Dick Cheney’s Post Presidency

Former President George W. Bush recently mused with the press about scooping up his dog’s droppings. Meanwhile, former Vice President Dick Cheney has taken on the role of attack dog. Some conservatives have suggested that President Barack Obama somehow goaded Cheney into this role when he attacked the VP during the campaign.

Alas, it was no secret to anyone that much of what we call the “Bush administration” was really the “Cheney administration” beginning with Cheney’s choice of himself as VP. Cheney’s profile in the Bush administration was hardly that of the proverbial “warm bucket of spit.” Rather, as de jure vice president, Cheney acted as de facto president, sometimes behind the curtain, sometimes in front of it.

In his excellent book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, Barton Gellman wrote, “Cheney’s influence in the Bush administration is widely presumed but hard to illustrate. Many of the men and women who know him best said an explanation begins with the way he defined his role.” He continued:

Other recent vice presidents have enjoyed a standing invitation to join the president at "policy time." But Cheney’s interventions have also come in the president’s absence, at Cabinet and sub-Cabinet levels where his predecessors were seldom seen. He found pressure points and changed the course of events by "reaching down," a phrase that recurs often in interviews with current and former aides.

Mary Matalin, who was counselor to the vice president until 2003 and remains an informal adviser, described Cheney’s portfolio as "the iron issues"—a list that, as she defined it, comprises most of the core concerns of every recent president. Cheney took on "the economic issues, the security issues . . . the energy issues"—and the White House legislative agenda, Matalin said, because he became "the go-to guy on the Hill." Other close aides noted, as well, a major role for Cheney in nominations and appointments.

This was unprecedented. As Robert Kuttner has pointed out Cheney’s role actually created a kind of constitutional crisis:

“The administration’s grand strategy and its implementation are the work of Cheney—sometimes Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, sometimes Cheney and political director Karl Rove. Cheney has planted aides in major Cabinet departments, often over the objection of a Cabinet secretary, to make sure his policies are carried out. He sits in on the Senate Republican caucus, to stamp out any rebellions. Cheney loyalists from the Office of the Vice President dominate interagency planning meetings….The capture of the career civil service is pure Cheney. The disciplining of Congress is the work of Cheney and Rove. The turning over of energy policy to the oil companies is Cheney. The extreme secrecy is Cheney ….”

When Jimmy Carter gave voice to the global consensus terming George W. Bush “the worst president in history,” the outrage among administration supporters provided enough hot air to launch a battalion of F-16s. Dan Froomkin reported:

“Tradition calls for former presidents to avoid personal attacks on their successors—and for the White House to treat previous presidents with great respect. But with Carter’s hyperbole apparently having violated the rules of the game, the White House responded with fire. ‘I think it’s sad that President Carter’s reckless personal criticism is out there,’ White House spokesman Tony Fratto said yesterday in Crawford, where Bush was spending the weekend. ‘I think it’s unfortunate. And I think he is proving to be increasingly irrelevant with these kinds of comments.’”

James Gerstenzang wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Perhaps not since Herbert Hoover took issue with the blame heaped on him for the Great Depression by Franklin D. Roosevelt have two presidents or their spokesmen feuded quite so publicly—and angrily—as former President Carter and President Bush….The exchange broke the unwritten code of the presidential fraternity—that members treat each other gently…. the vehemence of the language was unusual… especially in contrast to the friendship that Bush’s father has developed with former President Clinton, who tossed him out of office after one term in the bitter 1992 campaign."

On the Today Show, Meredith Vieira asked the former president if he thought it was “appropriate to criticize the man sitting in the Oval Office, particularly during a time of war?” Carter eventually said that his remarks were “maybe careless or misinterpreted.”

Many were also shocked when Al Gore criticized the Bush administration. When his Assault on Reason hit the bookstores, ABC’s Jake Tapper called it “an assault on President Bush, 308 pages of professorially rendered, liberal red meat that shuns the cautious language employed by any politician standing to the right of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-OH, and the left of Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-CO.” This, by the way, is nonsense. Others mocked Gore for his alleged professorial showoffiness, quoting philosophers like Jürgen Habermas and Baruch Spinoza.

Yet Carter and Gore served up vegan fare compared to the red meat Cheney is spewing. And yet because his de facto presidency was never fully recognized or admitted by the media—many of whose members felt the need to prop up President Bush no less urgently than did the White House Communications staff—his unprecedented assault on a sitting president just weeks into his first term goes unrecognized for the breach of protocol it clearly is.

Jane Mayer recognized this during the Bush presidency, explaining in a New Yorker profile of his aide, David Addington, that “the media focuses relentless attention on the president, on the premise that he is actually the chief executive. But for all intents and purposes, Cheney is chief, and Bush is more in the ceremonial role of the queen of England.”

Even more shocking is the agenda beneath Cheney’s attacks. Jeffrey Toobin rightly points out, “Even worse than Cheney’s distortions was the political agenda behind them. The speech was, as politicians say, a marker—a warning to the new administration. “Just remember: it is a serious step to begin unravelling some of the very policies that have kept our people safe since 9/11,” Cheney said. “Seven and a half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned, much less criminalized. It is a record to be continued until the danger has passed.”

Even leaving aside all the unnecessary death, destruction, and waste in the wake of the Iraq War, fully 16 U.S. intelligence agencies reporting together in 2006 found that Bush’s misadventure in Iraq has "helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism," according to The New York Times, and that "the overall terrorist threat has grown since the September 11 attacks." A 150-page Government Accountability Office report issued in November found virtually every agency in Bush’s government woefully unprepared to "keep us safe."

The Department of Homeland Security, for example, "lacks not only a comprehensive strategy with overall goals and a timeline but also a dedicated management integration team to support its management integration efforts. It has failed to coordinate with other agencies such as FEMA, the Justice Department or the Agriculture Department to undertake the most fundamental survival tasks in the event of disaster."

Most outlandish, perhaps, has been the willingness of some in the media to embrace even Liz Cheney—the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (though often credited as “Dick Cheney’s daughter”)—for her alleged insight into America’s security dilemma. Steve Benen of Washington Monthly counted 12 separate television appearances for her in just 10 days.

It almost makes a liberal nostalgic for the antics of the Bush twins…. Almost!

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.

This column was recently named as a finalist in the category of “Best Commentary—Digital” for the Mirror Awards. The series of columns judged can be found here.