September 3, 2004
John Nichols, Author of "Dick: The Man Who is President"
As You Watch Bush Tonight Pretend That God Chose Him to Lead a Mission Against the Heathens, Remember that the REAL President is Dick Cheney, With His Domestic Advisor Being Karl Rove.
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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
How appropriate to offer a compelling, great-read book about the real president of the United States, Dick Cheney, on a day that George W. Bush, the ventriloquist's dummy is going to pretend to accept the Republican party re-nomination for the office that is really run by Uncle Dick. Actually, BuzzFlash would argue that we have a co-presidency going on: Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. (But if you want to read about Rove, we recommend that extraordinary, "Bush's Brain.")
As far as a tome on the Zelig of American right wing Executive Branch politics, Nation and Capital Times correspondent John Nichols does a great job of portraying the man who is actually running America from an undisclosed location. Cheney is a man of few words who has spent his career as the ultimate royal court schemer, accumulating power for the sake of power -- and self-enrichment.
Dick's been a man of singular incompetence, who advances himself not by achievement, but rather by political stratagem. The guy flunked out of Yale. Hey, even Bush couldn't flunk out of Yale! But Cheney would have gotten an "A" on any exam having to do with Machiavelli. Heck, this is a guy who was asked to screen out potential vice-presidential candidates for Bush and then chose himself!
President Cheney likes to work in the shadows. It's fine to have young George out there acting like he's a commoner and all, while Dick makes the decisions. Dick doesn't mind. He likes operating out of the dark side. He's even said so.
Cheney is the ultimate Chicken Hawk, a man who supported the Vietnam
War but applied for and received multiple deferments from being drafted
to fight there. Yet, he doesn't blink an eye at sending other young men
to die. It's not his life that's on the line, or the lives of any of
his relatives, or the lives of the children of his wealthy friends. This
is a war for Halliburton and oil, which is good for America, Cheney will
have you believe.
So, when Bush gives his campaign speeches, just remember one thing. He's a stand in for Dick, the man who is president.
So before you get out your barf bag and watch Bush pretend tonight that he’s a leader sent by a Christian God to take on the heathens, read this BuzzFlash interview with John Nichols about the REAL president, Dick Cheney.
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BuzzFlash: Okay, your title says it all, "Dick, The Man Who is President." Logistically, how does that happen? Is he always the last one to tell the dauphin prince what to do? How does the man in the shadows operate as the de facto President of the United States?
John Nichols: Bush goes to the gym and Cheney goes to work. That's not a joke; again and again, when the veil of secrecy that has been dropped over this administration is lifted, the Secret Service reports show that Bush is working out, taking a vacation or reading to kids at some elementary school in Florida. Cheney is always on the job. That's why, on September 11, 2001, Cheney was running things in the White House, while Bush was flying around Nebraska.
On a day-to-day basis, it is Cheney who sits in on just about every major meeting in the White House, who plots political strategy with Karl Rove and who interacts with Congress. Bush is a sporadic participant and, as we know from Paul O'Neill's account, when Bush does go off the script, Cheney and Rove are the ones telling him to stay "on message."
How does this play out practically? In the most oil-obsessed administration in history, Cheney took charge of energy policy. In an administration that is determined to remake the courts, Cheney and Rove vets the judicial picks and Cheney is the one who goes to Capital Hill to press the case for the most extreme picks. In an administration that arrived without an international affairs doctrine, Cheney imposed a vision developed during his days as Secretary of Defense that would have the U.S. flexing its military muscles constantly with the purpose of assuring that it would never face competition from another superpower.
Bush is not a complete cipher. He has ideas, and he has a point of view. And there is some evidence that he has gotten more interested in governing as his presidency has progressed.
Bush is certainly listened to in meetings. Cheney always insists that the president be treated with respect, and he always makes a point of "consulting" with the president. But the evidence seems to suggest that those consultations are less about Bush giving direction than Cheney explaining the details of some new initiative.
When Bush does have to participate in a meaningful way, he often does so by deferring to Cheney. For example, before the invasion of Iraq, the Saudi Arabian ambassador said he would need to talk with the president about the administration's requests of his country. When the president and the ambassador spoke, Bush wanted to know if the ambassador had talked with Cheney. The ambassador assured the president that he had done so. At that point, by all accounts, Bush seemed to be perplexed about why they were having the discussion. That's the bottom line: When you've talked to Cheney, you've got the administration's line.
