Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency

By BARTON GELLMAN

Can you swallow the idea that Dick Cheney thinks of himself as a public servant? Believe it or not, the vice president to end all vice presidents apparently does. But it can only be in the same sense that P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves served Bertie Wooster — stoically rescuing a fool from life’s perils while treating his featherbrained priorities with silky, barely disguised contempt.

Since our world isn’t as sunny as Bertie’s, the consequences have been a lot less larky. While I’m not as up on my Wodehouse as friends tell me I should be, I’m pretty sure that waterboarding, extralegal electronic surveillance, and preemptive war don’t loom large on Jeeves’s to-do lists.

Cheney’s cagy style whenever Fox discloses his location must make even some Republicans nostalgic for how eager the Unabomber was to explain his own motives. So it’s no wonder liberals have beguiled themselves for years by thinking up invidious pretexts for his ruthlessness. Reflecting their unimaginative idea of what’s sinister, tied for first place are corporate profit — his Halliburton connection proves he’s in the tank for Big Oil, right? — and a nihilistic mania for power for power’s sake. Did they ever peg him wrong.

Instead, the Cheney who emerges from Angler, Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman’s mesmerizing guided tour of the labyrinth of his heartbeat-away years, is a man of formidable skills whose bedrock convictions and gloomy outlook keep him utterly sure he’s doing what’s best for his country, no matter what fainter hearts may bleat about laws and the American way. Brother, does that make him more frightening.

“Until the Bush-Cheney years,” Angler reminds us, “it would have been laughable to worry about a vice president’s unaccountable power.” The most famous horse’s-mouth description of the job comes from the Ur-veep, John Adams — “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of Man contrived,” he wailed. Then there’s FDR’s two-term No. 2, John Nance Garner, whose earthier take is traditionally bowdlerized as “Not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Even Al Gore couldn’t turn it into a bucket of globally warmed spit until he was out of office.

Yet nobody as results-oriented as Cheney would have promoted himself from head of George W. Bush’s search team to lower name on the bumper sticker if he’d planned on twiddling his thumbs. One of the book’s funnier vignettes describes a courtesy call from Dan Quayle, Bush 41’s understudy, to his newly installed GOP successor. Poor Quayle believes the new guy could use a consoling heads-up about the ceremonial horse hockey he’ll be facing: state funerals abroad, fund-raisers at home. And jet lag — has he mentioned jet lag?

After hearing him out (“Quayle felt as though he could not quite connect,” says Gellman dryly), Cheney replies that he has “a different understanding with the president.” Quayle’s next question speaks volumes about his own place on 41’s totem pole: “Well, did you get that directly from Bush?” Nonetheless, he gets the last word when he reminds Cheney that presidents can change their minds.

Insofar as POTUS has, it sure took him a while. Along with “Lancer” (JFK), “Rawhide” (Ronald Reagan) and the more malicious “Deacon” (Jimmy Carter, who else?), the fact that “Angler” was — is? — Cheney’s White House code name just goes to show the Secret Service can hold its own with most American poets. Only a player deeply versed in how the system worked could have warped it with this much ingenuity.

Nothing that gave him an edge was too piffling to escape his notice. Early on, he made sure that his chief of staff, future Plamegate fall guy Lewis “Scooter” Libby, got an extra title as assistant to the president. No mere perk, this guaranteed a Cheney satrap would be in the loop and able to pull rank in every West Wing staff debate. Bush’s people had no comparable access in the other direction.

Every bit as typically, when the new administration was wading through Bill Clinton’s last-minute flurry of legacy-protecting executive orders, only Cheney knew they wouldn’t have the force of law until they were published in the Federal Register. So he blandly told the Federal Printing Office to shut the presses down.

Just about the only facet of the Constitution for which Cheney was ever to show much regard was his healthy appreciation that nobody could fire him. Whatever his “different understanding” with Bush was, he quickly established himself as a master of UNODIR. Not, as you might guess, the CrackBerry version of “You know, dear”; that’s Army-speak for “unless otherwise directed,” the boilerplate enterprising subordinates use to leave it up to their superiors to endorse or veto actions they’re taking on their own initiative. Gellman explains that he picked up the term from another renowned practitioner, General David Petraeus.

On the domestic issues that mattered most to him — energy policy, environmental regulation, and taxes, all three anathema to his bulldozer free-market mind-set — he reduced his boss’s occasional populist impulses to muddled Bertie Woosterisms time and again. As might-have-beens go, it’s a bit poignant to see how often the relatively decent side of Bush — despite the term’s intellectual vagueness, which predictably exasperated Cheney, he wasn’t a total hypocrite in touting “compassionate conservatism,” after all — was what his Jeeves succeeded in crushing.

