A voice from beyond the political grave, the voice of the now 5-years-former Vice President of the United States scrapes like a hacksaw on sheet metal across Washington and New York and everywhere the NY Times Sunday Magazine is read.
Dick Cheney’s voice is full of bitterness; and his bile has found the perfect duct in Times Chief Washington Correspondent Peter Baker.
Cheney uses his channel back to the news spotlight to try to even the score with the man who gave him more power than he (or any other Vice President) ever had, and – here’s what must be most unforgivable – came to regret it: President George W. Bush.
Of course, Baker is more than Cheney’s mouthpiece; he often sings harmony to the VP’s lead in portraying the former President. Consider the lead paragraph with which Baker begins his story.
“In the final days of his presidency, George W. Bush sat behind his desk in the Oval Office, chewing gum and staring into the distance as two White House lawyers briefed him on the possible last-minute pardon of Lewis Libby.”
“Chewing gum and staring into the distance?” The first picture presented of Mr. Bush seems selected to exemplify the stereotype of the under-brained, “tuned out” President that still dogs his reputation. Throughout this piece (which is adapted from Baker’s upcoming book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House) Bush is portrayed as a mental and moral molehill compared to Mt. Cheney (notwithstanding a few
half-hearted attempts Baker makes to moderate the image).
“Even in the early days, when a young, untested president relied on the advice of his seasoned No. 2,” Baker writes, “Cheney was hardly the puppeteer that critics imagined.”
Then Baker cites some witnesses who defend Bush. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff calls George W. “the alpha dog” of the White House, and Cheney’s “close friend,” former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, says, “[Cheney] never did anything in his time serving George W. that George W. didn’t either sanction or approve of.”
Isn’t that great? Boy, if ever a denial of dominance actually confirmed the charge: Simpson essentially says, everything Cheney proposed, Bush said OK.
Until he didn’t, until the second half of George W. Bush’s second term, when the President turned away from his Vice President as decisively and symbolically as he could, by firing Cheney’s one-time mentor, the man who had gotten him his first White House job, his virtual alter ego, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney told Baker directly, this was one decision about which he was informed, not consulted. “It wasn’t open for discussion by the time he came to me.”
And there were other changes. Cheney was replaced as “the last person in the room,” by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which Baker represents as more than a new direction for on policy, but a step down from competence to comfort.
Cheney told Baker, he and the President “were never quite friends.” Their relationship was all business. Whereas, Baker reports, “No one in the White House had the relationship with Bush that Rice had. She worked out with him, talked sports with him, dined with him and Laura in the residence and spent weekends with them at Camp David.”
Relying on Rice produced a lot of changes in policy and in the Bush Administration’s basic approach to the rest of the world. “We had broken a lot of china,” Rice told Baker, "and I don’t think that is how the vice president saw it. I think he would have liked to have kept breaking china.”
After 2006, Cheney’s unilateralism, both globally where Rice as in charge, and domestically where she wasn’t, was overtaken by diplomacy and negotiation. Secret CIA prisons were closed, and torture techniques like waterboarding were abandoned, and the rules for military tribunals and warrantless eavesdropping were modified. Baker says Cheney saw every one of these Bush decisions “as a sellout of the principles they once shared,” in other words, not just political adjustments, but moral failures.
This, after things had been going so well, Baker writes, when Bush and Cheney were a team. “Bush put him on the ticket in 2000 to balance his own inexperience. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the choice seemed prescient. Cheney’s calm hand in the bunker that day and in the war cabinet in the weeks that followed gave Bush confidence.”
Hmm, Barton Gellman’s picture of Cheney on 9/11 is of a man in a panic because, willfully ignorant of the intelligence on the limited resources of Al Qaeda, he assumed that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would soon, perhaps that very day, be followed by many more. This mis-overestimation was to resonate throughout the ginormous Global War on Terror.
But let’s go back to Baker’s theme of Cheney as Bush’s “confidence man (in a good way.)”
Baker asserts, after 9/11, Bush and Cheney together “confidently steered America through its most traumatic years since Vietnam.”
Yes, they sure did confidently and falsely accuse Saddam Houssein of plotting to attack America, and, equally falsely, of collaborating with Al Qaeda on the 9/11 attacks. Bush and Cheney confidently wasted billions of dollars and thousands of American (and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi) lives in an ill-planned war to save the country from Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Then, they confidently erected that multi-billion dollar boondoggle, the Department of Homeland Security, to ward off future terror attacks. (So far at least, it is the pre-existing counter-terrorist agencies that have done that.) And finally, their confident assessment that the US was in such imminent peril led them to authorize the NSA surveillance system which quickly broke its mandate to spy only on suspected foreign threats and not on American telephone, snail mail and email activities.
