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The Imperial Vice Presidency

Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency
By Barton Gellman
(Penguin Press, 384 pp., $27.95)

As Americans prepare to choose a new president, it may seem a curious exercise to rehearse the manifest failures of the current one. But either Barack Obama or John McCain is going to be stuck with the burdensome legacy of the Bush years, and the rest of us will be too--possibly for a long time. The war in Iraq is still with us. So are Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. The Wall Street cataclysm will ramify, locally and globally, for many months, perhaps years. An overwhelming majority of the public--an unprecedented 90 percent or more, according to some polls--thinks that the country is "on the wrong track."

But righting the country is something that no new president can plausibly hope to do. Too much lies outside the scope of the most powerful office in the world, all the promises and visions of the campaign notwithstanding. The truth is that even the most commanding modern presidents have often found themselves not actors but reactors, forced to respond and adapt to unexpected events over which they exert little or no control. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan succeeded, in large part, because they reacted well--in Roosevelt's case, to the approaching crisis of world war; in Reagan's, to the impending demise of the Soviet Union. In contrast, Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush were undone by their insistence on doing too much, getting bogged down in distant wars they had no clear plan how to win and at the same time foundering amid the sudden upsurge of domestic emergencies (racial strife, in Johnson's case; Hurricane Katrina and then the Wall Street implosion, in Bush's). Increasingly in the Bush years, the presidency has looked like an endless and often futile exercise in crisis management.

Yet none of this history has dislodged our national faith in presidential deliverance. After two years of campaign hucksterism, we still remain in thrall to the ideal of the "right man" who might transform failure into success, sorrow into gladness. The reasons for this are as much cultural as political. The presidency is the American institution that personifies our hopes and our beliefs--it lends itself structurally, and in hard times especially, to the illusion of a savior. The great irony is that our Constitution, and the form of government that it established, was founded on the wholly opposite principle. The Framers envisioned the head of state not as a demiurge but as an administrator--an executive, though not on the "business model." The very term "president" implies a custodial office, its purview limited to a single branch of government, in many ways weaker than the other two and rather easily checked by them. The members of the Supreme Court, with their guarantee of lifetime tenure, can limit and even overturn presidential initiatives. And the members of Congress are not only invested with the ability to make the nation's laws, but also answerable less to the president than to a narrow locality of constituents.

Even what appears to be the foundation of presidential authority--the nationwide vote that puts him in office--translates into distinctly little, especially given the rigors and the degradations of the long modern campaign, which during the primaries obliges the candidates to make promises and appeals that are routinely canceled in the general election. The result is that by the time the winner, or survivor, staggers to the finish line, he has no clear mandate. Bill Clinton discovered this in 1992. So did George W. Bush in 2004, when, having at least clinched a majority of the vote, he exulted in his newfound surplus of "political capital," only to see it evaporate when his two big initiatives--the privatization of Social Security and immigration reform--were repudiated by the public. The "imperial presidency" is in significant ways a myth, and often just an expression of partisanship: no party ever complained that its own president was imperial.

And there is still another impediment to the flexing of executive muscle: the executive branch itself. This intricate web of departments and agencies, massively staffed, is technically controlled by the president, but often seems to control him, whether through Cabinet brawls of clashing egos or interagency turf wars--a specialty in the Bush years, particularly during the first-term prelude to Iraq, when ideological differences pitted Donald Rumsfeld and his hawks at Defense against Colin Powell's diplomats at State, with Condoleezza Rice, in her small redoubt at the National Security Council, squeezed out altogether. It says much about this presidency that in some of the most revealing accounts of the Bush years--I am thinking especially of the books by Jack Goldsmith, Eric Lichtblau, and Jane Mayer, though not by Bob Woodward--Bush himself scarcely figures at all. He has been, for much of his presidency, less the "decider" than the remote presider, uninvolved in and at times even unaware of the skirmishes being waged in the recesses of his administration, in the Office of Legal Counsel, the Pentagon's Working Group on Detainee Interrogations, and the U.S. Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps. And for most of the past year he seems to have abdicated altogether, leaving it to generals and Cabinet officers to dictate national policy on the most vital questions of security and the economy.

Many of the conflicts that beset Bush's administration have occurred at an "operational" level, at which the president is not expected to meddle, and normally does not do so. This would not be a problem except that Bush's presidency, like Nixon's and Reagan's--the two it most resembles--adopted the insurgency model, and so teetered almost continually on the brink of illegality, sometimes tipping over. Scandal has seldom plagued mainstream Republican administrations--Eisenhower, Ford, George H.W. Bush--that have developed policies meant to steer the nation toward conservative ends; but "movement" presidencies, premised on ideological opposition to government itself, often begin or end by declaring war on the "managerial elite" or "new class" of policy intellectuals who staff the executive branch's own agencies.

