In politics, there is no such thing as a moral victory. Vice President Dick Cheney believes that to be the truth about power. Most of those people who go up against him do not. Thus, he has usually come out on top and left his opponents bloodied and bitter, or dangling at the end of a rope. That’s the hard lesson this reviewer took away from Barton Gellman’s excellent book, “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.”
Mr. Gellman, a Washington hand is terse, secretive and often expressionless in a way that unnerves people. Many type-A males confess to Mr. Gellman that they have to struggle to keep their wits about them in the vice president’s presence.
The same can rarely be said of Mr. Cheney, in any situation. When the attacks began on September 11, he was in the United States out of his office” to safety.
In the bunker, the live World Trade Center collapsing. As this happened, Mr. Cheney’s chin was “resting on interlaced fingers” as he took it in. There was a collective gasp in the room but he “said nothing. He made no sound.” In fact, “He did not move in his seat.” One witness said that “whatever change there was in his demeanor was inside.”
The author documents that change. First, the vice president gave orders to shoot down any unidentified planes headed to Washington - orders that likely came without first consulting National Security Agency, and to push the boundaries of executive authority and of what we mean by “torture.”
Those initiatives were closely guarded secrets for some time but their eventual disclosure can’t have come as any great shock to those who listened to what the vice president was saying publicly very early on. On “Meet the Press,” Mr. Cheney announced to the whole world that the U.S. government would be working “through… the dark side, if you will… in the shadows in the intelligence world,” and would “use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objectives.”
Coming from most vice presidents, such threats could be laughed off. During the administration of Vice President Dan Quayle for trying to take the lead during an international crisis. But by the time of the attacks, Mr. Cheney had already shown he wasn’t just any vice president.
Many of the last-minute regulations that President Clinton rammed through were stopped by one phone call by Mr. Cheney. He told the government printers to stop the presses, knowing that regulations don’t acquire the force of law until they are published.
During the 2000 Florida recount debacle, most Republicans were busy trying to keep the state in the R column. Mr. Cheney instead led the new administration’s transition team, recruiting not only Mr. Bush’s cabinet but important bureaucratic appointments two or three or four layers down. He also managed to get several of his own aides a second title of “assistant to the president,” putting them on par with Mr. Bush’s closest advisers.
So, whenever Mr. Cheney decided to act on something - from environmental regulation to tax policy to Iraq - he had unparalleled access to the president, many potential allies to choose from, and an intuitive sense of how to crank up that bureaucratic machinery.
Again and again, Mr. Gellman shows how, through guile and sheer stubborn resolve, the vice president moved the country. When John McCain threatens to open new fronts in the war on terror or the Republican throngs chant “Drill, baby, drill!” Mr. Cheney may keep up that poker face gamely. But one suspects he’s smiling on the inside.
Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.”
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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