Of course, that point was driven home when Bush had to appear before the 9-11 Commission with Cheney. The president was not prepared to discuss 9-11, the war on terror or the war with Iraq on his own. He needed Cheney at his side to explain even the administration's most high-profile and consequential endeavors.
BuzzFlash: Some would say, us among them, that Dick Cheney is Co-President of the United States, sharing power with Karl Rove. Which is to say, Cheney controls foreign policy, energy policy, defense policy and corporate crony welfare. Meanwhile, Rove controls domestic policy and cultural wedge issues, for the most part. What's your thought on that?
Nichols: That's a pretty fair assessment. Cheney and Rove work closely together. They talk constantly, plot constantly and often launch initiatives in tandem -- such as their failed attempt to woo organized labor in a closed-door meeting in 2001 and their ongoing efforts to ramp up turnout among evangelicals.
It is important to remember that Cheney is the dominant player in this relationship, however. Rove is powerful, but Cheney is more powerful.
Additionally, it is important to remember that Cheney has a great interest in domestic policy, as well -- particularly tax policy. He and Rove team up on some issues. Again, it is instructive to recall the meeting where Bush raised some concerns about further tax cuts and Rove and Cheney jumped in to tell him to stay "on message." That was a good example of how they work together; and of how, when they are on the same side of an issue, they easily trump everyone else in the administration.
BuzzFlash: Now, let's take a step back. One of the weirdest unfoldings in presidential politics was when Bush the Junior picked Cheney to head a committee to vet vice-presidential candidates and Dick picked himself. Whoa, how did that happen? Did Dick close the deal himself?
Nichols: George Herbert Walker Bush, the father, was very worried about the Veep pick, knowing that his son would require some heft. He was an essential player in bringing Cheney in to do the job. But it was Cheney who manipulated the deal. He did it by putting his Halliburton work on hold -- he was the CEO of the company at the time -- and focusing pretty much full time of vetting the potential running mates. That put Cheney in every meeting, and often had him holding the primary discussions with the people who were under consideration.
Cheney, who had told George W. Bush, the son, that he was not interested in the job, went about the task in classic insider fashion. He vetted the prospects, found them wanting on one issue or another, and slowly created the circumstance where Bush, the son, started to see Cheney as the only credible contender. Whether the father and Cheney had wanted this all along, or whether this was a Cheney solo initiative, is open to some debate. But there is no question that this was Cheney's intention from the start. He sold off a substantial amount of Halliburton stock at the start of the process, signaling that he did not expect to be coming back to the CEO gig.
Notably, some of the people who thought they were being considered for the vice presidency were furious. Cheney required them to develop dossiers on themselves, answer hours of questions and otherwise devote themselves to the process. When they realized that the fix was in, they were mad that they had been forced to jump through the hoops for no reason. As one Republican insider said when it became clear Cheney was making his move: "The more I see evidence he is wiggling to become a candidate, the more I smell a rat."
BuzzFlash: Let's play free association for a second. We'll mention one word: Halliburton. Go, for it.
Nichols: Crony Capitalism.
Cheney forged a relationship with Halliburton when he was Secretary of Defense and then took over as CEO after his attempt to secure the 1996 vice presidential nomination failed. There was never any question about why he was hired. Halliburton executives said they wanted him to serve as a rainmaker -- someone who would get the company lucrative Defense Department contracts, as well as contracts with foreign countries. He was good at doing that but, in general, he was a lousy CEO. The company's stock value collapsed during his time at the helm. Luckily for Halliburton, when Cheney went back through the revolving door to take a public-sector job, things started to look up for the firm.
Despite what he says, Cheney benefits from every up tick in Halliburton's fortunes. He's still got a genuine interest in the company, and that creates a genuine conflict of interest. A few members of Congress, Sen. Frank Lautenberg from New Jersey and Rep. Henry Waxman from California, have been aggressive in examining these conflicts. But, for the most part, Cheney continues to get a pass. This is one of the great scandals of the time.
It should also be noted that Cheney was not just good for Halliburton. As Secretary of Defense, he laid the groundwork for privatizing vast areas of the military. That was a terrible move, as it dramatically increased the number of private-sector firms that recognize that it is in their interest for this country to be constantly at war. We now have the most muscular pro-war lobby in the history of the country; they are not just pushing for a particular war, they are for war in general. Halliburton is just the worst example of a far greater crisis.
The whole Dick Cheney/Halliburton connection serves as a reminder of just how right Dwight Eisenhower was when he warned about the dangers of a growing military-industrial complex. Every pathology he feared has come to pass.