This is the mentality that time and again has led Republican presidencies into disaster, from Watergate through Iran-Contra and the multiple offenses of the two Bush terms. As it happens, Dick Cheney has borne unique witness to all those calamitous events. And it is not surprising that he would have created something wholly new in American government: the imperial vice presidency.

In Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, Barton Gellman limits himself to the Bush years, an ample enough subject. Much of what Gellman reports we already know, since it was published to great acclaim in The Washington Post, where he works. The newspaper also published an excerpt from the book's climactic chapters, which relate how in 2004 several top-ranking Justice Department officials--including Attorney General John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller, the FBI director--nearly resigned in protest over the administration's "special surveillance program," the illegal electronic eavesdropping campaign hatched by Cheney and his lieutenant David Addington. Yet Gellman's narrative deserves to be read in full, in all its dismaying detail. It is a triumph of reporting on a figure who, in a public life that reaches back some forty years, has demonstrated unparalleled skills at remaining unknown and unknowable.

Gellman seems grateful that Cheney, though he declined to be interviewed, "allow[ed] his office to cooperate" at all: "There were many subjects and people held off-limits--I was on my own to find sources on national security, intelligence, legal issues, and Cheney's relationship with George Bush--but on domestic policy the vice president's office encouraged former staff members to grant interviews." Cheney was not always so reclusive. He once gave a candid interview to Nicholas Lemann, who wrote a prescient profile of Cheney at the outset of the Bush presidency. And in the prelude to the Iraq invasion, Cheney was the voice of the administration's case for war. He also cooperated with Stephen F. Hayes, a writer at The Weekly Standard, on a biography that includes useful detail but is an inside job, the Elks Club version, its subject smoothed of all ambiguity and cleansed of all culpability.

Gellman's book may well be the fullest account we will ever get of its subject. Cheney's papers have been sealed and will remain inaccessible for many years to come, provided that he does not have them shredded or burned, which is altogether possible. It seems equally unlikely that Cheney will write an apologia or a finger-pointing memoir--testament to his discipline, and also to his oddly touching quality of genuine self-negation. These attributes have made Cheney, seen so long as "the ultimate staffer," one of the most remarkable figures in modern political history and--in the Machiavellian sense--one of the most accomplished. He is an all-around master of the arts of power. His unique force as Bush's "deputy president" is hardly a secret, but still the mind reels at Gellman's summation: "Cheney reshaped national security law, expanded the prerogatives of the executive branch, midwifed the birth of domestic espionage, rewrote the president's tax bill, shifted the course of a river out west, shut down negotiations with North Korea, and had a major role in bringing war to Iraq."

Gellman explains how it happened, step by step, machination by machination, all of it unfolding with the logic of a one-man conspiracy. There was Cheney's initial vetting, as head of the vice presidential search team, of his rival contenders (he made everyone fill out disclosure forms so complete that each effectively spilled his darkest secrets, while he himself submitted no documentation to speak of); his careful pruning of Bush's own circle of pre-election friends from important White House posts; the system through which memos and e-mails on every pressing matter were routed via blind copies to the vice president's office. In debate he was matchless--as anyone remembers who watched him dismantle Joseph Lieberman in 2000 and John Edwards in 2004. Behind the scenes he was more impressive still. No decision was too large for his attention, no detail too small. "Vice presidents traditionally joined the president at 'policy time,' if the president so desired," Gellman writes. "Cheney intended to get involved sooner, long before the moment of decision. By 'reaching down,' a term that recurs often with his aides, Cheney set himself up to shift the course of events while deferring to Bush's prerogatives at the top. Cheney would exert a quiet dominance over meetings in which advisers framed their goals, narrowed options, and decided when--or whether--to bring them to the president. Cheney's presence unavoidably changed the tone, and often the outcome."


He sought neither credit nor reward, and had no prospect of becoming president himself. What, then, were his ambitions? This is not precisely clear. He certainly possessed a clear and deeply held view of America's dominant position in the world, and also of its vulnerabilities. Cheney also nursed a commitment to what Gellman calls a "presidentialist" politics, which demanded that the totality of significant policymaking be centered in the White House, with only a handful of reliable agencies occasionally drawn in. Unreliable agencies--that is to say, those deemed ideologically unsound, whether because tainted by liberalism or too accommodating to "the other side"--would be undermined or even destroyed. Cheney witnessed this approach in Nixon's first term when, under his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, he helped to administer--that is, neutralize--the Office of Economic Opportunity. Nixon hated the agency. Rumsfeld did, too. This made Cheney the ideal man to run it out of business. It was a small-scale insurgency, a test case for more ambitious ones.

