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Go Home Bravo, Dick

TRB MARCH 14, 2013

Bravo, Dick In a new documentary, Cheney gives a masterful performance

The World According To Dick Cheney, a documentary that airs March 15 on Showtime, includes so fine an acoustical solo performance by its subject that it could be titled Dick Cheney Unplugged. Listening to Cheney’s quiet, calm voice, Nicholas Lemann observed a dozen years ago in the New Yorker, was like

being hooked up to an intravenous line that delivers a powerful timed dosage of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. Everything felt kind of evened out, no highs, no lows. He wasn't going to be flaky or half-baked, he wasn't going to let his emotions distort his views, and he certainly wasn't going to be soft or naïve.

This Prozac Man—who had previously served his country as defense secretary, House minority whip, and White House chief of staff—managed, in 2000, to convince most journalists (though not Lemann) that despite his very conservative politics, he would act as a necessary steadying influence on the transparently impulsive, unreflective, and mentally lazy George W. Bush. That’s the Cheney you get in R.J. Cutler’s film, which premiered in January at Sundance.

Of course, nobody thinks anymore that Cheney was a steadying influence. It was Cheney who pressed hard to exclude al-Qaida prisoners from Geneva Convention protections; who said before the Iraq war that “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”; and who pressed for warrantless domestic surveillance and then brazenly lied to Bush about whether it had the support of Attorney General John Ashcroft while Ashcroft lay in the hospital with acute pancreatitis. Others did some of these things in the tense years following the 9/11 attacks, but only Cheney did all of them.

Only after the surveillance episode did Cheney finally start to lose Bush’s trust. By the end of his second term, even Bush was rolling his eyes when Cheney spoke (according to Bob Woodward, who appears in the film). When Cheney wouldn’t stop nagging Bush to issue a legal pardon to Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, for lying to federal investigators, the president literally stopped taking his phone calls (according to Thomas DeFrank of Newsweek and the Daily News, who also appears in the film).

His hard-won credibility shot and his vice-presidential record in tatters, you might think Cheney would today be spending his twilight years either raging noisily like King Lear or secluding himself quietly (and perhaps learning to paint) like George W. Bush. But if you thought that you wouldn’t know Cheney. Watching him in Cutler’s documentary you still want to believe that every word he says is true, because that soothing, reasoned, tell-it-to-you-straight affect never left him. His quiet voice and Gary Cooper cadences are what an actor would call his “instrument,” and he still plays it like a Stradivarius. He has plenty to be angry about, and you know the bitterness has to be in there somewhere. But as Cheney baits his rod in preparation to go fly-fishing with an interviewer (fly fishing! Whoever heard of an ideologue with the patience to go fly-fishing?), only a slight tremor in his hands—probably more physical than psychological (Cheney had a heart transplant last year)—gives you the slightest clue that he lacks perfect control.

Does Cheney say angry things? Of course. But he never sounds angry when he’s saying them! “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults,” he says with a smile. “If you want to be loved, then go and be a movie star,” he says a bit later. “It certainly moved us [i.e., him and Lynn Cheney] in a conservative direction,” he says calmly of the anti-Vietnam protests at the University of Wisconsin, where he studied political science. Vietnam and the protests against it are not topics that members of his generation typically find easy to speak calmly about. Regrettably, the interviewer doesn’t ask why, given his rightward drift (Cheney’s parents had been Democrats and till then he was apolitical) Cheney used every deferment available to avoid the Vietnam draft. “I had other priorities in the 60s than military service,” Cheney told the Washington Post’s George Wilson matter-of-factly in 1989, when he was secretary of defense, two years before he sent soldiers into battle during the Persian Gulf war.

Did Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, as top White House aides to Ford in 1975, plot successfully to dethrone enemy “moderates” Henry Kissinger (first as national security adviser, later as secretary of state); James Schlesinger (defense secretary); William Colby (CIA chief); Rogers Morton (commerce secretary); and Nelson Rockefeller (vice president, who didn’t leave but lost all his power and was not on Ford’s ticket the following year)? “Rockefeller believed I was the guy shooting down his proposals,” Cheney says, flashing his trademark half-grin, half-grimace, “which to some extent I was.” Jeez, SOMEBODY had to.