A pretense to strategic, tactical and moral superiority may have conferred confidence, but did their confidence make Bush and Cheney effective leaders of America? The historic record on their domestic and foreign policies suggests otherwise.
Cheney remains emphatically confident, Baker reports, that Bush’s decision against a pardon for the Vice President’s chief of staff and man of all errands, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was also a sign of moral inferiority.
Typically, Bush seems to have seen the case more simply.
“’Do you think he did it?’ Bush asked,” reports Baker of the President’s crucial consultation with White House lawyers on the Libby case.
“’Yeah,’ one of the lawyers said. ‘I think he did it.’”
Everyone agrees that Libby misinformed federal officials who were investigating the leaking to the news media of the identity of a covert C.I.A. officer, Valerie Plame, after her husband denounced the White House for twisting the evidence to make a case for invading Iraq. Even Libby admitted he gave investigators a bum steer on how and when and with whom he discussed Plame’s secret (and distinguished) career, but he did so only after 9 witnesses had told on him. He said it was just a lapse of memory.
Bush’s legal advisors would have none of it. Baker reports, “Fred Fielding, the White House counsel, and his deputy, William Burck, pored over trial transcripts and studied evidence that Libby’s lawyers had raised in his defense. Their conclusion was that the jury had ample reason to find Libby guilty.”
Bush had already seen to it that Libby, guilty or not, would never go to jail. He commuted his 2 and a half year sentence; but when it came to a pardon, he said no.
Why? Well for one thing, Baker points out, pardons are usually reserved for people who have served at least 5 years in prison and have repented their crimes. But when Fielding and Burke asked Libby if he was ready to repent, he blew them off, saying, according to Baker, “I am innocent. I did not do this.”
For President Bush, denying Scooter Libby a pardon was about process and the law. Baker reports, the President’s top political advisor Ed Gillespie told Cheney straight out, “The lawyers are not making the case for it. We’ll be asked, ‘Did the lawyers recommend it?’ And if the lawyers didn’t, it’s going to be hard to justify for the president.”
Baker says, “To Cheney, this was the final proof that Bush had lost his will. The president had been buffeted by critics for so long that he would not stand up for what was right.”
The Vice President, who always considered himself principled above politics, if not above democracy itself, spat out his famous moral judgment to the President: “You are leaving a good man wounded on the field of battle.”
“The comment stung,” Bush wrote in his memoirs. “In eight years, I had never seen Dick like this, or even close to this. I worried that the friendship we had built was about to be severely strained, at best.”
Of course, there was a strain on the other side, Bush’s moral judgment on why Libby had misspoken. Baker quotes the President: “I think he still thinks he was protecting Cheney.” the president said.
As with Alan Simpson’s denial that Cheney dominated Bush in their first term, 2 statements Baker offers in the Veep’s defense may cut deeper the other way.
First there is this from Cheney’s friend Bernie Seebaum: “The man did what he was expected to do, and then he got in trouble for it. Nobody came to his rescue.”
And this blast from Cheney himself in an interview with Baker: “’[Scooter Libby] came to serve. He worked for me before at the Pentagon. He had done yeoman duty for us.’ The conviction was a deep scar, Cheney said. ‘He has to live with that stigma for the rest of his life. That was wrong, and the president had it within his power to fix it, and he chose not to.’”
In his analysis offered to Baker, Cheney again asserts that Bush’s decision showed moral weakness: “I am sure it meant some criticism of him, but it was a huge disappointment for me.”
But wait a minute. Who, as Seebaum put it, “expected” Libby to out Valerie Plame? Who, in Cheney’s words, was Libby there “to serve?”
Bush says it: “I think he still thinks he was protecting Cheney.” And Baker does draw the obvious conclusion: “If that was the case, then Cheney was seeking forgiveness for the man who had sacrificed himself on his behalf.”
Who could have saved Scooter Libby from conviction, from the “stigma he would carry for the rest of his life,” as Cheney put it? Dick Cheney, of course. All he had to say, from the moment the investigators put Libby under oath was, “Hey, guys, you’ve got the wrong man. Libby works for me. And if you want to prosecute the Vice President of the United States for showing that sanctimonious son-of-bitch Joe Wilson, there a price to be paid for shooting off your mouth, bring it on!
“Did I say that? Or was it my other mouth at another time? Anyway, you get the idea, stop pickin’ on the small fry, and take this big fish on, if you dare.”
But this great promulgator and profiteer of warfare who never spent a day in the military, this vehement enthusiast for extreme interrogation who never lay down on a waterboard, this self-admiring, dress-up Darth Vader was not about to point a serious moral finger at himself. And he still isn’t.
No wonder, in the emotional image with which Baker chooses to end his Times piece, it is revealed that Bush’s Presidential Library contains almost no memorabilia of Cheney. Contempt can be a two-way street.
And in this case, retrospective bitterness by omission seems morally more gracious than bitterness noisily committed.