Bravo, Dick

In a new documentary, Cheney gives a masterful performance

by Timothy Noah | March 14, 2013

photo credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images Entertainment

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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