The closest Cheney comes to looking ticked off is when he’s asked about the waterboarding of terror suspects (which he doesn’t consider “torture”). “Tell me what terrorist attack is it that you would have let go forward because you didn’t want to be a mean and nasty fellow,” he says. “Are you gonna trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your honor?” Even this looks angrier on the page than it sounds as you watch Cheney say it. Never mind that no plausible example has ever emerged of a U.S. terror attack that was stopped using so-called “enhanced interrogation.” Never mind that there were alternative methods that would have worked better. Other people might find it annoying to be reminded they were wrong when they used Saddam’s supposed store of chemical and biological weapons as a pretext for war. (I try never to use the propaganda phrase, “weapons of mass destruction.”) Cheney simply shifts the argument (almost imperceptibly!) to “We didn’t find stockpiles. We did find that he had the capability and we believe that he had the intent.” Quit bothering me with pettifogging details, there’s a good fellow.

You watch The World According To Dick Cheney to appreciate Cheney’s virtuosity, not to learn shocking new revelations about his vice-presidency. But I did learn a couple of things just the same. I’d somehow missed when it was published in 2010 that Bush’s book Decision Points says of the Ashcroft-surveillance affair—which, before Bush agreed to modify the surveillance program (very much against Cheney’s recommendation) nearly led to several politically damaging high-profile resignations--“I never wanted to be blindsided like that again.” That comes tantalizingly close to Bush saying “That son-of-a-bitch Cheney lied to me.” The former president follows this up with the disavowal (unmentioned in Cutler’s film) that “I did not suspect bad intentions on anyone’s part.” But the obvious reference here to Cheney is unpersuasive, perhaps deliberately so (“And Brutus is an honorable man”). If Bush didn’t suspect bad intentions, why raise the possibility? Cheney bites back in the documentary by saying, “If you’re a man of principle, compromise is a bit of a dirty word.” That sounds self-effacing as he’s saying it. But in fact what Cheney is saying is I am a man of principle and George W. Bush is not. Yikes. No wonder they’re barely speaking to one another, even now.

The other thing I learned, I guess because I’d forgotten (it was documented in Barton Gellman’s superb 2008 book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency), was that Cheney conned then-House majority leader Dick Armey into supporting the Iraq war resolution by presenting him in a private meeting with cooked “evidence” that Saddam was on the verge of manufacturing suitcase nukes. Armey’s vote was important because, had he opposed the war, he would have given cover to Democrats (and probably some Republicans too) who were worried about appearing too dovish. “Did Dick Cheney ... purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue?" Armey told Gellman. "I seriously feel that may be the case.” Armey went on to say, “Had I known or believed then what I believe now, I would have publicly opposed [the war] resolution right to the bitter end, and I believe I might have stopped it from happening." This would have made for great footage in The World According To Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, Cutler couldn’t get Armey on camera (we have to assume he tried). Maybe after Angler came out Armey got a talking-to from Prozac Man.

While we’re on the subject of people whose presence is sorely missed, it’s a real shame Cutler didn’t get Harry Whittington on camera. Whittington is the guy Cheney accidently sprayed with birdshot—he’s still walking around with thirty pieces inside him—while hunting in South Texas in 2006. Some might say that interviewing Whittington, whose face bears vivid scars of Cheney’s carelessness, would have been a gratuitous swipe. After all, nobody thinks Cheney shot him on purpose. But this was a rare instance in which the mask slipped, publicly revealing Cheney to possess less-than-perfect control of his impulses—not to shoot Whittington, of course, but to shoot a quail that happened to be taking wing right in front of Whittington. Cheney, we didn’t learn until 2010, came very close to killing the man, an outcome that would have turned this into Cheney’s own personal Chappaquiddick. Luckily for both of them, Whittington did not die.

The episode also revealed a darker side to Cheney’s western-style taciturnity. In his own quiet Gary Cooper way, Cheney was kind of a prick about the accident afterward. He waited more than fourteen hours to disclose it, and when his host, Katharine Armstrong, finally put the word out, he let her suggest that Whittington had wandered carelessly in front of Cheney’s gun, a falsehood later repeated by Cheney’s own spokesperson. Cheney himself didn’t discuss the matter publicly for four days, and when he did, he did not apologize. Asked years later whether Cheney had ever apologized privately, Whittington (by all accounts a reserved and gracious man) declined comment, effectively acknowledging that Cheney had not.

The compensation viewers get for not seeing Armey or Whittington is that Cheney’s press-shy (and controversial) general counsel, David Addington, appears several times in the documentary, though he doesn’t say anything of interest. It falls mainly to journalists to set the record straight in The World According To Dick Cheney. My profession took its time to suss out Cheney’s true nature, but eventually we got it. The best summation—and the best explanation of why we got him wrong until his last act—comes from Gellman. Cheney, Gellman explains, is “a Venn diagram of one.” In and around our government there are people who are zealots, and there are people who are highly skilled at acquiring and maintaining power over decades. Ordinarily these are not the same people. But Cheney was, until a downfall that came very late, both. Even after the fall, he talks a remarkably good game.