Cheney wisely turned down a job on Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972. Nixon won by the most decisive landslide in history, but within a year he was ruined by Watergate. When Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon, Cheney, at the age of thirty-four, became White House chief of staff, one of several caretakers of a damaged office trampled under by the "Watergate Congress" elected in 1974. That was why Ford convened his staff and urged them "not to lose heart," Hayes writes in Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President. Hayes adds: "The message, for a relatively conservative politician, was somewhat ironic. Ford told his staff that the political fortunes of the GOP--even then a party that sought to constrain government by noting its many failures--would be enhanced only by restoring confidence in the federal government."

But it was ironic only to those who believed that a discredited government was a good thing. Cheney, who had been working on a doctorate in political science at the University of Wisconsin, was not yet a full-fledged insurgent. As Lemann has observed:

"During Cheney's career, the Republican Party became more rhetorically opposed to the idea of government. Cheney, the civil servant's son, never espoused that notion--he did not make scornful references to 'bureaucrats'--and his party's hostility to government, rather than marginalizing him, only made him more valuable. When Republicans win, no matter how negative their attitude toward the government, they still have to run it; Cheney, who has worked at the highest level in the White House, in Congress, and in federal agencies, and knows how to get just about anything in Washington done, is a valuable resource for a party whose talent pool is thin on people who have mastered Washington operations. 'He loves--loves--government,' [former Wyoming Senator] Alan Simpson says. 'Policy. Administration. Big-time administrator. Big-time make-things-work guy.'"

Through it all Watergate remained central to the emerging doctrine of both the right and the left and indeed shaped their emerging views of presidential power. For conservatives, the lesson was political. Nixon, a popular president who had been winning a war begun by Democrats but now disowned by them, was ripe for punishment by the "elites" at The Washington Post and by congressional Democrats; and the "third-rate burglary" provided a convenient pretext. Liberals interpreted the event legally. Nixon, the most egregious of the imperial presidents--his excesses inspired Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s book on the subject--had criminally violated his oath of office and jeopardized the Constitution. The truth, perhaps, was an amalgam of the two. Watergate began with Nixon's authentic crimes, but its aftermath unfolded in an incontrovertibly political context. Alexander Bickel, in an influential analysis published in Commentary in 1974, acknowledged that conservatives fairly objected that the case had resulted in "accountability by crisis, accountability by trauma, accountability tending to shade into retribution." But he added that conservatives should also be alarmed at what the event signaled more broadly: "Watergate is evidence of a weakened capacity of our legal order to serve as a self-executing safeguard against this sort of abuse of power."

This failure of the "self-executing safeguard" re-surfaced under Reagan and then again under George W. Bush. And on both occasions, Cheney would be at the center of the controversies. In 1987, as a congressman on the joint House and Senate committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal, Cheney helped direct the minority that drafted its own dissenting report. It extolled Oliver North ("the most effective and impressive witness this committee has heard") and supported Reagan's prerogative, as the formulator of the nation's foreign policy, to override congressional sanctions against assisting the Nicaraguan Contras. This was at odds with classic conservative doctrine, which had always sought to limit presidential power. But it was essential to "movement" orthodoxy, with its revanchist belief that liberal ideas were dangerous and must be contested on every front, even if it meant traducing legal distinctions so important to an elitist like Alexander Bickel.

In any case, ideological differences had ceased to be conflicts over ends and had become instead a struggle over means. In the age of divided government, Republican presidents, repeatedly stymied by congressional liberals, chose to govern through a kind of top-down subversion. This is the thinking that resulted in the evolving theory of the "unitary executive," which originated in the Reagan years as an argument against congressional interference with agencies in the executive branch but after September 11 was transformed into a doctrine of limitless presidential authority. Only the president could protect the nation from further terrorist attacks and so should be allowed, free of oversight, to devise the most efficient strategies. The infamous memos by John Yoo authorizing torture "declared in the most expansive terms that the commander in chief need take no account of restrictions set by the coequal legislative and judicial branches," Gellman writes.

