhance his vision of increased’€later near-absolute’€executive authority.

Ronald Reagan’s slogan was ‘Ëœpersonnel is policy,’ Cheney treated the traditional bureaucracy as entirely situational and either neutralized it or made it dependent upon his office, i.e., not permanent. A political black hole, vital information increasingly flowed into the VP office, exiting only when and where Cheney and his key deputies and aides desired.

According to Gellman, Bush set the tone’€and effectively legitimized’€Cheney’s re-invention of this vastly expanded VP role. Agencies and individuals were told by Bush that the Vice President was ‘Ëœwelcome at every table and every meeting.’

6′€taking over, or, ‘Ëœthree bites of the apple’

Soon Cheney was not only sitting in on crucial meetings but re-locating their sites to his’€one office in the White House and a borrowed one in the House’€and with the most important, such as Foreign Policy and the Wednesday Economic team, chairing them as well.

Cheney’s methods thereby gave him ‘Ëœthree bites at the apple’ on every decision of consequence, and allowed him to “reach down with tremendous effectiveness: first, with the President, when they were alone; second, at principal meetings; and third, one-on-one with staff or at the deputy level.Continuing the habits of a good graduate student, Cheney “read a great deal, remembered what he read.

7-thank you, bin Laden

Never a great enthusiast about either popular involvement or popular control, Cheney’s Washington experience prior to his VP role only confirmed earlier inclinations towards increasing White House power. Even before 9/11, the nation was in peril, decisions had to be made more quickly and more decisively.

Not only was the executive branch Constitutionally invested, even without legislative or judicial sanction “alpha White House lawyer Richard Addington “could work a world of change with executive tools alone.

The 9/11 commission noted how terrorist warnings had been downplayed or ignored by the new Bush administration, right up to the attacks. The President was in Florida, reading to schoolchildren, while Cheney was slow in getting to the White House bunker’€even as the big airliner that hit the Pentagon was only minutes away.

Once in the bunker, however, chaos turned to order’€under Cheney’s forceful direction’€to the extent we now know that the “shoot down decision was made without presidential authority.

Gellman’s point around this unfolding national tragedy of was that the situation paralleled, in a sense, Bush’s initial legitimation of Cheney’s role expansion. Assuming presidential authority in taking out a rogue airliner, Cheney went on to use it to set in motion a new national security system, new protocols and justifications for everything that might “win the new “war on terror.

7′€bending the law

War was a blanket that muffled a great many concerns about government invasions of privacy. As Senator Byrd, the acknowledged master of the Constitution, Cheney brought the Constitution to heel’€at least that was the charge to Addington, and colleagues and underlings in both the White House and Justice Departments. The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) was key, once its lawyers decided a policy or program was legal, all other agencies either fell in line, or, could be forced into line by that rulings example.

From expanded National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, which soon morphed into “unwarranted domestic surveillance by NSA, CIA, and military intelligence agencies, to “extreme forms of “interrogation, the transport of “high value subjects to unknown foreign “black sites was only a few steps away.

The “war on terror became the ultimate justification. Infamous attorney John Yoo got the data “drift nets going by arguing that the President could authorize “warrantless surveillance, even if Congress forbade it. Presidential authorizations were all one needed because the President had the ultimate authority to protect the country. Cheney’s “special program of surveillance and his agreement to “tough interrogation methods again and again were made to have legal foundation.

8′€all the king’s horses

Gellman delves into the ways in which Cheney tried to work his will with domestic issues unrelated to foreign policy and intelligence. Because, as we know too well these past months, the economy does not exactly respond with a salute to a command, Cheney had more luck both controlling information and controlling agencies related to the military.

He’€and President Bush’€was far less effective managing the economy, shifting Greenspan at the Federal Reserve in time for elections, or swaying Treasury Secretary O’Neill (ultimately dumped).

Education didn’t get on the train, either. Many children got left behind in the Bush years, probably too those subversive teachers’ unions, and attempts to shift Social Security to the “security of the Stock Market ( ! ) was unsuccessful as well.

It all came apart, however, and interestingly, according to Gellman, it fell from within.

Some of those conservative lawyers within both the White House and Justice departments re-read their law books and the Constitution and question prior decisions. It was the time of John Kerry’s nomination, worries began to surface about whether a new administration “might prosecute. Then, too, the “machinery turned inward, new faces at the OLC, one Jack Goldsmith for example, judged domestic surveillance illegal, or at least questionable.

Others, older and younger but, alas for Cheney, “fussy legalists, confronted, stood firm, threatened resignations.

Despite a late hour’€and unseemly’€bedside visit to ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft, neither Andrew Card nor Alberto Gonzales could force or persuade the AG to sign, a step from the ICU, a re-authorization order. If a nearly dead man could say No, the game was up.

With bombings in Baghdad increasing, Cheney’s soul mate “Scooter Libby found guilty, eight cardiac “events in eight years, winds were blowing in another direction’€certainly not billowing out Cheney’s sails. He sought power without limits, Gellman observes. Cheney’s “disdain for polls, popular opinion, even the vote in the interest of building an absolute Presidency, had been resolute but misguided and, Gellman suggests, ultimately tragic.

In the waning days of the 2008 campaign it was said President-elect Obama was reading a well-regarded history of the CIA. Angler, veined with lessons, might be more to the point.

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