For a guy in the middle of a blazing shitstorm, Dick Cheney seemed eerily composed last Wednesday night in Washington, D.C., when he turned up to speak at a dinner in honor of Michigan congressman John Dingell. Eerie composure is, of course, the vice-president’s métier: Cheney is to grim stoicism what Bill Clinton is to doe-eyed empathy. Even so, it was something to see Cheney stand before a throng of A-list Democrats (Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi), spooning out encomiums to Dingell as if it were the old days—back when Cheney was still in the House and they were paddleball partners. “Even when we’ve disagreed, John is always someone I’ve respected,” Cheney said earnestly. “You know he’s a man of conviction.”
What was on the minds of most people in the crowd were convictions—or at least indictments—of another sort entirely: the sort that might result from special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigations. At the buffet dinner after the speeches, in fact, you couldn’t take two steps without wading into a Democratic wet dream. A K Street power lawyer cackled, “What the fuck is Cheney gonna do if two or three people in his shop wind up getting nailed? I mean, wouldn’t that be special?” A liberal think-tank maven mused, “Imagine Cheney gets named as an unindicted co-conspirator—then we’d start hearing that his health is suddenly not so good. And then the question becomes, who do they replace him with: Condi Rice? Jim Baker? John McCain?”
By the time these Fitzgeraldian fantasies unfurled, Cheney was already on his way back to the White House—where he got the news, along with George W. Bush, that Harriet Miers had seen the writing on the wall (scrawled, no doubt, by Bush’s adjutants) and was abandoning her bid to join the Supreme Court. The mood in the White House, already sullen, became borderline apocalyptic. “If you want a definition of hell on earth,” said a longtime Bush ally, “it’s the next two weeks over there.”
And maybe a good deal longer. With the announcement by Fitzgerald on Friday that he had secured indictments of Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, for perjury, making false statements to the grand jury, and obstruction of justice, and that he would extend the grand jury (possibly to continue investigating Karl Rove), the special prosecutor guaranteed that the administration would face more months of debilitating scrutiny. More documents. More details. More revelations. And, perhaps most damaging of all, a continued glaring focus on the fellow whom Bush (without any apparent irony) is fond of calling “Vice.”
From the moment Bush took office, it’s been apparent to anyone with eyes to see that Cheney is the prime mover behind this administration. From his quarters in the Old Executive Office Building, surrounded by a coterie of neoconnish staffers, Libby the most powerful among them, Cheney has emerged as the most influential vice-president the country has ever seen—or, more accurately, not seen. Largely invisible to the public, he has been the untouchable man, immune to criticism, genuflected before by every corner of the Establishment. Until now, that is. Fashionable opinion has it that the Bush administration is basically over. But while that conclusion may prove premature, I suspect that what we’re witnessing today is the end of the Cheney Era.
Among those who’ve known Cheney best and longest, the trajectory of that era has been a shock—but no more so than the apparent transformation of its namesake. When Bush 41 bequeathed to his son his former Defense secretary, the assumption was that 43 was getting Poppy’s Cheney: a classic moderate Republican, uninclined to flights of fancy, unencumbered by nuthouse dogma. As Brent Scowcroft, who worked with Cheney as national-security adviser to 41 and Gerald Ford, put it in 2001, “He’s not a far-out idea man, as Paul Wolfowitz can be. He’s conventional and cautious.”
Certainly that was how Cheney seemed to me on the one occasion I interviewed him. This was back in early 1991, just before the commencement of the first Gulf War. Like many Democrats at the time, I had my doubts about that engagement, but Cheney made a plausible case. He stressed the importance of the broad alliance that America had stitched together. He talked about exit strategies and limited objectives. In his manner, he made for a pleasing contrast with his predecessor, the ghoulish and freaky Caspar Weinberger. He was soothing and sane, almost fatherly—if your dad happened to have at his disposal an arsenal of ICBMs.
Hence the mystery of Cheney: What turned Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde? The question assumes that Cheney was what he appeared to be. But Cheney was, all along, a closet hard-right hard-on. As Ford’s chief of staff, he sided repeatedly with his mentor, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, against the détente-chasing Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger. As a congressman, his record was more conservative than Newt Gingrich’s. He described himself a “proud-of-it hawk . . . who never met a weapons system that he didn’t vote for.”