The Omen

If October 29, 1929 was “Black Tuesday” in American economics, then July 25, 2000, was certainly “Black Tuesday” in American politics.

It was fifteen years ago today that Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush announced that former Wyoming Representative and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney would be his running mate. That one decision inflicted extensive, expensive damage upon the United States and the world, damage that may never be fully repaired.

It’s interesting to note that two months before Bush announced the Cheney pick, right-wing pundit-world icon Thomas Sowell suggested a dramatically different figure as Bush’s ideal running mate:

Probably the person who would do the most for Bush on election day would be General Colin Powell. Not only does he have the foreign policy experience, the appearance of one of the most admired black men in America on the ticket could be dramatic for this election — and historic for the long run, by changing the Republicans’ dismal showing among blacks and other minorities…

Colin Powell himself has said that he is not interested in running for president or vice president. But, if ever the country faced a situation where conscience should cause a man to reconsider, it is now. The next president’s power to nominate several Supreme Court justices can shape the course of American law — or of judicial lawlessness — for the next generation. The dangerous decline in our military and the recklessness of our foreign policies need to be turned around urgently soon.

If Governor Bush stands a good chance of being elected without Colin Powell on the ticket, that would be better. But General Powell as vice president is a lot better than many other possibilities, including of course Al Gore as president. We are not nominating people for Mount Rushmore. We are choosing among the alternatives actually available.

Sadly, Bush would have probably still raced off to war in Iraq with Powell as VP, but it’s hard to imagine a Bush-Powell administration being as thoroughly divisive, and as thoroughly disgusting, as the Bush-Cheney administration turned out to be. A July 2000 New York Times report about the Cheney selection hinted at the dissembling, disinformation and divisiveness that was to come:

As he made the rounds of the television talk shows this morning, Dick Cheney confidently defended his votes in the 1980’s against gun control, abortion rights and education spending, but he slipped when he tried to justify his opposition to an obscure resolution in 1986 that called on South Africa to release Nelson Mandela from prison…

On NBC’s ”Today,” Mr. Cheney, the expected Republican vice-presidential nominee, said his vote was based on a disagreement over whether economic sanctions were the best way to end apartheid.

”The debate that we had at the time had to do with how we could best pursue our policies in South Africa,” Mr. Cheney said. ”Nobody supported apartheid. We were all against it. But there was a big debate over the best leverage we could use to get Nelson Mandela free.

”One school of thought said that there should be sanctions imposed on South Africa, that American companies should be prohibited from operating in South Africa, that there shouldn’t be any trade with South Africa. The other school of thought said, ‘Wait a minute,’ that, in fact, the only good jobs that were available to black South Africans were with American firms. If you wanted a company that was going to provide opportunities and not discriminate, you had to go to American firms, and the people that would be hurt if we forced American firms out of South Africa were those very people we were trying to help.”

Mr. Cheney then said, ”This notion that somehow I was opposed to freeing Nelson Mandela is a typical Al Gore distortion of a record, a point he’s trying to make because he doesn’t want to talk about real issues.”

The disagreement over sanctions was a big issue in Congress in 1986, and Mr. Cheney’s description of the two sides was accurate. Before the year was out, Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto of a bill that imposed sanctions, the first time Mr. Reagan had been rebuffed like this on a foreign policy matter. Mr. Cheney supported the president.

But the question of sanctions never came up in the debate on the Mandela resolution. The opposition to it was based on the belief of the right wing of the Republican Party in the House that the African National Congress, Mr. Mandela’s party and the leading political voice against apartheid, was dominated by Communists.

The October 5, 2000 debate between Cheney and Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman also hinted at the way a Bush-Cheney administration would behave on energy and climate change: while Lieberman stressed the importance of energy efficiency, Cheney made it clear, in both words and demeanor, that he couldn’t care less about using resources responsibly.

After Gore lost the 2000 election by only five votes, Cheney began ambling down a perverse path, supervising a secret energy task force dominated by dirty-energy interests (and ridiculing those who recognized the wisdom of energy conservation). Of course, the secret energy task force wasn’t the only thing Cheney was involved in that helped fossil-fuel interests…

Just as we cannot forget Cheney’s pathetic protection of his petrochemical pals, we also cannot forget his two-facedness on the issue of LGBT equality. In August 2004, Cheney sounded a note of apparent tolerance on gay rights:

In a political season marked by Republican efforts to outlaw gay marriage, Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday offered a defense of the rights of gay Americans, declaring that “freedom means freedom for everyone” to enter “into any kind of relationship they want to.”

Mr. Cheney said the issue was what kind of government recognition to give those relationships, and indicated that he preferred to let the states define what constitutes a marriage. In contrast, President Bush has argued that a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is essential. Mr. Cheney noted that Mr. Bush sets policy for the administration.

In unusually personal remarks on the issue, delivered at a campaign forum in Davenport, Iowa, the vice president referred to his daughter, Mary, who is a lesbian, saying that he and his wife “have a gay daughter, so it’s an issue our family is very familiar with.” He added, according to a transcript of his remarks, provided by the White House, “We have two daughters, and we have enormous pride in both of them.”

He spoke on the same day that a draft version of the Republican platform was distributed to convention delegates that declared, “We strongly support President Bush’s call for a constitutional amendment that fully protects marriage.” The draft platform added, “Attempts to redefine marriage in a single city or state could have serious consequences throughout the country, and anything less than a constitutional amendment, passed by Congress and ratified by the states, is vulnerable to being overturned by activist judges.”

Cheney could have stood up firmly to the Christian Right if he wanted to. He could have used his influence to stop the Bush re-election campaign from continuing to demonize gays and lesbians. He could have fought for the honor and the virtue of his daughter. Yet he failed to do so. Power was more important than principle. The calculation was obvious: if he pushed back forcefully against the Bush re-election campaign’s assault on gays and lesbians, the Christian Right would stay home, and John Kerry would win the election. Cheney, in his malevolent mind, just couldn’t take that risk.

Remember the argument that Bush chose Cheney because he needed someone who could bring “gravitas” to the ticket? Looking back, it’s clear that Cheney brought nothing to the ticket besides the worst instincts and impulses of American politics—instincts and impulses that he still displays to this day. Over the course of his vice-presidential tenure, he made his buddies filthy rich, and he made Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle look good by comparison. Can you name anything he accomplished otherwise?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.