December 10, 2006 6:18 pm

A partisan take on the shadow president

In Executive Privilege, a sex and politics thriller written by Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne, President Zern Jenner laments: “The history of the presidency in the 20th century is the history of a gradually weakening institution.” Her book reflected the sombre pillow talk of her husband. It was written in 1979, four years after Mr Cheney became the youngest White House chief of staff for President Gerald Ford. He was profoundly affected by the reassertion of Congress over the executive branch after Watergate and by the submission of his boss to testify on the Hill.

Thirty years later, those concerns no longer find expression in his wife’s fictional characters. As vice-president, his goal has been to restore to the presidency the unimpeded constitutional power to conduct national security policy and pass on his office “in better shape than we found it”.

In Vice, Lou Dubose – a reporter who has previously taken aim at Republican icons George Bush, Tom DeLay and Karl Rove – and Jake Bernstein, set out to depict how Mr Cheney’s has become the most powerful vice-presidency in history, “insulated from any accountability – from the Congress and even from the president with whom he shared executive power”.

The partisan tone can be deduced from the chapter headings: “Covert Cover-up”, “Lady MacCheney” and the “Torture Presidency”. In a liberal-pleasing epilogue they say he created a “still largely invisible constitutional crisis”. The book concludes with the word “bullshit”, noting he went to the Iraq war on the basis “of forged documents that he knew were bullshit”.

The book is best on the methods used to consolidate power, not the man. His ascent has been aided by the assiduous cultivation of patrons, including Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of defence, from whom he learnt the art of marginalising enemies, the calculated leak and giving oral advice rather than leaving a paper record.

Reinforcing the image of Mr Cheney as the shadow president, the authors reveal the ways he has bolstered his authority. His national security team read all the e-mail traffic to and from the president’s National Security Council staffers, yet they are not allowed to read the communications of his staff.

Exploiting loopholes, his legal counsel redefined his office as a branch of Congress to avoid Freedom of Information requests, yet failed to submit to Senate ethics rules that require disclosure of details on staffing or travel. He has the same power to classify information as the president and, in his first year in office, he defended the secrecy of his energy task force to shield advice from oil executives.

His most potent legacy is national security law. In the 1980s, during the Iran-Contra hearings, he defended the administration’s right to conduct covert operations. After September 11 2001, he conceded the need to “work, through, sort of the dark side”, and pioneered terrorist surveillance and harsher interrogation methods, earning himself the title in a Washington Post editorial, “Vice-President for Torture”.

On the most contentious claims, such as whether he steered $7bn in no-bid Iraq contracts to Halliburton, the oil services company he ran from 1995 to 2000, the authors offer implications, not facts. “If [Scooter] Libby [chief of staff] had been briefed on the contracts, it was all but impossible that Dick Cheney was out of the loop,” is one loaded assertion.

Where the book is weakest is on offering real insight into the man behind the austere, avuncular image and half crooked smile. It fails to explain a man who earned a reputation as a Wyoming congressman, as a reassuring, attentive listener, a conservative but political pragmatist, but is now seen as a stubborn figure, so indifferent to his public image that he went duck shooting on election day.

This is a story told from the outside looking in. As well as leaving a limited paper trail, Mr Cheney trails few anecdotes. There are a few glimpses of a more complex character behind the caricature – of him turning to alcohol after flunking out of Yale to become a lineman and enjoying rowdy parties during his time on the Hill – but Nicholas Lehman’s 2001 profile in The New Yorker gets closer to capturing his enigmatic personality. Ron Suskind’s One Percent Doctrine better explains his transformation after the first Gulf war, when Mr Cheney asked: “How many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many,” into an unwavering advocate of a transformationalist foreign policy, driven by a visceral sense of threat rather than by being a true believer in spreading democracy.

Indeed, democracy at home is no easier. The new Democratic majority is likely to drag Mr Cheney, who prefers to operate in back rooms or on conservative talk shows, into the spotlight. The incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold investigations into his energy task force and spending on government contractors in Iraq. While he is likely to resist efforts to testify the danger is that, for all his efforts over the past six years to pass on his office in better shape, his actions have triggered a backlash, ushering in the same kind of congressional reassertion of power that so defined him three decades ago.

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