When George W. Bush wrapped up the presidential nomination in 2000, he asked Dick Cheney to manage the search for a running mate. Cheney asked several candidates to give him an enormous amount of financial, medical, personal data and history.
But then there was a “Courtship of Miles Standish” moment, and Bush said, in effect, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, Dick?” He did, and became the most influential vice president in history.
In his meticulously researched, highly readable new biography, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, Barton Gellman tells the story of a man who has left a powerful imprint on American government.
There is plenty of drama throughout. For example, on Sept. 11, 2001, Cheney stepped into the chain of command and ordered an airliner to be shot down if it continued toward Washington. He said he had been in touch with Bush, who gave him authority. Gellman’s reporting suggests that that is not true.
(Interestingly, in 1989, Vice President Dan Quayle sought access to the chain of command when the president was out of town, and Secretary of Defense Cheney told him that was not “lawful.”)
Cheney’s influence was in part due to Bush’s lack of interest in some executive responsibilities. And Bush respected Cheney’s CV – chief of staff for Gerald Ford, member of George H.W. Bush’s cabinet, Republican whip in the House of Representatives, chief executive of a large corporation.
One of George W. Bush’s first acts as president was to create a budget review board with Cheney as its chair. Cabinet members did not go over his head.
Cheney even killed some things favored by Bush. For instance, in 2000 Bush campaigned saying he would take steps to fight global warming; he promised to require all power plants to meet clean air standards. He selected former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, a moderate Republican, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But Cheney got the president to reverse himself and Whitman resigned.
Cheney also took on members of the cabinet. He liked to point out that he was a constitutional officer and the president couldn’t fire him. Several of his antagonists were disposed of (including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, and Attorney General John Ashcroft), even as Cheney worked hard to keep Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the job.
Like Cheney, Rumsfeld was a hawk on the war. And Cheney probably did more to shape the handling of post- 9/11 detainees and related policies such as secret surveillances. He pushed that envelope too far, Gellman says, and Bush for once refused to something dear to Cheney, after Attorney General Ashcroft and about a dozen Justice Department lawyers and the head of the FBI threatened to resign if the president didn’t agree to their interpretation of the law instead of Cheney’s.
The vice president was not just a force in the executive branch. He was in charge of the selection committee for two new Supreme Court justices and held hours-long interviews with candidates. Although Cheney is not a lawyer, a committee member notes his “strong understanding of jurisprudence.”
Cheney was at home in the legislative branch. He is the only vice president who ever had an office in the House of Representatives while vice president.
But Cheney has suffered from image problems throughout his vice presidency. By last year, he had become the “least-liked” vice president “in the history of modern polling,” writes Gellman, due to what the public perceived as “dark and all-too-clever scheming.”
But if Gellman is comfortable tackling Cheney’s dark side, “Angler” (the title comes from the Secret Service code name for Cheney) ultimately portrays a man primarily motivated by love of country.
“Cheney served his country with devotion, at some cost to himself,” Gellman writes. “The stresses of the job did not improve his health.... He relinquished millions of dollars and income foregone. The author found no evidence of self-dealing behavior in office, involving Halliburton or anything else. There were times when Cheney stretched the truth, times he may have snapped it clean in half, but he was fundamentally honest about his objectives. Cheney believed that the country was in mortal danger and that he knew better than others how to avert it.”