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15 comments

'If you’re a man of principle, compromise is a bit of a dirty word.' In a democracy compromise is a clean word, a necessary word. Cheney would have made a good Bolshevik. He's one of the most evil men on the planet. And a yellow-belly to boot--too cowardly to go to the war that he was waving the flag for. The heart he got last year has been wasted. I'm sure it came from a decent person. Murderous sociopaths speak with the same modulation about everything. Cheney is a toad flicking flies out of the air with his tongue. Even somebody as clueless a G.W. Bush finally figured that out. Cheney is the kind of soulless creep that makes some people around the world hate Americans. Only the toad is not an American. He's an alien, a Pod Person from another planet. Even some Republicans are sickened by him.

- magboy47

March 14, 2013 at 3:31am

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Not being a Showtime subscriber, I will be able to ignore this event, much to my blood pressure's advantage. I did, however, endure his recent hour with Charlie Rose and found myself variously muttering or yelling expletive filled phrases at the screen as Cheney calmly kept to the lies, distortions, and prevarications about many of the topics apparently touched on the the Showtime program.

- spolnaszek

March 14, 2013 at 3:42am

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Cheney's views might have been extreme. But since Obama has embraced and extended most all of them, it's a tough case to make anymore. And of course Noah dare not even mention it in the column. It kind of buzz kills the whole hyperbolic 2007 vibe the press adored. You know, the endless coverage of Code Pink, the daily body count tally, the claims that Bush was going to join an oil company when he left office, the pleading that Yoo go to jail for war crimes. All the stuff that the media stopped reporting as soon as Obama took office, in spite of all of the practices continuing. Noah reveals just how intellectually malleable he can be by ignoring these inconvenient facts. Alternative methods? You might want to inform Panetta of those, since he believes enhanced interrogation gave results. And you might want to ask why both Clinton and Obama practice(d) rendition. Easy answer: It worked. We don't take people to a dark warehouse in another country to buy them coffee. Do we?

- seattleeng

March 14, 2013 at 4:39am

"All the stuff that the media stopped reporting as soon as Obama took office, in spite of all of the practices continuing." No, it all has been well reported. Remember the "kill list" story that was on the front page of the New York Times? That's just one example. I just don't know what you've not been reading. Endless coverage of Code Pink? Really? I guess when there's so little data to back up one's worldview, one has to fall back on hyperbole. Talk about ignoring inconvenient facts....

- dsimon

March 14, 2013 at 2:36pm

"All the stuff that the media stopped reporting as soon as Obama took office, in spite of all of the practices continuing." No, it all has been well reported. Remember the "kill list" story that was on the front page of the New York Times? That's just one example. I just don't know what you've not been reading. Endless coverage of Code Pink? Really? I guess when there's so little data to back up one's worldview, one has to fall back on hyperbole. Talk about ignoring inconvenient facts....

- dsimon

March 14, 2013 at 5:12pm

"All the stuff that the media stopped reporting as soon as Obama took office, in spite of all of the practices continuing." No, it all has been well reported. Remember the "kill list" story that was on the front page of the New York Times? That's just one example. I just don't know what you've not been reading. Endless coverage of Code Pink? Really? I guess when there's so little data to back up one's worldview, one has to fall back on hyperbole. Talk about ignoring inconvenient facts....

- dsimon

March 14, 2013 at 7:03pm

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In Cheney's case, once a Dick, always a dick.

- Claris

March 14, 2013 at 6:49am

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A Venn diagram of one? Maybe he means that, for Cheney, he is the only one, which helps explain avoidance of military service, allegations (by executives at Dresser Industries, which merged with Halliburton) of accounting improprieties while CEO of Halliburton, no personal responsibility for the fiasco in Iraq, and little if any remorse for shooting a hunting companion. The suggestion is that his bitterness derives from anti-war (Vietnam) protests while he was a student at Wisconsin. More likely is the bitterness he absorbed while working in the Nixon White House. As for fly fishing, it's the perfect anti-dote for Cheney's bitterness: nothing clears the mind quite like fly fishing, for it takes more than patience, it takes total concentration. Besides, fly fishing is a solo sport, so Cheney can focus entirely on himself and his task without having to be bothered by companions who might get in his way.

