In Washington’s highly polarized political environment, you would expect that the publication of a memoir by a significant political figure would arouse the ire of those across the aisle. You expect the spokesmen for the other party to shout that certain charges in the memoir are “utterly misleading” or that they are “cheap shots.” You expect someone to denounce the books’ contents as “an attack on my integrity.” But, what you do not normally expect is to find those kinds of comments from those in your own party, from those who used to work alongside you.
Unless of course, the memoir in question is by former Vice President Dick Cheney. It appears that the comments quoted above, from two former Republican Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, indicate that Cheney is really as loathed by some Republicans as he is by some Democrats. It is not difficult to see why. This is a man whose Manichean worldview shaped American policy in tragic and illegal ways. This is a man who seems incapable of not taking a cheap shot. This is a man who can find good things to say about Richard Nixon but nothing good to say about Barack Obama.
I have watched a couple of his interviews over the past few days. Here is a link to video of one of the more interesting, with Mike Allen of Politico. It is not only that the former vice president is smug, admitting to misdeeds in his youth but not in office. It is not that he is still relentlessly on message, as if he were trying to mount a campaign. It is not that he hides behind “it’s classified” when it suits him even though the rest of us know that this is the man who defended Scooter Libby.
What most bothers me is the way he just lies through his teeth. For example, he notes that President Obama has carried on some of those same policies, such as keeping Guantanamo open, and Cheney then says Obama had to do this because, “that was the most effective way to defend the nation.” Of course, Cheney is not dumb. He knows that Obama tried to close Guantanamo down but was prevented from doing so by a whipped up popular opinion that, sadly, had been shaped by eight years of fear-mongering. He knows that Obama stopped water-boarding and other types of torture, but does not acknowledge that. He claims to know what no person can know, that torture played a necessary role in acquiring the intelligence that helped track down Osama bin Laden, but no one can tell if that information would not have been acquired by other, legal means.
Forgive me suggesting that Dick Cheney may be the most sinister person to hold public office in my lifetime. I am not a huge fan of politicians. I never much cared for Bill and Hillary, even though I supported some of their policies. I think Ronald Reagan caused great harm to America’s social fabric by legitimating the racist overtones of the anti-welfare campaign and by helping convince the country that voodoo economics was the key to social happiness. I respect President Obama’s mind but have been consistently disappointed with his performance in office.
Cheney stands out from the pack, however. It seems to me that today politicians have to debase themselves in so many ways to achieve their ambitions, that by the time they arrive in office, they tend to live from talking point to talking point. Their lives are an endless loop of fundraising events, meeting people they do not know or remember and pretending they care, fake foolishness interspersed with policy briefings from people who have already considered the political angle as well as the policy angle by the time they enter the room. This is not the picture of Dick Cheney. Cheney is not a figurehead and he rose to political influence in the days before campaign consultants got the hang of emasculating candidates.
But, instead of bringing sagacity and wisdom to his exalted station, Cheney brought a Manichean temperament with a Machiavellian methodology. The thing that consumes Cheney, clearly, is power and its use. No one should be a politician unless they find power fascinating and useful, perhaps not for vulgar ends but for fame and glory. But, Cheney, for all his experience, seems to be a surprisingly unlearned man. Every issue was a fight between good and evil, whether it was America facing Al-Qaeda or Cheney facing off with the State Department, and every battle was to be fought no holds barred. Such thinking is not tough, it is warped, prone to over-reactions and miscalculations, constantly trying to fit reality into one’s pre-conceived notions instead of allowing the data to shape one’s worldview. Relativism is not the only thing that can exercise dictatorship over the human mind: Manichaeism also perpetrates a kind of dictatorship over the minds it ensnares and it completely ensnared the mind of Dick Cheney. Add to this his personal, financial interest in war-making, and you find a determined man, but not a particularly wise one.
The best thing to say about Dick Cheney is that he shall never again darken the doors of the Oval Office to offer counsel. This man, who is the walking embodiment of the military-industrial complex Dwight Eisenhower warned us about is entitled, as are we all, to a peaceful retirement. I hope he has time to prepare his soul, but his interviews to suggest that his is a soul searching for answers, still less for reconciliation. He was right then and he is right today. There may have been mistakes, but no errors in judgment. Even his enemies would admit this if they were not cowards. He is good and his opponents are evil. A man in his later years and in retirement should focus on settling his accounts. Cheney is still settling scores.