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A vice president with unprecedented power

Times Staff Writer

If YOU decide to reorganize your library, it probably won’t take much of a shelf to accommodate all your vice presidential biographies.

There are, of course, plenty of books about men who served as vice presidents. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, among others, come easily to mind. Their stories, however, tend to focus on what happened before and after their occupancy of the nation’s second-highest executive office.

Barton Gellman’s carefully reported and vigorously written account of Dick Cheney’s role in George W. Bush’s administration, “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency,” is unique because the subject and his conduct in office are singular. No previous vice president has wielded the sort of influence and exercised the sort of power Cheney has for most of the last eight years. It now seems likely, in fact, that many -- perhaps most -- of the policies and initiatives for which the Bush administration will be remembered originated with Cheney and his hand-picked, like-minded, fiercely loyal staff.

The general outlines of Gellman’s account of what ought to be called the Bush-Cheney administration will be familiar to anyone who follows national news closely, because the book grew out of a lengthy series of Pulitzer Prize-winning reports the author and then-partner Jo Becker produced for the Washington Post. Arranging those reports in narrative fashion, however, creates immensely valuable clarity and perspective and enables Gellman to supplement his reportage with information gleaned by Post colleague Bob Woodward, the New York Times’ Eric Lichtblau and the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer and Sy Hersh.

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The Cheney who emerges from Gellman’s portrait is something rare in American politics -- a man who systematically sought power because he was ambitious for his ideas rather than himself. Indeed, despite all the muttering that’s occurred over the years about Cheney’s connections to his former employer, Halliburton, and to the oil and gas industries, Gellman shows conclusively that he never profited from either. In other words, in an era, and setting, in which venal self-dealing is virtually a given, Cheney’s record is free of taint.

What the vice president appears to have been after from the start was the power to redirect a national government he believed he had watched go badly astray while serving as chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford. The legislative and judicial restraints imposed on the imperial presidency in the post-Vietnam period were, in Cheney’s estimation, a fundamental historical mistake. That impression was reinforced when he reentered government as President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of Defense. In the years after that, Cheney found a theory to fit his conclusions -- the so-called Unitary Executive concept popular among members of the conservative Federalist Society -- and seems to have conceived a method by which it could be implemented, stealth.

As Gellman sketches things, Cheney -- assigned by Bush to vet his vice presidential hopefuls -- made the process so bureaucratically burdensome for the obvious candidates that the choice fell naturally and effortlessly on him. In this, as in the years ahead, the vice president functioned as the “ultimate staff man” -- the powerfully knowledgeable insider, pulling unseen levers with an invisible hand. He also made sure that he salted the incoming administration’s various departments and agencies with well-situated loyalists and helped select a presidential staff that was less experienced and assertive than his own.

And he did it all without leaving tracks. As Gellman writes:

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“Cheney, at bottom, did not promote secrecy for fear of embarrassment. Neither his advisers nor their advice embarrassed him. Cheney favored stealth, in part, because it gave him practical advantages. . . . It was easier to win a battle when the opponents did not show up. For the vice president, however, there was a much larger question of principle at stake.

“In Cheney’s estimation, a president’s authority was close to absolute within his rightful sphere. Congress and courts had their own spheres, separate and unshared. With its very first word, Article II of the Constitution vested ‘the’ executive power in the president. Like other advocates of a ‘unitary executive,’ Cheney believed that the president’s inherent functions -- command of the Army and Navy, direction of the Cabinet, execution of the law -- were indivisible. Exercise of those powers was beyond the reach, in principle, of legislative or judicial review.”

It was a theory George W. Bush -- possessed, by all accounts, of a decidedly unreflective mind -- found convenient and was only too happy to encourage Cheney to implement. Thus, the vice president exercised unprecedented and unsupervised power over not only national security issues but also the budget, energy policies and environmental issues. Gellman’s meticulous reconstruction of Cheney’s decisive intervention in the controversy over water in Oregon’s Klamath River basin is a particularly sharp portrait of the vice president’s methods in operation.

On the question of the war in Iraq and why Cheney pushed for it as he did, Gellman adds critical insight. Whether the vice president believed that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction is an open question, though it is clear that he knowingly lied about U.S. intelligence in this regard. What he did believe was that the war was winnable and, therefore, would make a valuable “demonstration” of U.S. power that would deter any other hostile nation from allowing itself to become a “nexus” of common purpose with the Islamic extremists who attacked New York and suburban Washington, D.C., on 9/11. The possibility of such a “nexus” was, in Cheney’s view, the great threat to American security. He embraced the neo-conservatives’ notion of the U.S. as liberator, bringing democratic regime change to the Mideast, as a convenient rhetorical counterweight to Jihadist propaganda. Personally, he doubted democracy even was possible in the Middle East.

Another of the details Gellman teases out is Cheney’s propensity for seeking private advice from the conservative fringe. The night after the Senate debate over authorizing force against Iraq, the vice president asked conservative military historian Victor Davis Hanson to address a small dinner salon at his official residence. The topic was to be “the roles of leaders in unpopular wars.” A specialist on the ancient Greeks, Hanson “cited Hellenic philosophy. War was ‘innate to civilizations,’ a terrible thing, but not necessarily unjust. Citizens often faltered, putting leaders to the test.”

When mulling tax questions -- Cheney sought to abolish levies on dividends, estates and many corporate profits -- the vice president sought the advice of supply side economist Larry Kudlow, who was fired from his job as Bear Stearns’ chief economist as a result of alcohol and drug abuse and, after rehab, reestablished himself as a flamboyant television commentator.

Just 24 hours before, Cheney’s old friend, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the Republicans’ majority leader in the House, had wavered over whether to vote for war. The vice president took him aside in a room off the House floor and bludgeoned him with what subsequently turned out to be a series of lies about Hussein’s capabilities and intentions.

Much of the publicity around Gellman’s book has centered on how Cheney and his chief aide, David Addington, triggered what turned out to be a lawyers’ revolt over plans to unilaterally adopt a program of torture and domestic spying that the Justice Department, FBI, Office of Legal Counsel and the lawyers for all the intelligence agencies believed was illegal. Had Bush not intervened at the last moment -- and almost by accident -- the administration would have suffered an unprecedented mass resignation, something Cheney and the loyal Addington were prepared to accept, Gellman writes.

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Indeed, one of the insights “Angler” provides is how the vice president and his staff already had created a kind of national security state in miniature within the White House, secretly intercepting and reading colleagues’ e-mails as well as NSA intercepts of operatives’ conversations abroad.

Armey, still smarting from his old friend’s blatant deception, told Gellman that he believes history will treat Bush and Cheney “unkindly in equal part.” That’s true, though probably for different reasons. Somehow, the verdict that seems most appropriate in the vice president’s case is the one Grant delivered on Lee, whose immense abilities simply amplified the awful destruction of the historical moment in which he found himself. Lee, Grant said, had served his cause with the full measure of devotion, “though I believe that cause to be the worst to which any man ever gave himself.”

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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