Tuesday, August 30, 2011 – the day heads didn’t explode all across Washington. This was the day In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir – Dick Cheney’s new book – finally hit bookstores everywhere. “There are gonna be heads exploding all over Washington” – that was what Cheney told NBC Monday night. And of course in the new book he defends his support of waterboarding and the war in Iraq. As he told Matt Lauer in this interview on the Today show – “I was a big advocate of pursuing controversial policies in order to keep the country safe, and obviously the critics extracted their pound of flesh for that.” Poor baby – but no one’s head exploded. What else was he going to say?
And of course Cheney called out those he considered weak-willed lily-livered sniveling cowards or whatever – so Colin Powell, the former secretary of State, called Cheney’s statements about him and Condoleezza Rice “cheap shots” – and then Powell added this – “My head isn’t exploding. I haven’t noticed any other heads exploding in Washington, DC.”
Of course not – it was just Dick being a dick. Powell basically shrugged it off. All this guy has is cheap shots. And the precise and prissy conservative commentator George Will said this – “Five hundred and sixty five pages and a simple apology would have been in order in some of them. Which is to say, the great fact of those eight years was we went to war – big war, costly war – under false pretenses. And… to write a memoir in which you say essentially nothing seriously went wrong… if I wrote a memoir of my last week, I would have things to apologize for.”
Well, yeah, there is that false pretenses thing. But Cheney is not the kind of guy who apologizes. So what else is new? And there was Human Rights Watch – “Cheney defends the indefensible. To be clear, interrogation techniques Cheney is defending include forms of torture outlawed under both US and international law.”
But Cheney never cared. We all knew that. And there was longtime Powell aide Colonel Lawrence “Larry” Wilkerson on ABC news describing Cheney as a “very vindictive person” – and adding that Cheney “was president for all practical purposes for the first term of the Bush administration” and now “fears being tried as a war criminal.”
“I think he’s just trying to, one, assert himself so he’s not in some subsequent time period tried for war crimes and, second, so that he somehow vindicates himself because he feels like he needs vindication. That in itself tells you something about him,” Wilkerson told ABC News, explaining that Cheney may have “angst” because of receiving deferments instead of serving in the Vietnam War like Wilkerson and others in the administration.
“He’s developed an angst and almost a protective cover, and now he fears being tried as a war criminal so he uses such terminology as ‘exploding heads all over Washington’ because that’s the way someone who’s decided he’s not going to be prosecuted acts: boldly, let’s get out in front of everybody, let’s act like we are not concerned and so forth when in fact they are covering up their own fear that somebody will Pinochet him,” Wilkerson said alluding to the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested for war crimes.
Something was rotten at the core. But we all knew that, and what we get now is anecdotal confirmation. And some things are just emblematic. One tale in the book making the rounds is how Cheney for some reason once took his big yellow lab with him to some important weekend meetings at Camp David, and his big yellow dog suddenly took out after Bush’s little black terrier, Barney, and tried to tear Barney’s throat out. Cheney recounts with some glee – and pride – that he was then informed that his dog was forthwith banned from Camp David. That’s either a wry and funny aside, or Cheney means it to be emblematic of everything that happened in his years as the vice president.
But Cheney has a good agent. Every news outlet other that Inside Hollywood and ESPN has interviewed him, many of them honing in on his continued pleas for exoneration of Scooter Libby – basically for all the lying and law-breaking Libby did to cover up Cheney’s role in the outing of Valerie Plame. He blames Colin Powell for the investigation that sunk Libby and seethes about George Bush’s refusal to pardon Libby. You don’t leave a loyal soldier lying on the field of battle and all that. And he snorts at Condoleezza Rice being all “tearful” in her public apology for those sixteen words that drove Joe Wilson to the op-ed pages to try to stop the mistake that was and still is the Iraq war. At least that’s how it felt watching many of the interviews. Even if no heads exploded it was still unpleasant.
Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic Online has the best summing up, in detail, with quotes and links and supporting documentation, with Why Dick Cheney Left Office Unpopular and Reviled – and it is usefully arranged by subheadings:
THE WAR IN IRAQ
ILLEGALLY SPYING ON INNOCENT AMERICANS
INSTRUMENTAL IN DETAINING INNOCENTS FOR YEARS ON END
RADICAL VIEW OF EXECUTIVE POWER
UNPRINCIPLED EFFORTS TO MAXIMIZE PERSONAL POWER
Read it all and you’ll see why Friedersdorf concludes with this:
Dick Cheney was a self-aggrandizing criminal who used his knowledge as a Washington insider to subvert both informed public debate about matters of war and peace and to manipulate presidential decision-making, sometimes in ways that angered even George W. Bush.
After his early years of public service, he capitalized on connections he made while being paid by taxpayers to earn tens of millions of dollars presiding over Halliburton. While there, he did business with corrupt Arab autocrats, including some in countries that were enemies of the United States. Upon returning to government, he advanced a theory of the executive that is at odds with the intentions of the founders, successfully encouraged the federal government to illegally spy on innocent Americans, passed on to the public false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and became directly complicit in a regime of torture for which he should be in jail.