BuzzFlash: You portray Cheney as a guy who is terse and holds his cards close to his vest. People don't know what he is often thinking, yet he clearly has a core that consists of an ultra conservative ideology. He's always been the number two guy, but now he's really running the show from his "undisclosed location." So what makes the guy tick?
Nichols: Cheney has one priority: personal power. He has spent his adult lifetime seeking to accumulate as much power as possible. He is not interested in prestige. He is willing to let others step out front and give the big speeches. He recognizes that the real authority rests with those who know how to operate effectively behind the scenes and who have the trust of those who play the front man roles.
Cheney enjoys secrecy. He brags about having never written an autobiography, and about how he avoids revealing the confidences of the administrations in which he has and is serving. This makes him a tremendously attractive figure for the sort of people -- in the public and private sectors -- who are ill at ease with democracy's demands for transparency. They would never push him for the presidency, as he would be a tough sell at election time; but they are more than willing to make him the power behind the throne.
The unfortunate thing is that, while Cheney is very good at accumulating power, he is not very good at exercising it. His failures of judgment are legendary -- steering Gerald Ford so far to the right that the 1976 presidential election was lost, voting against resolutions urging the release of Nelson Mandela in the 1980s, hatching unworkable plans for invading Iraq in the first Gulf War and, of course, arguing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorist networks before, during and after the start of the 2003 invasion and occupation of that country. Cheney's career has been characterized by missteps, mistakes and misdeeds, and as he has gotten more powerful those missteps, mistakes and misdeeds have become more epic in nature.
BuzzFlash: Is Cheney the epitome of raw Republican bullying power, a sort of Reptilian will to dominate, with little thought, if any, for ethics or the welfare of the public good? How's that for a loaded question?
Nichols: Reptilian? Is this an interview about Tom DeLay?
Actually, Cheney knows how to portray a somewhat softer persona that the real reptiles in the party. He is, if you will, the friendly face of Reptilianism. But that does not mean that Americans are comfortable with the guy. Polls show he is far less popular than Bush, and for good reason.
Most of what troubles America about the Bush administration -- the arrogance, the intellectual emptiness, the secrecy, the constant spin, the refusal to acknowledge mistakes -- is a reflection of Cheney. As former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill noted, the administration works the way it does because Cheney wants it that way. That's the important thing to recognize in this election year: Even voters who, for whatever reason, find that they like Bush should recognize that Bush is not charting the course of this administration. That's Cheney's job.
BuzzFlash: Let's play a little armchair psychology here. Is Cheney George W. Bush's alternate strong father figure?
Nichols: No, Dick Cheney is the vice president that George Herbert Walker Bush wishes he had selected in 1988. Instead, he got Dan Quayle, and we all know how that turned out.
By deferring to Cheney, Bush pleases his own father. The Bush family trusts Cheney to take care of business, and that's where the pressure on George W. comes from. Different Bushes sit in the Oval Office, but Cheney is a constant. With the father, Cheney was simply a member of the team. With the son, who is a weaker player, Cheney is more dominant -- so much so that some members of the Bush team, such as Brent Scowcroft, have been a little ill at ease. In the end, however, it is important to understand that George W. Bush is not in a position to toss Cheney off the ticket, or even to limit the vice president's authority. To do so at this point would require a break with the family that simply will not happen.
BuzzFlash: Cheney chronically lies. Not only that, he keeps lying when proven wrong. Not only that, he doesn't even change the wording of the individual lies as they are disproved. What's up with that? Is he just too arrogant to conform to reality or too indifferent? Maybe he's just lazy, as in "Why bother to tell the truth? I am going to get my way anyway." In short, does he feel invulnerable?
Nichols: The troubling prospect is that Cheney might actually believe some of the absurd things that he has said. He is an old Cold Warrior who buys into some pretty bizarre thinking with regards to the role the U.S. should play in the world. And I think he tends to see every new conflict through the lens of his ideology. As a result, he conforms the information he is given to fit his agenda -- no matter how much an honest reading of that information would suggest a different view. Remember, long after everyone else in the GOP leadership had accepted that it no longer was politically palatable to defend apartheid in South Africa, Cheney refused to vote for resolutions urging the release of Mandela. That stance made no sense; it did him no good politically, yet he stuck to it. That's Cheney in a nutshell.