- rayward

March 14, 2013 at 7:22am

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The problem with chicken hawks (Cheney and so many of the neocons) isn't the absence of military service, but proving themselves by sending others into war, substituting the valor of soldiers for what they lack. That helps explain their animosity for somebody like Hagel; it has less to do with differing views on issues and more with the contrast between those whose actions evince courage and those whose actions evince nothing more than tough talk.

- rayward

March 14, 2013 at 7:47am

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A man of what principle? Chicken hawks stand for nothing but faux macho self aggrandizement. That said, Noah is absolutely right - Cheney is a master manipulator. He always reminds me of the snake in "Jungle Book." If I watched him too long, my eyes would glaze over and I'd be his mind slave. He loves that. The only thing that consistently snapped me out of it was how rude and obvious he is. It was his only flaw as a master manipulator and it was a fatal one. It speaks highly of George Bush (yes I said those words) that he finally iced Cheney - too little too late, but it did raise my respect in Bush. He was so obviously worked over, lied to and used by Cheney for so many years.

- WandreyCer

March 14, 2013 at 9:46am

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Timothy, I thought it was quite ironic in a bizarre yet humorous sort of way that you compared the performance of Cheney in this new documentary on Showtime to the legendary actor, Gary Cooper. Given his ineptitude when it comes to quail hunting, if Cheney starred in High Noon, he would have shot everyone else except the four bad hombres as he did when he wounded poor Harry Whittington. I served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam, and there was a wounded grunt who got speared, yes speared, with a cleaning rod by another grunt who didn't realize he had a round in the chamber when he was cleaning his M-16 rifle. So although it would be easy for me to label Cheney as the classic chick hawk of the Vietnam era, I think he did his country a public service by dodging the draft. Cheney reminds of that hapless grunt who shot his comrade-in-arms with a cleaning rod. And let's be honest, among the prominent baby boomer politicians, he was in good company with Bill Clinton, who I voted for, and also Vice President Joe Biden, who I also voted for and recently read got several deferments during the Vietnam War. Of course, the real tragedy which will always be hanging around Cheney's neck like that albatross in The Ancient Mariner is that Cheney dodged the draft as a young man only to commit his country as an older man once again to a foreign policy debacle, the Iraq War, that eerily reminds me of the Vietnam War.

- rewiredhogdog

March 14, 2013 at 10:15am

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A telling article in Politico today has Obama defending his use of drones, saying that he would have objected to them if he were a senator, but that his viewpoint changed once in office. In other words, when confronted with the same information, Obama and Cheney have responded similarly. ////Rayward, why do you feel Obama isn't craving valor? You have also ignored that much of what Bush implemented Obama continued. You have much criticism for Bush, but nary a peep for Obama. Why?

- seattleeng

March 14, 2013 at 1:18pm

Actually, with regard to the use of drones and killing American citizens, I have commented many times that the issue is whether we are at war, and if we are, who is the enemy; because, if we are at war, we kill the bastards any way we can, whether the enemy are citizens of the US or citizens of Mars. McCain and Graham say we are at war, and if the Congress were polled, a significant majority would say we are at war. Are we at war? No politician, including Obama, will deny we are at war, because if we are attacked again, it would be political suicide. We deserve drones, and the politicians that would deploy them

- rayward

March 14, 2013 at 4:29pm

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SHOW 1 RESPONSE

REWIREDHOGDOG, I knew that Clinton dodged the draft. It's news to me that Biden did. But they're different on that matter from Cheney. Unlike the latter, they didn't vocally support the war and then chicken out. I was in the Air Force in 1963, just as the Viet Nam War was cooking up. There was a notice on our squadron bulletin board asking for volunteers to deploy to Viet Nam. I didn't sign up, because I didn't see the War as having anything to do with America's self-defense. But if I had been going around my squadron cheer-leading for the War and then refused to sign up for it, I would have been like Cheney--a Chicken Hawk--pwuck, pwuck!

- magboy47

March 14, 2013 at 5:24pm

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Cheney's impact is tangible. Had we not engaged in an unjustified preemptive strike in Iraq, the use of Drones for the same purpose might have seemed like a deviation from the past. In regard to Cheney's persona, I refer to Al Franken's deep gravelly voiced impersonation of Cheney: "I, uh, I have, uhhhhh, I have my head up my ass."

- Nusholtz

March 14, 2013 at 9:13pm

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PHOTO BY Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images Entertainment

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