CHENEY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S MOST POWERFUL AND CONTROVERSIAL VICE PRESIDENT
By Stephen F. Hayes
HarperCollins, 578 pages, $27.95
“Untold story” is right. Weekly Standard senior writer Stephen Hayes prefaces this doorstop biography of America’s slant-mouthed branch-of-government-unto-himself with an admiring note on the breadth of his own research: “I conducted more than six hundred interviews,” including many with the subject himself; all this Cheney talk consumed “hundreds of hours of audiotape” and includes “numerous interviews with Cheney’s notoriously tight-lipped staff.” Yet for all the author’s heroic mike-pointing, he delivers at best a two-dimensional portrait of a genuinely complicated statesman.
On the face of things, the vice president presents some powerful contradictions: an accomplished deal maker in Congress turned into a remarkably bellicose foreign policy strategist; a former Cold War realist morphed into a neoconservative preemptive warrior; a onetime small-government budget hawk helping to bring about the largest expansion of discretionary federal spending since L.B.J. To do justice to these and other paradoxes, one would have to take a long hard look at Mr. Cheney’s character—but that’s not on Mr. Hayes’ agenda. He’s too busy trying to persuade his readers that the vice president is a tragically misunderstood figure.
A son of the Wyoming plains, Dick Cheney is driven, in Mr. Hayes’ telling, by fundamentally simple notions of government and rugged frontier values. During his early stint as a functionary in Richard Nixon’s White House, he learned to distrust the bureaucratic sprawl of Washington and savor “the wisdom of individualism and self-reliance, the cardinal virtues of his home state.” He’s the sort of plain-spoken rough-hewn character who commands obedience “less by his skills as a negotiator than by the mere weight of his presence,” Mr. Hayes marvels. Senators scurry to consensus before his encroaching steely gaze like so many flighty field mice: “The vice president is coming, they thought; we’d better get it done.”
Mr. Hayes’ monochromatic hagiography is noteworthy mostly for what it omits. Astoundingly, his account of the White House’s internal disputes about Iraq intelligence includes no mention of the Office of Special Plans, the Pentagon group that operated, many believe, under the careful choreography of Mr. Cheney’s now-convicted chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. This was the group that did its ill-informed best to undermine C.I.A. and other intelligence reports showing precious little indication that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of any WMD breakthrough, and no indication that Saddam was lending aid and comfort to al Qaeda.
And what about the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a horror that found much legal justification in the odd extracurricular labors of Mr. Cheney’s counsel, David Addington? That sorry episode rates only one hurried page, and presents the author with the opportunity to transcribe—admiringly—a long series of quotes from Mr. Cheney rationalizing America’s neglect of the Geneva Conventions in the war on terror.
There’s nothing whatsoever on the heavy activist hand that Mr. Cheney has taken in securing favorable policy outcomes for his oil-industry cronies in places as far from the vice president’s traditional purview as the Department of the Interior. But there is a labored version of the Libby-abetted outing of Valerie Plame, an account that hinges on issues like the veracity of Joe Wilson at the expense of bigger questions, such as why the Bush administration was erecting a case for war out of made-to-order lies.
We’re treated to lavish descriptions of the plush accessories on Air Force Two, and repeated appreciations of Mr. Cheney’s casual wardrobe (on one flight he sports “a tan suede jacket, blue jeans and cowboy boots”; on another, “a lightweight black U.S. Army jacket, a blue button-down shirt, gray flannels, and brown hiking boots”). He’s a granite-faced man in folksy garb—even the obliging Mr. Hayes is forced to concede that this is a leader whose “precise views remain something of a mystery.”
Oh, well. As we sink into the twilight of the Bush years, it’s no doubt comforting for true believers such as Stephen Hayes to treat the unacknowledged Maximum Leader as something of a mannequin. But really—talk about cherry-picking.
Chris Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly and a frequent contributor to The Observer.