Sorry, That’s Classified

Prognostication is a fool’s game, but I would bet the farm that in 2009 and 2010, the best-seller lists will be frequently crowned by tell-all books about the Bush presidency. The administration’s fervor for secrecy has ensured that there will be a large inventory of stories for the newly loose-lipped to share. More importantly, the debacle in Iraq and what is certain to be its long tail of repercussions ensures that there will be plenty of people with reputations to salvage who will zealously sidestep responsibility and aim to pin the tail on the most convenient and credible donkey in the corral. Perhaps this donkey will be President Bush; it would certainly make for riveting reading if we were to learn that behind his mask of peevish irritation, there was actually a thoughtful leader who was decisively trapping us in a quagmire from which there is no easy escape.

But that is not the smart way to bet. Clearly the superbly credentialed group of grown-ups who steered Bush onto the shoals will have to pay the price for their miscalculations. (In the documentary Iraq: No End in Sight, nothing is so damaging to the reputation of Donald Rumsfeld as the simple replays of his arrogantly preening performances at press conferences.) After the hard landings that lately have been suffered by Rumsfeld, Wolfo-witz, and Libby, it’s certain that before long Dick Cheney will have his turn being roasted on the gridiron (and I do mean on the gridirondecidedly not at). Like Bob Haldeman and Don Regan and John Sununu and other famously hard men of administrations past who threw their weight around, Cheney will find that the bigger you are, the harder you fall.

Which should make Cheney very grateful for the thin pillow that Weekly Standard senior writer Stephen F. Hayes has handed him in his new biography of the vice president, Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President. The kindest thing one can say about this book is that it deserves to be the official biography for the 2008 Cheney presidential campaign that never will be. (You know, the campaign where the nation implores Cheney to take off his fishing waders and, like Cincinnatus, preserve the republic.) The book gives you a thorough survey of the topography of Cheney country, from his days on the high school football team to his time in the White House, and the secret microphone in Bush’s ear through which Cheney communicates his decisions. (I wish.) But as any Wyoming man like Cheney will tell you, topography is only so interesting; what’s more valuable is what lies beneath.

Apart from a starstruck biography of Johnny Unitas that I read when I was in grade school, it’s hard to remember a life story more bereft of psychology than this one. We all know there are Trappists who are gabbier than Cheney, so one can hardly fault Hayes for failing to get explanations from the horse’s mouth, even though Hayes was blessed with hours of personal interviews. But the failure to find the story within the man makes this book a less-than-captivating read. It’s fun to satirize Cheney as the snarling, secretive, shotgun-wielding neocon autocrat who knows where the bodies are buriedbecause he’s buried most of thembut that’s not a caricature that would have been recognizable for most of Cheney’s career. Cheney was a Jerry Ford Republican, a Bob Michel man of the House, a defense secretary who cut a low profile as a competent team player. If Cheney is indeed the most powerful and controversial vice president in our historyand who else is a contender?then how and why he earned those adjectives deserves exploration.

Hayes just doesn’t give it to us. There are lots of facts, but not much insight. He does, for example, give us good information about a young, hell-raising Cheney who fails out of Yale and comes close to settling himself into a life of blue-collar labor, but when it comes to explaining the fears and embarrassments that must have preceded the application of Cheney’s nose to the grindstone, we are presented with the simple words “Lynne Cheney,” which seems more of a starting point than a wrap-up. Similarly, Hayes chronicles Cheney’s rapid rise up through and into the leadership of the House of Representatives, where he gains the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Later, however, Hayes depicts Cheney as one of the foremost proponents of restoring power to the executive. It’s not that this circle can’t be squared, but Hayes fails to connect any human faces to the evolution of Cheney’s thinking. We know that there is a human lurking inside Dick CheneyDick “Big Time” Cheney; Dick “Go fuck yourself, Leahy” Cheneybut Hayes never gets to the heart of it.

Consider the section that covers Cheney’s selection as Bush’s running mate. It’s a brief account that covers Bush’s request that Cheney head the selection committee, and a one-paragraph description of the documentand memo-heavy review process. It includes Bush’s awkward and self-satisfied statement to Hayes that “As he … gave me briefings on his Vice Presidential searching, I was really in my own mind interviewing himhe just didn’t know it.” It concludes with Bush’s offer and Cheney’s agreement, which was “influenced by two factors: a sense of duty and a growing belief that he was the least worst option.”

Think about what this account doesn’t include. Recall that at this moment Cheney has known George W. for at least a dozen years, including those years of the Bush 41 presidency when Cheney was the highly respected defense secretary and W. was a vain and under-directed princeling. (See the unforgettable cameos of W. during this period in Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes.) Recall that Cheney had not long before had enough self-regard to offer himself to the nation as a presidential possibility, and saw that offer as thoroughly ignored as if it had gone unspoken. Consider that about six months later (as we know from articles in the Washington Post that appeared as Hayes’s book was being published), after Cheney was sworn in, former VP Dan Quayle described the life of fund-raising and funeral attending that Cheney could expect, and Cheney responded, “I have a different understanding with the president.”

Think about these things, and maybe you, too, will conclude that the self-deprecatory line about “the least worst option” reeks of falseness, and that the line “I was really interviewing him” seems self-delusional, and that Hayes’s entire description comes across as credulous, unknowing, and uninquisitive.

Such superficiality characterizes the whole book, including the most important elementsthe 9/11 attacks, the subsequent wars. Hayes shows us Cheney moving on- and offstage, making statements and arguing positions. It’s not quite enough. Cheney has been one of the Iraq War’s lead prosecutors, the man most willing to tie Saddam to al-Qaeda, to accept the existence of weapons of mass destruction, to believe that Iraqi resistance was “in its last throes.” Cheney was also an important backer of Rumsfeld’s leadership at the Defense Department, where he blithely and ignorantly made or signed off on a series of fateful decisions that ruined whatever chance the United States had of achieving a fairly antiseptic regime change. (Indeed, Cheney continued to encourage Bush to retain Rumsfeld after the disastrous 2006 elections.)

These positions call into question the very raison d’etre of Dick Cheney. He’s supposed to be the guy who has more experience, sounder judgment, and a steadier hand than anybody else in government. Instead, it looks as though he’s just a lethal infighter who is as apt to jump to conclusions, and as driven by emotions like loyalty aswell, as a Democrat.

Cheney is a gigantic figure in these times, a powerful figure to contemplate in terms of the uses and limits of power. We’re going to need a better book than this one to understand him.

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Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.