I really am not sure that the man knows anymore when he is lying. My sense is that he simply refuses to be convinced by the facts. Were he not so powerful, his statements with regard to Iraq would be comic. Unfortunately, he is powerful enough to create confusion when he says things that are not true. That confusion helps the administration by creating a space for its supporters to operate in. There is no question that Cheney is spinning all the time. He uses his power and prestige to force notions into the public discourse. The question is whether he believes what he is saying or is simply spinning big lies because he has the power to do so. Either way, the result is the same. Because of Cheney, there is confusion about issues that should long ago have been resolved. And that confusion benefits the administration political and policy agenda.
BuzzFlash: The joint appearance of Cheney and Bush before the 9/11 Commission just about said it all, didn't it? I mean, did Bush sit on Cheney's lap as Dick the ventriloquist put words in his mouth?
Nichols: Unfortunately, the commission members were so deferential that Cheney did not have to say much. That's the remarkable thing about it: Bush probably could have done the appearance without Cheney because the questions weren't that hard. But, classically, they were so worried that Bush was not up to the task that they forced the commission to accept a duo appearance. This sums up the way in which the lack of confidence in Bush often causes the administration to overcompensate. If the U.S. media covered the White House seriously, the whole incident could have turned into a public-relations disaster for Bush -- headline: "President Unable to Explain Own Policies Without Veep's Help." But, of course, the U.S. media does not cover the White House seriously.
BuzzFlash: What influences in Cheney's life made him such an ultra right winger?
Nichols: Cheney is not a deep thinker. He likes easy answers. And there is nothing easier than parroting the right-wing line on every issue. At Yale, Cheney became obsessed with a Cold War vision of the world. He has never evolved. Cheney simply sees different enemies. (Notably, the professor who taught Cheney's favorite course now says that his former student is dangerously misguided about the world.) On the domestic front, Cheney buys into every failed fantasy that the right has ever conjured up -- from supply-side economics, to tort reform and the drug war. When it comes to ideology, there is nothing creative about the guy at all. As a result, while other conservatives may deviate from the script (think Jack Kemp or John McCain), Cheney is always "on message." And he is always telling George W. Bush to stay there, as well. The one exception -- Cheney's uncomfortable attempts to advocate for some tolerance with regards to gays and lesbians -- is unavoidable because to take a different stance would force him to distance himself from his daughter. Conservatives recognize that, and forgive him.
That's appropriate because, on the fundamental issues that are of concern to conservatives, Cheney has been a 100 percenter. Newt Gingrich has noted that Cheney's record in the House was more conservative than his own. Surveys have suggested that Cheney's closest ideological soul mate was North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, although Helms softened on some issues as he got older. Cheney has remained a consistent hard liner. That's why he gets such thunderous applause from Republican convention delegates. They love the guy because he tosses out the raw meat - especially when he is attacking John Kerry.
BuzzFlash: Tell us a little about the Rumsfeld/Cheney relationship. These guys have been tied at the hip through several Republican administrations. Cheney was always the number two guy, until he pulled the ultimate coup of choosing himself as the vice-presidential candidate.
Nichols: Rumsfeld is far more accomplished than Cheney. Rumsfeld got good grades, graduated from a top college without any trouble, served in the military, won a seat in the U.S. House at age 30 and generally was a star. Cheney was a plodder who really had trouble getting his career going until he attached himself to Rumsfeld. At first, Rumsfeld did not want Cheney on his staff, but Rumsfeld eventually recognized that Cheney was willing to do the unpleasant tasks. Thus was born a good relationship.
It only went bad in 2000, when Rumsfeld very much wanted to be selected for vice president. When Cheney took charge of the selection committee, Rumsfeld thought his old protégé would take care of him. He was not the first friend of Cheney who learned that such trust was misplaced. Cheney selected himself. Rumsfeld was forced to settle for Secretary of Defense. But he could not really complain, as the two men have such a long and troubling history that they are beyond public squabbles.
BuzzFlash: And Cheney and his bird hunting with Antonin Scalia. Aren't they two birds of a feather?
Nichols: Cheney and Scalia have been associates since the early 1970s, when they worked together to keep the lid on the controversy surrounding Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. The controversy about the bird-hunting trip was a bit comic, as it suggested a conflict of interest had suddenly arisen. In fact, the conflict was 30 years old. That was one of the truly troubling things about the Bush v. Gore decision of the Supreme Court in 2000: There is simply no question that Scalia should have recused himself from deciding a case that would make one of his oldest political associates the vice president of the United States.
BuzzFlash: Is Dick Cheney the epitome of a person who pursues power for the sake of holding power?
Nichols: Absolutely. That is the essence of his being.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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