As indefatigable as Gellman is, one mystery he can’t plumb is what passed between the two men when they were alone in a room. (It may go without saying that his project had neither one’s blessing, though Cheney did give staffers limited permission to cooperate.) But plenty indicates that Bush himself never completely grasped just how far he’d empowered his veep. That’s because his notorious boredom with details played directly to his adjutant’s strengths. Once W. retires to Crawford, Angler could turn out to be the most fascinating book he’s read since The Pet Goat.

In case you’ve forgotten, that was the children’s story Bush was spellbound by in a Florida elementary school classroom when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. If not for Osama bin Laden, Cheney would likely have been remembered as nothing more than an unusually manipulative and influential vice president in tepid times.

Then the attacks transformed him into the unrepentant prime mover in the most drastic assault on Constitutional checks and balances in our history. He “shifted America’s course,” as Angler puts it, “more than any terrorist could have done.” It’s characteristic of Gellman’s nice way with a quietly devastating image that he opens the chapter he calls “Dark Side” with the prosaic information that until then, the vice president’s motorcade had stopped at traffic lights.

The reconstruction of Cheney’s behavior and actions on 9/11 itself makes riveting reading. Taking charge without a by-your-leave, he issued what could easily have been the day’s most fateful order — instructing the Air Force to shoot down United 93, which was known by then to have been hijacked. Nobody knew it had already crashed.

This was the right call, but he had no authority to give the command. Although he and Bush both later tried re-fiddling the chronology to squeeze in a prior thumbs-up from POTUS, Gellman doesn’t have much trouble establishing fairly conclusively that this was a face-saving lie. Left unexplored is the interesting possibility that Bush would have balked.

Even by Cheney’s energetic standards, it’s astonishing how quickly he switched from managing a crisis to seizing an opportunity. The Pentagon was still ablaze when he summoned his vice presidential counsel, the ultra-alarming David Addington, to the White House bunker to answer a vital question: “What extraordinary powers the president need in the coming war?” But like his onetime Ford Administration crony, now-departed defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he never seems to have had much interest in the justified one we launched in Afghanistan. Even today, it shows.

Instead, Iraq became his UNODIR focus, in part by process of elimination. He wanted to clobber a rogue nation to demonstrate that foreign states abet anti-American extremism at their peril. All the other candidates — Iran and North Korea, for two — were too risky.

It’s clear the various rationales put forward for invading — from WMDs to ending Saddam Hussein’s rule to the neocons’ pie-in-the-sky dream of transforming the Middle East into a happy Arab garden of docile pro-American democracies — were at best useful poppycock to Cheney. Aggressively misleading both the public and Congress to get what he wanted never cost him a minute’s sleep. Among the sadder cases of 20/20 hindsight here is a confession by former GOP House majority leader Dick Armey, no poster boy for nice-nellyism, that his old pal the vice president “bullshitted” him into not voting against the war. It’s something Armey now regrets: “I’d have done a better service to my country had I done so.”

For pure ugliness, an American vice president chairing regular White House meetings to decide what counts as torture speaks for itself. The specifics of what Cheney was willing to treat as collateral damage in the so-called Global War on Terror are as appalling as they come, from Abu Ghraib and Gitmo to the CIA’s “black sites” for suspected terrorists abroad. Not to mention shredding the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures as he sat all of ten miles upriver from George Washington’s tomb. But that shouldn’t blind us to the ominousness of the principle behind them.

Although even he has never spelled it out quite this bluntly, Cheney’s core understanding of government is simply that the presidency ought by rights to function as an elected dictatorship. In his view — his considered view, mind; a mere goon he isn’t — the executive branch’s prerogatives trump every law Congress passes, let alone any silly international agreements we’ve put our name to. Nothing the White House has deemed necessary, no matter how draconian or at odds with the sweet values we praise every Fourth of July, is subject to either legislative oversight or judicial review. Even Richard Nixon only started talking this way once he was a cornered rat, but this Dick is an absolutist without excuses.

He can also hardly be called a loose cannon. If anything, he was the ship. Libby and then Addington were his enforcers, handily outdoing Colin Powell (no easy task) and Condi Rice (piece of cake, I’m afraid) at high-stakes bureaucratic maneuvering that kept their qualms off Bush’s menu. During his stint as White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales got in some practice for his dismal later gig as the most toadying attorney general of modern times by playing the compliant stooge.

Meanwhile, the intellectual framework came courtesy of John Yoo, installed even before 9/11 in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Even inside Washington, few knew that OLC’s rulings couldn’t be challenged by any other federal agency. But Cheney always knew where to place people.