Friedersdorf says this explains Cheney’s unpopularity in 2008, when he left office. And nothing much has changed.
And see the BooMan:
Dick Cheney might be the most aggressive politician this country has seen since Lyndon Johnson. That’s irritating in itself, but Cheney is wrong about every single issue facing the country. His record is as bad as any politician I have ever seen. It doesn’t matter that he lies as easily as he breathes, because even his lies only serve misguided goals. No human being in my lifetime has been as aggressively and consequentially wrong as Dick Cheney.
It’s this unmitigated track-record of non-stop failure that is the true cause of Cheney’s poor standing with the public. Even Bush eventually realized that he needed to stop following Cheney’s advice. The moment Dick’s ally Donald Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates, everything began to improve in our foreign affairs and relations. In retrospect, the change represented the sidelining of Cheney and his neo-con confederates in favor of the realist school of Bush’s father. This didn’t prevent Bush from leaving a smoldering husk of a country to his successor, but it could definitely have been worse if Cheney’s influence had persisted.
Cheney lacks charm or warmth or any real sense of humor. He was willing to let his good friend and top assistant, Scooter Libby, go to prison for a crime he himself committed. Even his reputation for loyalty to Bush has been shattered by his new book, which makes Bush look bad on several occasions.
About the only thing there is to like about Cheney is his sheer aggression, if you’re into that kind of thing.
I think his contempt for the rule of law and the truth and the people far exceeds anything ever displayed by Richard Nixon. And Nixon was an able and competent president in both foreign and domestic affairs. Cheney was anything but able and competent.
But it doesn’t matter much and Glenn Greenwald in Salon on the Thursday before all this thinks he know why no heads will explode over any of this:
That’s what happens when the Government – marching under the deceitful Orwellian banner of Look Forward, Not Backward – demands that its citizens avert their eyes from the crimes of their leaders so that all can be forgotten: the crimes become non-crimes, legitimate acts of political choice, and the criminals become instantly rehabilitated by the message that nothing they did warrants punishment. That’s the same reason people like John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales are defending their torture and illegal spying actions not in a courtroom but in a lush conference of elites in Aspen.
Cheney is a bastard, and certainly a criminal, but in our system he’s just irritating, and quite untouchable:
The U.S. Government loves to demand that other countries hold their political leaders accountable for serious crimes, dispensing lectures on the imperatives of the rule of law. Numerous states bar ordinary convicts from profiting from their crimes with books. David Hicks, an Australian citizen imprisoned without charges for six years at Cheney’s Guantanamo, just had $10,000 seized by the Australian government in revenue from his book about his time in that prison camp on the ground that he is barred from profiting from his uncharged, unproven crimes.
By rather stark contrast, Dick Cheney will prance around the next several weeks in the nation’s largest media venues, engaging in civil, serious debates about whether he was right to invade other countries, torture, and illegally spy on Americans, and will profit greatly by doing so. There are many factors accounting for his good fortune, the most important of which are the protective shield of immunity bestowed upon him by the current administration and the more generalized American principle that criminal accountability is only for ordinary citizens and other nations’ (unfriendly) rulers.
And see Skydancing:
Cheney thinks everything he did was right and everyone else is wrong. This includes the President he served and the people he served with maybe the exception of Donald Rumsfeld. It’s a little odd don’t you think, that Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Dubya can’t leave the country for fear of being sent directly to The Hague to be tried for Crimes against humanity? Yet, Cheney can’t think of one thing that he wasn’t right about.
Actually, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick thinks whole business, this new memoir, is about Cheney getting away with torture: “This week Dick Cheney invites us all to join him again in a game he likes to play against the rest of us called Tedious Torture Standoff.”
Now it’s his new memoir, but it’s always the same – he has “no regrets” about developing the US torture program – and on the Today show again said that torturing prisoners is “safe, legal, and effective.” And he never stopped suggesting that he would “strongly support” water-boarding if actionable information could be elicited from a prisoner. And she notes he now even says that different standards apply to torturing Americans and foreigners:
Cheney is trying, in short, to draw us back into the same tiresome debate over the efficacy of torture, which is about as compelling as a debate about the efficacy of slavery or Jim Crow laws. Only fools debate whether patently illegal programs “work” – only fools or those who have been legally implicated in designing the programs in the first place.
And she has no idea why Cheney wants to keep re-litigating torture “in the face of a factual record that has concluded for the thousandth time that it is neither effective nor legal” – as that issue has been put to rest – and she simply guesses maybe it’s good for his book sales:
All I know is that when almost everyone with any expertise in the matter and any knowledge of the torture program… says that it hurts more than it helps, Cheney starts to sound a little like the crazy lady in the attic.
