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The Co-President at Work

The Bush Tragedy

by Jacob Weisberg
Random House, 271 pp., $26.00; $16.00 (paper)

When George W. Bush testified before the 9/11 Commission, Dick Cheney was with him in the Oval Office. What was said there remains a secret, but throughout the double session, it appears, Cheney deferred to Bush. Aides to the President afterward explained that the two men had to sit together for people to see how fully Bush was in control. A likelier motive was the obvious one: they had long exercised joint command but neither knew exactly how much the other knew, or what the other would say in response to particular questions. Bush also brought Cheney for the reason that a witness under oath before a congressional committee may bring along his lawyer. He could not risk an answer that his adviser might prefer to correct. Yet Bush would scarcely have changed the public understanding of their relationship had he sent in Cheney alone. “When you’re talking to Dick Cheney,” the President said in 2003, “you’re talking to me.”

The shallowest charge against Cheney is that he somehow inserted himself into the vice-presidency by heading the team that examined other candidates for the job. He used the position deviously, so the story goes, to sell himself to the susceptible younger Bush. The truth is both simpler and more strange. Since 1999, Cheney had been one of a group of political tutors of Bush, including Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz; in this company, Bush found Cheney especially congenial—not least his way of asserting his influence without ever stealing a scene. Bush, too, resembled Cheney in preferring to let others speak, but he lacked the mind and patience for discussions: virtues that Cheney possessed in abundance.

As early as March 2000, Bush asked him whether he would consider taking the second slot. Cheney at first said no. Later, he agreed to serve as Bush’s inspector of the qualifications of others; his lieutenants were David Addington and his daughter Liz. Some way into that work, Bush asked Cheney again, and this time he said yes. The understanding was concluded before any of the lesser candidates were interviewed. It was perhaps the first public deception that they worked at together: a lie of omission—and a trespass against probity—to give an air of legitimacy to the search for a nominee. But their concurrence in the stratagem, and the way each saw the other hold to its terms, signaled an equality in manipulation as no formal contract could have done. It is hardly likely that an exchange of words was necessary.

The vice-presidential search in the spring of 2000 was characteristic of the co-presidency to come in one other way. It involved the collection of information for future use against political rivals. In this case, the rivals were the other potential VPs, among them Lamar Alexander, Chuck Hagel, and Frank Keating. They had been asked to submit exhaustive data concerning friends, enemies, sexual partners, psychological vicissitudes (noting all visits to therapists of any kind), personal embarrassments, and sources of possible slander, plus a complete medical history. Each also signed a notarized letter that gave Cheney the power to request records from doctors without further clearance.

All this information would prove useful in later years. Barton Gellman reveals in Angler that soon after Frank Keating was mentioned as a likely candidate for attorney general, a story appeared in Newsweek about an awkward secret in his past: an eccentric patron had paid for his children’s college education. No law had been broken, and nothing wrongly concealed; but the story killed a chance for Keating to be named attorney general; and the leak could only have come from one person. Doubtless most of the secrets in Cheney’s possession were the more effective for not being used.

Cheney by nature is a high functionary and inside operative, ready to learn and eager to ferret out the background of people and events, both the things he is supposed to know and the things he is not. It is symptomatic that in the Ford administration, when Cheney served as White House chief of staff, he declined a generous offer of cabinet status: higher visibility, he believed, would only diminish his actual potency. By the end of his time in that office, he had narrowed down access to the President to the people he himself preferred; and at his retirement, Cheney’s staff gave him, as Stuart Spencer recalls, “a bicycle wheel with all the spokes busted out except for one—his.”

A now forgotten aberration of the Republican convention in 1980 may have helped to crystalize his thinking about the advantages of a recessive stance. For a few frantic days that summer, it looked as if Ronald Reagan would need someone with demonstrable experience on the ticket if he was to have a chance in November; and there were serious discussions of a co-presidency to be shared between Reagan and Ford. Cheney, a close adviser to Ford, was an interested witness, and he saw how the excess and literalness of Ford’s “wish list” for vice-presidential powers caused the negotiations to break down. Still, this ended up a tantalizingly close call; and it could only have left Cheney thoughtful about future possibilities. Suppose one day the Republican Party nominated another charmer, cut out, like Reagan, for the getting of votes but as fundamentally uninterested as Reagan was in the actual running of government.

No two persons and indeed no twenty in Reagan’s administration enjoyed the power that Cheney settled into in 2001; but the role of the president in these two administrations has been much the same. He is the campaigner, the crowd-pleaser (if he can), the known presence at the visible desk who signs the laws and executive orders. The amiability of George W. Bush has turned out to be less versatile and translatable than Reagan’s: the boyish vulgar humor and back-slapping require easy success as a precondition; and apart from the three and a half years after the September 11 attacks—the period of the “fast wars” and the “war presidency”—his two terms in office have been marked by conspicuous failures.

