WASHINGTON – He’s been called Darth Vader, feared or derided as a trigger-happy, torture-loving puppet master who called the shots over the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. And now, with the publication of his memoir, “In My Time,” Dick Cheney has once again grabbed the media spotlight. But what about the former vice president is real, exaggerated or outright myth?
• Dick Cheney ran the Bush administration.
Even before the Bush presidency started, conventional wisdom held that the real locus of power would be with the vice president. A few days after the Supreme Court decided Bush vs. Gore, a “Saturday Night Live” skit featured Will Ferrell as Bush, lamenting that “Dick Cheney’s going to be one tough boss.”
Cheney was influential — probably the most powerful vice president in history. But when Bush called himself the decider, he was correct. Cheney gave advice; Bush made decisions. Bush certainly gave Cheney major leadership roles, such as chairing the administration’s energy task force. But over the course of his presidency, Bush ran virtually every meeting the two men participated in, with Cheney usually listening in silence. Cheney offered to resign three times before the 2004 election, and Bush chose to keep him. And, barring the Iraq troop surge, Bush’s second term featured a string of defeats for Cheney on foreign policy and national security, including wiretapping, Iran, Syria, North Korea and the Mideast peace process.
• Cheney is a neocon.
Neoconservatives believe in a foreign policy that projects American power and promotes American values. Unlike foreign policy “realists,” who think Washington should act only when vital national interests are at stake, neoconservatives are willing to use U.S. power for humanitarian reasons. In domestic policy, they are eager defenders of the Judeo-Christian values important to social conservatives and, while proponents of relatively free markets, they are more comfortable with government intervention in the economy than their more libertarian compatriots.
A look at Cheney’s career places him comfortably among neoconservatives in only one respect: the need to maintain military superiority. While he holds conservative views on some social issues, he has opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and he pushed to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Cheney has never been a culture warrior. Although he served in an administration that dramatically increased domestic spending, he was a skeptic of the “compassionate conservatism” behind such spending.
Cheney, who opposed deposing Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf war, came to embrace an expansive U.S. postwar role in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he viewed protecting the American people as the first priority; promoting democracy was a means to that end.
• Cheney has never admitted a mistake regarding Iraq.
Much of the reaction to Cheney’s memoir, “In My Time,” has stressed his unwillingness to acknowledge Bush administration mistakes in the war in Iraq. Cheney continues to believe that the war was justified and made the United States safer, arguments that still infuriate war opponents.
But his reluctance to disown the war is not the same as refusing to acknowledge mistakes — including consequential ones. In interviews with me for a book I wrote on him and his career, Cheney spoke openly about the administration’s errors. He acknowledged, for example, misjudging the effects of detaining Iraq’s former leader: “My view, and thinking, is that there were milestones along the way that I would have expected would have moved things more in our direction, such as capturing Saddam Hussein.” In 2005, Cheney claimed that the insurgency in Iraq was in its “last throes” — a judgment he later admitted was “obviously wrong.” And he told me that the institution the Bush administration devised to govern postwar Iraq had failed: “I think the Coalition Provisional Authority was a mistake, wasted valuable time.”
Perhaps because of his loyalty to Donald Rumsfeld, his mentor and longtime friend, Cheney spends little time on those mistakes in his book.
• Cheney has never gotten along with the press.
One of the defining aspects of Cheney’s vice presidency was his difficult relationship with the news media. He spent as little time with reporters as possible and in interviews was comfortable with one-word responses and awkward silences. At the same time, many otherwise objective reporters seemed to lose their minds over him.
It was not always this way. Cheney had also served in government from the late 1960s through the early 1990s — moving from the executive branch to the House of Representatives and back to the executive branch. From his time as White House chief of staff to Gerald Ford to his days as defense secretary under President George H.W. Bush, Cheney was regarded as media-friendly and was routinely depicted as smart and competent in the press. When George W. Bush selected him as his running mate, The Washington Post’s David Broder wrote that “colleagues of both parties in Congress give glowing testimony that Cheney is a man of his word.”
During the Ford administration, his rapport with the media was considered an asset. Two weeks before Ford left office, White House press secretary Ron Nessen wrote Cheney a note saying that his “good relationship with the press reflected favorably on President Ford’s good image among reporters.”
As vice president, Cheney believed that his lone role was to advise Bush. He chose to be less accessible — and his reputation paid the price.
• Cheney favored a strong executive branch to expand his own power base.
Cheney was an enthusiastic proponent of robust executive power. But that doesn’t mean he sought to enhance his own power by broadening the reach of the executive branch. Cheney has been arguing for a powerful executive function for four decades, even when he was a leader of the legislative branch. One of the first moves he made as a new member of the House GOP leadership in late 1980 was to call for a re-establishment of proper executive power.
“A fundamental problem has been the extent to which we have restrained presidential authority over the last several years,” he argued in a think-tank colloquy with then-relative newcomer Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich, a zealous advocate of legislative power. Said Gingrich: “The greatest danger of the Reagan administration is that conservatives will decide they can trust imperial presidents as long as they are right-wing.”
Cheney countered: “We have been concerned with the so-called myth of the imperial presidency. … We must restore some balance between the Congress, on the one hand, and the executive branch, on the other.”
Cheney’s views were shaped in the Ford years when, after Watergate, Congress moved to limit executive power. He hasn’t changed his mind.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer for the Weekly Standard and the author of “Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President.”