In days, the calendar will turn to July, a month that will mark the eighth anniversary of the one decision that, it is only becoming more apparent, has defined the course of George W. Bush’s presidency—including the invasion of Iraq.
It was in July 2000 that Mr. Bush, then the Governor of Texas and the soon-to-be-nominated Republican presidential candidate, made his selection for a vice-presidential running-mate from two finalists: Dick Cheney and John Danforth.
History will record that the suspense was mainly manufactured and that the skids had been quietly greased both for and by Mr. Cheney by Mr. Cheney, whom Mr. Bush had tabbed earlier in the year to oversee the selection process. But at the time, Mr. Cheney’s selection was a public surprise, one eagerly greeted by a pundit class that hailed the former Defense Secretary for providing “gravitas” to a ticket led by the internationally virginal Mr. Bush.
It may be difficult, then, to grasp how vastly different the Bush administration and the world it has sought to reshape, might now be if Mr. Bush had instead opted for Mr. Danforth, a former three-term Senator from Missouri who ultimately served for five months in 2004 as Mr. Bush’s U.N. ambassador.
This week, The Washington Post is running an exhaustive, explosive and riveting account of Mr. Cheney’s time as Vice-President. Cynics have long labeled Mr. Cheney “the real President,” but the emerging portrait suggests that description isn’t far off.
Seizing on Mr. Bush’s willingness to delegate responsibility and the lessons he learned in the Ford and Bush (41) administrations, Mr. Cheney has secretively—and masterfully—manipulated the inner workings of the executive branch to his advantage, emerging as the dominant policy-maker in the White House, sometimes without even Mr. Bush knowing it. His fingerprints, it seems, can be found all over nearly every momentous—and generally unpopular—decision the administration has made.
Mr. Cheney, who began his career as a Congressional aide four decades ago, always wanted to be President, and when his run as Defense Secretary expired with the first Bush administration, he began taking steps to run in 1996. He eventually backed out of that race, because of his heart condition or concerns about attention on his daughter’s then-unrevealed sexual orientation (or both), seemingly ending his White House pursuit. But then Mr. Bush called in 2000, and Mr. Cheney found the next best thing: the behind-the-scenes power of the presidency without all of the public photo-ops. And he has exercised that power with almost no regard for public opinion, since from the start he ruled out even trying to succeed Mr. Bush someday.
Some claim that the lesson of this is that it’s necessary for a Vice-President to have designs on winning the White House on his (or her) own; that a Cheney who began preparing for a 2008 campaign on January 20, 2001 would have been far more measured and tactful in his approach.
But Mr. Danforth, who would have been 64 upon his swearing-in, epitomized tact and measure in his political career—and no doubt would have as Vice-President as well. And yet, like Mr. Cheney, he almost certainly wouldn’t have positioned himself for a future presidential bid. In picking between Messrs. Cheney and Danforth seven years ago, Mr. Bush was assured of choosing a partner whose energies would be directed entirely toward his own administration. The problem is that he chose the wrong partner.
In Mr. Danforth, Mr. Bush would have been turning to one of the most respected men to serve in the Senate, an ordained Episcopal minister known for his honesty, integrity, and gentle, thoughtful manner. More to the point, he would have been turning to a genuine political moderate, someone who disdains the personal combat that has come to define American politics and a faithful believer in clean and open government.
Despite his ministerial background, Mr. Danforth has never had use for the religious right of his party, believing it to be a profiteer of political division. “Republicans,” he said recently, “have turned our party into the political arm of conservative Christians.” He voted against abortion in the Senate, but never made it a litmus test in his dealings with others, stuck with his principled opposition to capital punishment even as his party embraced it, and was instrumental in the passage of the 1991 Civil Rights Act. And while he did sully his name a bit in pushing Clarence Thomas’s nomination through the Senate in 1991, he later professed to be “ashamed” of the pro-Thomas forces’ character assassination of Anita Hill.
It is noteworthy, too, that Mr. Danforth’s brief run Mr. Bush’s U.N. ambassador—from June to December 2004—marked a period of atypically cordial relations between the administration’s envoy and the global body. He devoted most of his work to Darfur, not Iraq.
Exactly what role a Vice-President Danforth might have played is anyone’s guess. But does anyone believe that he would have hijacked the White House and cunningly implemented his own agenda—on policy and personnel—the way Mr. Cheney has? Nor is there anything in his foreign policy record to suggest that Mr. Danforth would have methodically steered into the administration the “neocon” thinkers recruited by Mr. Cheney—the very people who had Mr. Bush’s ear in the wake of 9/11, beating their drums for a war with Iraq.
It is the fault of Mr. Bush that Mr. Cheney has spent seven years pushing the envelope with impunity. But since he was intent from the beginning on vesting his Vice President with unusual power, Mr. Bush could have done himself—and all of us—a favor and simply chosen John Danforth, and not Dick Cheney.