Yoo will probably rate his own bio one day. In fact, I’d recommend him to Alice Kaplan, since I’m an admirer of her book The Collaborator. According to Gellman, Yoo’s theoretical writings on presidential power went “well beyond the bounds of accepted scholarship” even in his days teaching law.

But once he got asked to justify warrantless surveillance and torture with the exciting result that people’s rights and human dignity would actually be violated, he really went to town. As even he conceded, his polysyllabic guesswork about the Constitution “differs, at times sharply, from the conventional academic wisdom.” You’d love to see him take a crack at the Sermon on the Mount.

At the same time, anyone prone to seeing the Bush Administration and/or conservatives as monolithically evil will likely be perplexed by how many non–bleeding hearts did their troubled best to stem the tide. A joke in liberal circles during his own service as attorney general, John Ashcroft appears in Angler as a moving and heroic figure. Hospitalized for a gall-bladder operation, he stars in the book’s most dramatic episode, which beats anything in Seven Days in May.

Eager to get the ailing Ashcroft’s signature on a finding that the White House’s latest circumvention of the rules is legal, Gonzales and Bush’s then chief of staff, Andrew Card — someone I’d previously supposed was a relatively decent human being — hotfoot it to his bedside. But Justice loyalists have also been alerted, including the deputy attorney general who refused to put his John Hancock on the document in his superior’s place. As the two camps glower at each other, their quarry proves he didn’t write “Let The Eagle Soar” for nothing, no matter what David Letterman thinks.

Here’s Gellman: “Ashcroft raised himself up stiffly. He glared at his visitors and said they had no business coming. He gave a lucid account of the reasons Justice had decided to withhold support. And then he went beyond that…. ‘You drew the circle so tight I couldn’t get the advice that I needed.’ ” All this more than makes up for his stuffiness in insisting that the bare-breasted statue of Justice in sight behind him at press conferences be decently cloaked. For whatever it’s worth, Card is on record as saying that the squeeze play “was among his greatest regrets.”

As Angler depicts it, it was also the high-water mark of Cheney’s bid to make his worldview not only policy but law. In Bush’s second term, he fell afoul of America’s most reliable unofficial vote: our sense of humor. “The Waterloo for Cheney’s pop culture image,” as Gellman says, came when he shot another hunter in the face a bit too soon after Katrina. Some time afterward, facing “a potentially threatening blood clot on his leg,” he was booed on his way to the hospital.

Gellman’s treatment of his complex subject is a big improvement in every way on his better-known Post colleague Bob Woodward’s Etch-a-Sketch dramatizations of recent history. In Washington circles, the main suspense generated by a new Woodward book is learning whose ring he’s decided to kiss this time — and who’s going to pay the price for refusing to open up to him. Faithfully reflecting the Beltway establishment’s latest meme, he’s about as disinterested an observer as Louella Parsons.

It’s not just that Gellman is more scrupulous and thoughtful. He’s also a better writer, equally gifted at giving us the drama of events and unstitching the larger issues lurking in the tapestry. In its unshowy way, his eye for the illuminating detail could teach more than a few novelists their job. When he notes that one likable former Princeton prof recruited to Cheney’s staff now pronounces “GWOT” — the acronym for “Global War on Terror” — as “gee-watt,” just like the pros, that’s all we need to get a quick picture of one more academic’s journey from the ivory tower to the Death Star. The portraits of Addington and Gonzales, in particular, are indelible.

Proving he’s got good sense, one group of usual suspects he doesn’t waste much time on are the neocons. Like most of their alliances, their ostensible rapport with Cheney was a marriage of convenience at best. It’s highly improbable they ever influenced him — and influence, of course, is what they live for. As they never tire of reminding us, they’ve got high-minded goals when they grind axes. But whether Cheney knows it or not, at one level he’s a pure Hegelian. He believes to his core that preserving the state’s mastery outweighs all other considerations, including not only the citizens’ lesser concerns but its own founding principles.

If he’d lived in another time, we’d recognize him instantly. He’s the Wyoming-raised resurrection of the brainy, wintry-souled ministers — Richelieu, say, or Bismarck — who took it on themselves to do the necessary under feckless kings, convinced that one thing nobody would ever call them was selfish. Like theirs, his sheer industry and wiliness command respect. The problem is that this is a deeply un-American idea of government.

Famously, when Bush first saw his No. 2 after their 2004 reelection, he settled for a manly handshake. “I know you’re not the hugging kind,” he said. Aside, perhaps, from his own family — something true of most viziers, by the way — Cheney has never given a single hint that he’s got any sentimental attachment to much of anything. But to a large extent, democracy’s health depends on how sentimental we feel about it.