Bush went along with it all--as he went along with so much of what Cheney urged in those first months. This is dismaying but understandable. In his essay in 1856 on Sir Robert Peel, Walter Bagehot identified the essential dynamic of the Bush-Cheney partnership after September 11. The untested political administrator, Bagehot wrote, is predisposed to take direction from his elders: "Especially he does so on matters of real concern to him, on those on which he knows he must act ... he scarcely considers for himself; he acknowledges the apparent authority of dignified experience. He is, he remembers, but the junior partner in the firm; it does not occur to him to doubt that those were right who were occupied in its management years before him." Bush's experience was exceedingly slight when he took office. In foreign policy it was nonexistent. But Cheney had been, among other things, the secretary of defense during the first Gulf war, directing the war with Bush's father, giving orders to Colin Powell. In alliance with Rumsfeld, his friend of many years, he seemed the ideal adviser to a president facing a new menace from the Islamic world. It made sense that Bush, despite his place at the top of the ticket, should accept the role of "the junior partner in the firm," deferring in key matters to the seasoned and unflappable Cheney even as Cheney quietly urged extreme courses of action.

Of course he was wrong much of the time. He was convinced the anthrax scare that followed September 11 was the work of terrorists; he insisted on a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, when none could be established; he plunged into mountains of intelligence data without seeing clearly what was there and what was not. It was he who on the same day forced Paul O'Neill, Bush's first secretary of the Treasury, to resign, after O'Neill challenged Bush's second round of tax cuts, and forced out the economist Lawrence Lindsey, when Lindsey estimated that the Iraq war might cost as much as $200 billion. And it was Cheney who devised the pointless vendetta against Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame, one of the more sordid episodes of the Bush years, which resulted in Cheney's closest and most loyal adviser going to jail. "If [Scooter] Libby had told the truth, he would have led investigators directly to his boss," Gellman writes. "Cheney was his source on Plame, Cheney directed him to speak to reporters.... None of that constituted a crime, but Libby had every reason to fear its disclosure would be--as indeed it became--immensely harmful politically. Nor is it out of the question that Libby had evidence that would expose the vice president to a criminal charge."

All this happened in the second Bush term, when Cheney's influence over Bush began to wane, first as the war bogged down and then when the Democrats won control of Congress in 2006. This last humiliation prompted Bush, despite Cheney's objections, to fire Rumsfeld on the day after the election, for his disastrous mishandling of the Iraq war. (Many Republicans had pleaded for him to be dismissed sooner, when it might have saved a House seat or two.) Other Cheney allies were let go, too: Wolfowitz, Bolton, Feith. But throughout Cheney never wavered. "His indifference to public opinion, an important constraint on most office holders, verged on contempt," Gellman remarks. "He spoke most openly in disdain of the news media and self-appointed elites, but he had a way of saying 'polls' ... that made the word sound dirty." He was "the nearest thing there was to an anti-politician in elected office." But anti-politicians are often bad politicians. As certitude was Cheney's greatest strength, so inflexibility was his greatest weakness.

I observed him myself last spring, when he came to New York to fete Pope Benedict and spoke the next morning at the Hyatt Hotel. The event was sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, the conservative think tank. There were two hundred or so people in the room, but only a handful of journalists, most of them from conservative publications. Cheney summarized the familiar "good news on all the crucial fronts" of "Iraq's young democracy." Sectarian violence was down, and Iraqis had gained control of half the country's eighteen provinces. In muted tones he matter-of-factly slandered Congress, accusing its members of seeking to legislate defeat in "the central war on terror." It was the old dogma of 2002, intact and unreconstructed, as if nothing had changed or was in need of revision. The great insurgent seemed curiously frozen in time. He also said that President Bush "will not look at the polls, listen to the pundits, or read the editorial pages." He was imposing, serious, and grave, but--as always--self-abnegating.

Cheney abused power, but he was free of the petty corruptions that have tainted so many other powerful men. "Cheney believed that the country was in mortal danger and that he knew better than anyone else how to avert it," Gellman concludes. It will be some years before we can judge how right he was. But on one all-important matter the outcome is clear. The theory of the "unitary executive" is now in tatters, some of the excesses of this administration having been repudiated in rulings by the conservative jurists whom Cheney helped put on the Supreme Court. Congress is once again ascendant. And the two contenders for the presidency are both longtime legislators; one has been a professor of law. Both are well aware that the forty-fourth president will inherit an office more diminished than at any time in modern memory--an institution made smaller as a consequence of Dick Cheney's ruthless attempts to make it much larger than it was ever intended to be.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and The Week in Review, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.

This article originally ran in the November 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.