Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”
Lincoln never encountered the remarkable certitude of former Vice-President Dick Cheney.
In a new Showtime documentary by filmmaker R.J. Cutler, aptly titled The World According to Dick Cheney, the former vice-president confidently riffs about everything from fly fishing to “enhanced interrogation techniques” – a term that will forever be attached to him.
What’s particularly revealing is how Cutler gets Cheney to expose so much of himself within the first two minutes by beginning with a short series of seemingly simple questions. Cheney has a quick answer for all… except one.
“What’s your favorite virtue?”
“What do you appreciate most from your friends?”
“Your idea of happiness?”
“A day on the South Forth of the Snake [river] with a fly run.”
“Your idea of misery?”
“Loss of a family member.”
“What’s your favorite food?”
“What do you consider your main fault?”
After a few moments of thought, Cheney responds: “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults.”
And that little reveal encapsulates and sets up what is to come.
Early on, in voice over, one of those interviewed about Cheney remarks, “Almost any man can stand-up under adversity, but if you really want to know a man’s character, give him power,” – another quote from Lincoln.
This is a film about a man who wanted to be President, and settled to be “the most powerful vice president in American history.”
But, it’s also a story of two Dick Cheneys.
The first was raised in Caspar, Wyoming, was kicked out of Yale University twice before finding his calling in Washington D.C. Mentored by Donald Rumsfeld, the 33-year-old Cheney became the youngest deputy chief of staff ever in serving President Gerald Ford. Both Rumsfeld and Ford found the young Cheney to be quite politically astute. When Rumsfeld is appointed Secretary of Defense, Cheney becomes Ford’s chief of staff – “A major transformation from where I had been 12 years before,” Cheney acknowledges.
In 1976, Ford appoints Cheney his campaign manager. At one point, Cheney remarks “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.” While the quote doesn’t appear in the documentary, it is a revealing rationalization that Cheney will make good use of later on.
In 1978, Cheney is elected to Congress and goes on to be re-elected five times.
What might surprise many is that when Cheney is appointed Secretary of Defense by George H.W. Bush, he cut the defense budget and downsized the military. In 1991, Cheney’s plan was to reduce the military from 2.2 million when he took office to 1.6 million. And his 1993 defense budget was reduced from 1992, canceling programs that Congress had directed the Department of Defense to buy weapons that it did not want.
However, it was during Cheney’s first-hand experience with the Iraq war that a second Dick Cheney emerged.
“He did not want to be flexible,” Post reporter Bob Woodward observes. “He just wanted to get in the face of terrorists and use extreme measures.”
All the planets aligned when 9/11 happened, and the new Dick Cheney did not waste any time in using his considerable power to push for nothing less than the elimination of Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein. This Dick Cheney wanted to go in and finish what Bush 41 had not. This Dick Cheney schemed, cherry-picked intelligence, manipulated information and individuals until, as vice president to Bush 43, he had the political capital necessary to fulfill his goals.
Getting rid of Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein was a good thing. No one doubts this. But at what cost, and considering the fact that he was regarded as a “paper tiger” by many of his Middle East counterparts, was it really necessary?
From Cheney’s perspective, the end justified whatever means were necessary in order to keep America safe. Toward that end, he adopts what becomes known as “The One Percent Doctrine.” If there is a one percent chance, Cheney believes, that a terrorist can harm the U.S., we need to treat it as a certainty. It, therefore, becomes vital to keep America safe no matter the consequences, and… no matter what Congress says. And if you’re Vice-President Dick Cheney that means you are not above manipulating members of your own party in Congress to get whatever you want.
Convincing House Republican Dick Armey that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction,” became a challenge he met despite the vigorous debate to the contrary. Even New York Senator Hillary Clinton signs-on when she learns of Cheney’s ‘intelligence.’ When weapons aren’tdiscovered by inspector David Kaye, Congress proclaims “we were duped!”
On the controversial tactic of waterboarding, Rumsfeld says, “We’ve had successive Central Intelligence Agency directors say that the information gained from those interrogations produced a major amount of the information that we had about Al Qaeda.”
Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole: “When you use these kinds of tactics against an individual, he will talk. Whether he’ll tell you the truth or not is another matter. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did not reveal any information about an operational plot coming to fruition; indeed the CIA Inspector General found that nobody interrogated under the enhanced interrogation plans coughed-up information that allowed us to stop any ticking time bomb.”
Torture, misdirection, lies of convenience, rationalization, justification, this Dick Cheney sounds and acts more like Richard III than a responsible leader of the free world.
“The real anomaly in the administration is Cheney,” said Brent Scowcroft, the former national security advisor to Bush 41. “I consider Cheney a good friend — I’ve known him for 30 years. But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore.”
The closing images of World show Cheney out on his boat, fishing with a final unsettling voiceover that appears to sum up his political philosophy.
“I don’t lay awake nights thinking, ‘Gee, what are they going to say about me now.’ I didn’t worry about it a lot when I was doing it, and I thought the best way to get on with my life and my career was to do what I thought was right. I did what I did and it’s all part of the public record, and I feel very good about it. If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.”