She cites Matthew Alexander and John McCain on this matter – you get no good information, only a reputation for irrational murderous sadism. What Colin Powell presented to the UN – the proof of Saddam Hussein’s WMD stuff – came from a single source, a fellow who was tortured for us by the Egyptians, and screamed out what he thought we wanted to hear. Oops. So Lithwick would rather not engage in “another round of the debate about the virtues of abusing prisoners in the hopes that ten years later they will fail to divulge important information that leads only in the most circular possible routes to the eventual capture of Osama Bin Laden.” And there is no misprint there, as the argument has been put forward that when we tortured guys at Guantanamo we figured out by what they didn’t say, and what they didn’t seem to know, what was really going on and where Osama Bin Laden might be. If that makes no sense to you then you’ve probably fallen into the trap of wrongly thinking that it was Obama who finally got Osama Bin Laden, not Dick Cheney. But it’s not worth discussing.
What Lithwick is more concerned with is the rule of law in America, and she cites Glenn Greenwald:
Less than three years ago, Dick Cheney was presiding over policies that left hundreds of thousands of innocent people dead from a war of aggression, constructed a worldwide torture regime, and spied on thousands of Americans without the warrants required by law, all of which resulted in his leaving office as one of the most reviled political figures in decades. But thanks to the decision to block all legal investigations into his chronic criminality, those matters have been relegated to mere pedestrian partisan disputes, and Cheney is thus now preparing to be feted – and further enriched – as a Wise and Serious Statesman …
And that bothers her, as it implicates Obama:
Implicit in Greenwald’s commentary is that the Obama administration is responsible for Cheney’s continued legitimacy in the debate about torture, as well as the legitimacy of the debate itself. By deciding to repudiate torture while doing everything in its power to protect the torturers, the Obama administration has succeeded in elevating not only Cheney but the idea that, in America, some torturers are too important to be punished.
So the real lesson here is not that Cheney “got away with it” even if he did:
It’s an admonishment to rest of us that the law really matters. The reason Cheney keeps saying that torture is “legal” is because he has a clutch of worthless legal memoranda saying so. Cheney gets away with saying torture is “legal” even though it isn’t because if it were truly illegal, he and those who devised the torture regime would have faced legal consequences – somewhere, somehow. That’s the meaning of the “rule of law.” That, rather than whether America should torture people, is what we should glean from the Cheney book.
So, is the law a joke, or not? You decide:
It’s currently fashionable to believe that political and ideological battles are “real,” and it is the law that is empty symbolism. But Cheney stands as an illustration of the real-life, practical value of the law. Torture really did become legal after 9/11, and even after it was repudiated – again and again – it will always be legal with regard to Dick Cheney and the others who perpetrated it without consequence.
The law wasn’t a hollow symbol after 9/11. It was the only fixed system we had. We can go on pretending that torture is no longer permissible in this country or under international law, but until there are legal consequences for those who order or engage in torture, we will only be pretending. Cheney is the beneficiary of that artifice.
So she notes Zev Chaffets’ positive comments in response to the Cheney memoir – arguing that because “Obama has largely adopted the Cheney playbook on combating terrorism, from keeping Gitmo open to trying suspected enemies of the state in military tribunals” that Cheney’s policies have been thoroughly vindicated and we all live in Cheney’s America.
But she is glad Conor Friedersdorf disagrees:
Although President Obama has betrayed his supporters by adopting some Bush/Cheney policies that he campaigned against, particularly the expansive view of executive power advanced by the former vice-president, Obama continues to regard the Iraq War as a foolish conflict to have entered; has rejected Cheney’s counsel that torture should be used to interrogate captured terrorists; and ignores the approach Cheney would take in places like Iran and Syria.
Chaffets is also wrong to characterize events in Cairo or Tripoli as the Bush-Cheney pro-democracy doctrine “bearing fruit.” Events in Egypt and Libya were very different from one another, but one thing they have in common is that Obama’s policy towards them wasn’t what Cheney would’ve done. Another is that neither country has yet developed into a stable democracy. A third is that Islamists are arguably more empowered in their post-revolution phases.
There is, finally, the silly hyperbole that “We are all Cheneyites,” though Cheney remains one of the most polarizing figures in America.
And she cites a second analysis arguing that Obama has repudiated or refined more Cheney policies than he has embraced. But she goes on to add her own take on this, suggesting we are not all Cheneyites in a more fundamental sense:
Most of agree that we should not be a nation of torturers, and that torture has tarnished the reputation of the United States as a beacon of justice. Most of us do not want warrantless surveillance, secret prisons, or war against every dictator who looks at us funny. We may be bloodthirsty, but we aren’t morons. On his most combative and truly lawless positions, Cheney still stands largely alone.
But that’s a problem too:
That there is even one Cheney is enough. He understands and benefits from the fact that the law is still all on his side; that there is only heated rhetoric on ours. As John Adams famously put it, the United States was intended to be a government of laws, not of men. Dick Cheney is living proof that if we are not brave enough to enforce our laws, we will forever be at the mercy of a handful of men.
But we are obviously not brave enough to enforce our own laws. And Cheney is on a book tour. Ah, Obama says let’s just move on. But this man won’t go away. And he’s proud of his vicious killer dog, and he wants to make heads explode. What is one to make of that?
Nothing – that time in America has passed. We are at his mercy no longer, and the book will soon be forgotten. In a month you’ll find it on the remainder table, alongside The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld and Ten Secrets to Overcoming Flatulence, and The Wit and Wisdom of Heidi Fleiss. No one’s head was really going to explode.