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BOOK REVIEW

A vice president with unprecedented power

Angler The Cheney Vice Presidency; Barton Gellman; The Penguin Press: 484 pp., $27.95

September 24, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

If YOU decide to reorganize your library, it probably won't take much of a shelf to accommodate all your vice presidential biographies.

There are, of course, plenty of books about men who served as vice presidents. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, among others, come easily to mind. Their stories, however, tend to focus on what happened before and after their occupancy of the nation's second-highest executive office.

Barton Gellman's carefully reported and vigorously written account of Dick Cheney's role in George W. Bush's administration, "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency," is unique because the subject and his conduct in office are singular. No previous vice president has wielded the sort of influence and exercised the sort of power Cheney has for most of the last eight years. It now seems likely, in fact, that many -- perhaps most -- of the policies and initiatives for which the Bush administration will be remembered originated with Cheney and his hand-picked, like-minded, fiercely loyal staff.

The general outlines of Gellman's account of what ought to be called the Bush-Cheney administration will be familiar to anyone who follows national news closely, because the book grew out of a lengthy series of Pulitzer Prize-winning reports the author and then-partner Jo Becker produced for the Washington Post. Arranging those reports in narrative fashion, however, creates immensely valuable clarity and perspective and enables Gellman to supplement his reportage with information gleaned by Post colleague Bob Woodward, the New York Times' Eric Lichtblau and the New Yorker's Jane Mayer and Sy Hersh.

The Cheney who emerges from Gellman's portrait is something rare in American politics -- a man who systematically sought power because he was ambitious for his ideas rather than himself. Indeed, despite all the muttering that's occurred over the years about Cheney's connections to his former employer, Halliburton, and to the oil and gas industries, Gellman shows conclusively that he never profited from either. In other words, in an era, and setting, in which venal self-dealing is virtually a given, Cheney's record is free of taint.

What the vice president appears to have been after from the start was the power to redirect a national government he believed he had watched go badly astray while serving as chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford. The legislative and judicial restraints imposed on the imperial presidency in the post-Vietnam period were, in Cheney's estimation, a fundamental historical mistake. That impression was reinforced when he reentered government as President George H.W. Bush's secretary of Defense. In the years after that, Cheney found a theory to fit his conclusions -- the so-called Unitary Executive concept popular among members of the conservative Federalist Society -- and seems to have conceived a method by which it could be implemented, stealth.

As Gellman sketches things, Cheney -- assigned by Bush to vet his vice presidential hopefuls -- made the process so bureaucratically burdensome for the obvious candidates that the choice fell naturally and effortlessly on him. In this, as in the years ahead, the vice president functioned as the "ultimate staff man" -- the powerfully knowledgeable insider, pulling unseen levers with an invisible hand. He also made sure that he salted the incoming administration's various departments and agencies with well-situated loyalists and helped select a presidential staff that was less experienced and assertive than his own.

And he did it all without leaving tracks. As Gellman writes:

"Cheney, at bottom, did not promote secrecy for fear of embarrassment. Neither his advisers nor their advice embarrassed him. Cheney favored stealth, in part, because it gave him practical advantages. . . . It was easier to win a battle when the opponents did not show up. For the vice president, however, there was a much larger question of principle at stake.

"In Cheney's estimation, a president's authority was close to absolute within his rightful sphere. Congress and courts had their own spheres, separate and unshared. With its very first word, Article II of the Constitution vested 'the' executive power in the president. Like other advocates of a 'unitary executive,' Cheney believed that the president's inherent functions -- command of the Army and Navy, direction of the Cabinet, execution of the law -- were indivisible. Exercise of those powers was beyond the reach, in principle, of legislative or judicial review."

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