The Man Behind The Curtain

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.”

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.


The Man Behind The Curtain