Bush’s exceedingly low spirits have been palpable now for many months, and without the one to two hours of strenuous exercise that are the heart of his day, his mental state would surely be a good deal grimmer. And yet, for this very reason the growing evidence about Cheney’s bad judgments has not greatly diminished Bush’s reliance on him. If the vice-president dominates policy less than he did before 2006, the reason is only that others around Bush have become more confident. It remains nonetheless a relationship without any parallel in American history. “The vice president,” as Jacob Weisberg observes in The Bush Tragedy, “built his power over Bush by finding ways to give power to Bush.” There has never been a moment in this administration when the dependency let up.

Something subtly changed in Dick Cheney between 1995 and 2000, some equilibrium or inward balance of ambition and ordinary prudence. These were his years as CEO of Halliburton, where he did not post enormous profits: his decision, in 1998, to merge Halliburton with Dresser Industries and the subsequent asbestos claims against Dresser led the value of Halliburton stock to fall from $54 to $9 a share between August and December 2000.

Yet Cheney as CEO had a value as great as that of any official who has passed through the revolving door that separates government office from corporate chairmanships. His importance was as a connection maker, a facilitator, a speculative explorer of large innovations. While at Halliburton, Cheney would commission a study of the utility of employing private security contractors to fight in wars—only a piece of “research” at the time, but it would pay later for both the company and the vice-president, with the off-the-books contracts that by privatizing state protection kept much of the Iraq occupation out of public view.

These were the years, too, of Dick Cheney’s close association with the American Enterprise Institute and its offspring, the Project for the New American Century. The parent think tank, once an ordinary home for postwar business conservatism, had mutated, under the guidance of Irving Kristol, into the most lavish and energetic of the quasi-academic lobbies of neoconservative doctrine. The AEI, in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, had been transformed into an institute for the promotion of laissez-faire economics, militarized foreign policy, and the dismantling of the welfare state. It differed from, say, the Rand Corporation in eschewing any claim to impartiality of analysis. It was polemical and took confrontational positions that were disseminated early in the lectures and seminars open to resident fellows. The AEI differed, also, from an older centrist policy outfit like the Brookings Institution in having superior access to the mass media, thanks to careful self-advertisement and the coaching that its representatives often received from editors and agents such as Adam Bellow and Lynn Chu. A more-in-sorrow style was favored in discussing the grim necessity, for example, of increasing America’s nuclear stockpile or stopping the “culture of poverty” in the black community by cutting off federal programs.

Cheney’s familiarity with the policy institute way of talking was a steady and not a negligible factor in his ability to gain acceptance for his most outlandish maneuvers in the years between 2001 and 2003: the tax cuts and no-bid contracts with the Pentagon; withdrawal of the US from the ABM Treaty; the sudden commitment of the Pentagon to vast expenditures on missile defense, notwithstanding the record of test failures among missiles engendered by the Star Wars program under Reagan; the systematic exaggeration of the menace of Saddam Hussein in order to build support for a war against Iraq; and, in the triumphal mood of April 2003, the refusal to consider diplomatic contacts with Iran to obtain a “Grand Bargain” for peace in the Middle East.

Yet to those who knew the language, Cheney was only the forward edge of a policy long in the works, which had been announced almost in public in the turn-of-the-century strategy document Rebuilding America’s Defenses: the most substantial work commissioned by the Project for the New American Century. Like the authors of that treatise—among them Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, William Kristol, Frederick Kagan, and Stephen Cambone—and like the adepts of American hegemony at the AEI, Cheney, before he took office as vice-president, had concluded that there were no necessary limits on US domination of the world. This conviction hardened during the Clinton years—a window of time, as neoconservatives sometimes say, in which America could have asserted far more control than it did, and with a freer military hand. Cheney’s institutional prowess and his readiness to execute policies long in the making point to a larger pattern that James Mann wrote well about in Rise of the Vulcans.1

Republicans, since 1975, have had a foreign policy establishment that stays in place even when they are out of power. (The Democrats can claim nothing of the sort.) Through the continuity of neoconservative advisers, the military-statist wing of the Republican Party has thus, for three decades now, had the consistency and coherence of a shadow government. Though remarked by no one at the time, most of its essential policies—including “force projection” in the Middle East and continued pressure on Russia in spite of the fall of communism—were already in place by 1996, when the leading foreign policy adviser to Robert Dole was Paul Wolfowitz.

  1. 1

    Viking, 2004; reviewed in these pages by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., September 23, 2004.

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