Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Cheney Administration

Last night on the Daily Show show, Jon Stewart did a brief little story about how one of Dick Cheney's investments -- in this case prisons -- was getting him in legal trouble.

Stewart looked into the camera and asked: "Is there any unpleasant aspect of our society that Dick Cheney isn't making money off of?"

Dick Cheney was kind of the gift that kept on giving for Stewart; the ultimate cartoon of a nefarious puppetmaster behind the scenes, plotting sinister dealings, ruling the world through George W. Bush. Always good for a joke.

But for a long time, I thought that this kind of cartoon wasn't particularly helpful to Democrats -- and probably wasn't even true.

Frankly, I didn't think that George Bush was all that easily manipulated by the likes of a Dick Cheney. Sure, I knew that Cheney was extremely powerful (more so than any other Vice President) but Bush was also very much a man who knew his own mind; who knew his wants and desires; who refused to be coached into something that he didn't believe in.

In short, I thought that a cartoonish exaggeration badly missed the mark. And misunderstanding the Bush administration (as Democrats did throughout his presidency) was a mistake. It enabled Bush and his cohorts in Congress to run rings around Democrats for the bulk of the last eight years.

Well, after reading Barton Gellman's book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, I no longer thing that the cartoon was so far off the mark.

Gellman's book might very well be the single best book that I've read about the Bush administration -- which should more accurately be called the Cheney Administration. (For the first five years or so, anyway.) The portrait Gellman paints is of a Cheney who is much more powerful than I had any idea. And probably more powerful than even George Bush knows.

And while I just made the point that the book makes the greatest case for the cartoon version of the Bush Administration, I would argue that paradoxically Angler succeeds so well because it does not take a cartoonish view of the administration or the Vice President. It doesn't have an ideological ax to grind, and doesn't take long winded stands. It doesn't examine the unverifiable evidence, or the rantings of the unstable. It deals with the players extremely seriously, and on their own terms.

I would be loath to come away from Angler thinking that Dick Cheney is an idiot. He is anything but. He is a frighteningly smart man. I was extremely surprised at the fact that he voiced a great deal of skepticism about the invasion of Iraq in early 2003. (Even though none of this was aired publicly.) Apparently he thought both the option of going to war and not going to war were very bad -- which is a more nuanced position than I initially gave him credit for.

Moreover, Gellman steers away from the idea that Cheney went to war for personal enrichment.

I think that the argument that America went to war for oil has some merit in it (but not in the way the, "No blood for oil!" protesters think -- more along the lines of, "Our entire economy is based on oil right now, so putting the Middle East in the hands of madmen is kind of a mistake" reasoning). But it's ludicrous to think we went to war in Iraq to ensure Dick Cheney's stock portfolio would rise. Gellman has examined his finances and concluded that he divested himself from Haliburton before becoming Vice President -- at a significant personal loss. (Although Cheney was already quite rich by the time he became VP.)

But the cartoon of Cheney holding power in the administration definitely holds true.

I won't ruin the book by going into each and every instance of Cheney's power (or just how little of it Bush was aware of) except for one small story about why Cheney is so powerful:

During the Florida recount in 2000, when Bush was extremely distracted by the politics and lawsuits going on, Cheney came to Bush and told him that he would need to prepare for an eventual transition; staffing decisions would need to be made, etc., and he was obviously too busy to handle it now. Cheney volunteered himself to do this.

In other words, everybody in the first part of Bush's administration was essentially handpicked by Cheney. True, Bush signed off on everybody -- but every cabinet member (or anybody who needed congressional approval) was vetted first by Cheney. He decided whose resume would reach Bush's desk and whose would not.

And being that they were all Cheney picks, they had an interest in keeping him informed and running decisions and policy through him before going to the President.

A shocking read -- go out and buy it!