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The Man Behind The Curtain

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But Cheney saw no advantage in advertising his ideology. Instead, he cast himself as steady, efficient, managerial, nonconfrontational to a fault. Also, as an implicit comrade to anyone in a position to advance his aims. At various stages, he was judged an ally by every member of 41’s inner circle: Scowcroft, Baker, Colin Powell—Cheney seduced them all. (When Scowcroft told The New Yorker recently, “I’ve known him for 30 years. But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore,” the reply that fairly leapt to mind was, Brent, you never did.)

For 43, though, Cheney’s convictions—as much as his loyalty and aptitude for superficial deference—were the main attraction. Driven by some Oedipal force that only Maureen Dowd will ever fully comprehend, Bush the younger seized on Cheney as an alternate father figure, the guiding hand that would enable him to achieve what the old man couldn’t. For Cheney, by contrast, Bush must have seemed the perfect instrument for his precisely specified ambitions: to run the country without the hassle of running for president. Thus the symbiosis from which the Iraq quagmire was born.

Now it emerges that the myth of Cheney’s supreme competence was more than a little overblown.

To much of 41’s war council, the sight of Cheney ginning up the case for Iraq II must have been acutely painful, but it wasn’t until two weeks ago that their discomfort and disapproval came fully into view—a family feud gone public. The first broadside was Scowcroft’s primal scream in The New Yorker. But the second was more withering: the howl of Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s former chief of staff, who described the Bush foreign-policy high command as being a “secretive, little-known cabal” led by Cheney and Rumsfeld. Asked about Cheney’s transfiguration in the wake of 9/11, Wilkerson mentioned “paranoia” and “not having enough contact with the real world.”

Brutal as those opinions are, for Cheney, they’re nothing compared to what Libby might reveal in the weeks ahead. In Washington, Libby and Cheney are seen as intimately bonded, close friends, trusted allies. But Libby has always been more a true believer—his connection to Cheney is through Wolfowitz—than the vice-president. The coming days may test their bond in ways neither of them can now conceive.

The simple fact, unearthed by Fitzgerald, that Libby learned about Plame from Cheney (and not from reporters, as Libby originally suggested) speaks volumes about the nature of the administration’s campaign to nullify its critics. And it has put Cheney in a position he finds intolerable: front and center, exposed and naked, his machinations laid bare for all to see.

Over dinner the other night at the St. Regis—not far from where Judy Miller and Libby held their infamous assignation—a longtime Republican operative outlined for me, in koanlike form, the three-step program he believes Bush must now pursue: “Change the people, change the subject, and absolutely feed the base.” Helpfully, and not incidentally, the withdrawal of Harriet Miers’s nomination offers a ready avenue to achieving two of those objectives: By putting forward a barking-mad ultracon choice for the Supreme Court (one with impeccable credentials, mind you, in the mold of Scalia or Bork), Bush can shift the locus of controversy away from Fitzgerald and Plame while simultaneously appeasing the right. Yet among some Republicans there’s a palpable sense that this may not be enough—which brings us back to Cheney.

Even three months ago, talk of showing Vice the door would have been met with derisive laughter. But now there are signs, however faint and subtle, of Bush’s distancing himself from Cheney—and with them murmurings in various quarters about Condi or McCain. The case for the former is simple: Bush loves her, and it would be historic. The case for the latter is less straightforward but arguably more compelling. With McCain, Bush could legitimately claim to be cleansing the Augean stable. He’d be getting a foreign-policy expert (and one who, unlike Cheney, disapproves of torture). And, given the dynamics of the GOP, the party of primogeniture, Bush would be, in effect, selecting his successor as the Republican standard-bearer in 2008.

Given Bush’s grasping attachment to Cheney, no sensible person would bet the rent on his doing any such thing. And yet one can’t help but wonder if their relationship will ever be quite the same. For the past six years, Bush has heard ad nauseam that Cheney is indispensable to him: that without Cheney’s counsel, his skill at playing the Washington game, and, most of all, his competence, Bush and his administration would be lost. Yet now it emerges that the myth of Cheney was more than a little overblown. The man, it turns out, wasn’t even competent enough to run a decent black-bag operation, let alone transform Iraq. We hear endlessly that Bush’s most deeply ingrained trait is his bedrock sense of loyalty. But sticking with Cheney is no longer about loyalty. It’s about sheer desperation.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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