A commentary by William C. Shelton
Although I’ve never met Dick Cheney, I’ve never liked his public persona. So I was surprised when I found myself feeling sorry for him.
The press was beating up the White House for sitting on the hunting-accident story. Press Secretary Scott McClellan insisted that they wanted to get the facts straight, although that’s never stopped them in the past.
Then, Cheney gave his interview to Fox News. He looked stunned. For the first time in his life, the architect of the war that has killed or wounded 19,000 Americans experienced the trauma that comes with shooting another human being or being shot.
One of my primary challenges throughout adult life has been to manage my own post-traumatic stress disorder. I recognized, in Cheney, the haunted gaze, the semi-coherent recitation of events, and the sense of lingering guilt.
This vulnerability was at odds with his habitual projection of knowing certainty. For a moment I entertained the hope that Cheney might acknowledge the legitimacy of another person’s experience. In his every past utterance, he seemed to be saying, “I know the Truth, and if you don’t agree with me you’re an idiot.”
No, it’s not even that. In Somerville, I hear that most days from folks whom I actually like. His attitude is more like, “whether or not you agree with me, you’re an idiot, and the only possible justification for your existence is to do what I say.”
Yet, it is this ability to project calm certainty that has won him a breathtaking series of opportunities for which he was unqualified, in which he often failed, and after which he blamed others. In the words of Bush Sr.’s Saudi Arabian Ambassador, Charles Freeman, “Cheney’s manner and authority of voice far outstrip his true abilities. He doesn’t understand that when you act recklessly, your mistakes will come back.”
Cheney’s phenomenal good luck began when Wyoming Republican activist Tom Strook arranged a scholarship to Yale for him. But according to his benefactor, “he spent his time partying with guys who loved football.” His Yale roommate Stephen Billings explained, “his idea was that you didn’t need to master the material. But there are some things that you can’t bluff.”
Cheney dropped out and got a job stringing phone lines. When the escalating Vietnam War increased draft conscription, he enrolled in community college, then the University of Wyoming, and then, until he passed beyond draft age, at the University of Wisconsin.
He leveraged a volunteer position with Wisconsin Governor Knowles into an internship with Congressman William Steiger, and from there, an assistantship with Donald Rumsfeld who then headed Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity.
Cheney publicly argued that Watergate “was just a political ploy by the president’s enemies.” He later cited it, and Iran-Contra, as evidence that the presidency was too vulnerable to public inspection and accountability.
Rumsfeld brought Cheney along when he became President Ford’s Chief of Staff. Together, they persuaded Ford that he could not allow Ronald Reagan to outflank Ford on the right. They pushed him to fire Scty. of State James Schlesinger, dump V.P. Nelson Rockefeller, remove Henry Kissinger, torpedo the SALT II nuclear arms treaty, and move sharply rightward in domestic policy.
Robert Novak reported that Ford insiders blamed Cheney’s bungling as campaign manger for Ford’s defeat in 1976. Maybe that’s sour grapes, but Ford said that dumping Rockefeller was the worst political mistake of his life.
The next year, Wyoming’s Republican leadership ordained Cheney to replace retiring Congressman Roncalio. John Barlow, a Cheney campaign manager, says that “Dick had been chief of staff to a president. Everyone assumed that he knew what he was doing.”
In Congress, Cheney rose to be Republican House Whip by making deals with war hawks, racial extremists, and religious fundamentalists. He voted against Veterans Administration funding and for cop-killer bullets. He opposed extending the Civil Rights Act. He voted against Apartheid sanctions. He was among only 5% of Congressmen who opposed the Safe Drinking Water Act. He backed tax breaks for energy corporations and fought hazardous waste cleanup bills.
Then, George Bush Sr. named this recipient of five draft deferments to be Secretary of Defense. In that position, he shifted many military duties to for-profit private companies. He brought into positions of considerable influence neocon ideologues who James Baker and Brent Scowcroft warned the President “to keep these guys at arm’s length.”
After Bush Sr.’s defeat, Cheney spent time working in right-wing think tanks. Two years later, a group of CEOs on a fishing trip decided that Cheney should become CEO of Halliburton. He had barely worked in the private sector, and never in the energy sector,
Under Cheney's tenure, Halliburton increased its offshore tax havens from 9 to 44, and decreased its taxes from $302 million in 1998, to an $85 million refund in 1999. He orchestrated deals with the ayatollahs and Muammar al-Quaddafi, while lobbying to lift U.S. sanctions against Iran and Libya. His crowning achievement was to acquire Dresser Industries, but Dresser turned out to have huge potential asbesos liabilities. Halliburton’s stock dropped from $54 per share, to $10.
When George W. Bush asked Cheney to help him choose a running mate, Cheney picked himself. He bought an insurance policy that would guarantee his deferred payments from Halliburton, regardless of the company's performance. His net worth—between $30 and $100 million—comes largely from Halliburton, to whom the Bush administration has given $8 billion in contracts.
An early Cheney role as VP was to chair the Energy Task Force. He intensely fought making its deliberations public, but lost in July 2003 at the Supreme Court. The released documents included information on companies like Dresser that had made agreements with Saddam Hussein. They urged military intervention to remove strategic, political, and economic obstacles to increased U.S. oil consumption.
He placed neocons in charge of the Defense Department who were described by Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff as “an extreme nationalistic and messianic cabal.” Cheney became the most forceful advocate for an Iraq invasion.
He broadcast as incontrovertible fact that Saddam had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, American troops would be embraced as liberators, and oil revenues would pay for the war. He continues to insist that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were allies and that anyone who disagreed was “dishonest and reprehensible.” He pushed congress to legally authorize torture.
Last October, Cheney’s Chief of Staff Scooter Libby was indicted for perjury in his testimony about outing CIA operative Valerie Plame as punishment for her husband’s disproving a Bush/Cheny justification for the war. Cheney supporters have amassed $8 million in legal defense funds in the fervent hope that Libby won’t roll over.
Thinking through this history, I could find no occasion when Cheney admitted even the slightest flaw in his version of The Truth. I had to abandon the wishful hope that he might acknowledge that any reality existed outside his own pronouncements. He is surrounded by people who would be threatened by any expression of his self doubt and would forcefully contradict it. On balance, I’m glad I live where my neighbors don’t hesitate to tell me that I’m a moron.