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Two Cheers for The World According to Cheney

There's no giving up on Dick Cheney.

By From the November 2011 issue

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In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir
By Dick Cheney with Liz Cheney
(Threshold Editions, 565 pages, $35)

IF I HAD to sum up both the tone of this memoir and the character of its author in six words, I would quote--as he does on page 18--the words of Miss Korbel, his kindergarten teacher. "Richard," she wrote on his first report card, "does not give up easily." This simple, straightforward evaluation goes far to explaining both Dick Cheney's many impressive achievements in public life and his occasional missteps. But before going any further, I need to make a personal disclosure. Although three years his junior, I was briefly, and only technically, Dick Cheney's boss when we first met on Capitol Hill 42 years ago. I formed a high opinion of him then, and I still hold it today.

What brought us together in 1969 was an unofficial task force of 22 rising young Republican members of Congress created and headed by Rep. Bill Brock of Tennessee (later a senator, Republican National Committee chairman, U.S. trade representative, and secretary of labor), for whom I worked at the time. As Brock's man on the task force I served as de facto staff director, coordinating the activities of the 21 other staffers detailed by the participating congressmen. One of those congressmen was a future president and vice president, George H. W. Bush; one of the staffers was Dick Cheney--a very smart, slightly stolid young PhD candidate on a congressional fellowship in the office of Rep. Bill Steiger of Wisconsin. So, without knowing it, I had one future president and two future veeps on board.

The mission of the task force was to visit college campuses around the country--a listening tour before the invention of the term--and meet with students, faculty, and administrators in as calm and non-confrontational a setting as was possible at the height of the Vietnam War. Afterward, as Dick Cheney explains in this memoir, back in Washington, "the congressmen briefed the president on their campus visits and issued a public report that offered a number of ideas, including lowering the voting age to eighteen."

Lending momentum to the drive to lower the voting age was not, however, the task force's only historic legacy. Over lunch at the GOP Capitol Hill Club shortly after the task force wound down, Dick confided that the experience had convinced him that his future would be better spent in the corridors of power rather than in the halls of academe. Or, as he puts it in his forceful but sparely-written memoir, "I was beginning to realize that it was the political life that I preferred." He soon hitched his wagon to one of the Congress's fastest rising stars. Don Rumsfeld was a promising Illinois House member President Nixon had just named head of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the organizational residue of Lyndon Johnson's long lost and long forgotten--though we're still paying for it--"War on Poverty." Like Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld has a well-earned reputation for bluntness. Witness the way he welcomed Cheney to his OEO staff: "You, you're congressional relations. Now get the hell out of here."

In fact, Cheney would stick close, becoming Rumsfeld's trusted trouble-shooter at OEO and then following him to the Cost of Living Council and the Nixon White House staff. Post-Watergate, when Rumsfeld was named President Ford's White House chief of staff, Cheney would be his deputy. Both men were alpha male Washington political types, very smart, very aggressive, and very ambitious, but they were far enough apart in age--Cheney being younger by nearly a decade--to avoid career collisions. Indeed, as the younger man, Cheney would literally follow in Rumsfeld's footsteps, replacing him as White House chief of staff when Ford named Rumsfeld secretary of defense, then, while still a young man, successfully running for Congress just as Rumsfeld had before him. Later, he would emulate Rumsfeld by transferring to the private sector and becoming a dynamic CEO (Rumsfeld at Searle Pharmaceuticals, Cheney at the energy giant Halliburton), amassing a personal fortune that would allow him to re-enter public life whenever and however he chose. Cheney would also follow in his mentor's footsteps at the Pentagon, serving as the senior Bush's defense secretary just as Don Rumsfeld had served Jerry Ford.

Only in 2001, more than 30 years after they first worked together, would their roles be reversed with Cheney jumping the queue to be W's vice president and Rumsfeld returning to the Pentagon for a second stint as secretary of defense. Small wonder that the two men would think so much alike politically and militarily when facing the biggest challenge of their careers: charting the right response to 9/11. Their like-mindedness would be reinforced by a mutual reliance on a tight circle of advisors with a doctrinaire view of the world and a lock-step approach to foreign policy. To label this influential group of unelected operatives as Straussian neoconservatives is a gross oversimplification, but men like Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld's right hand man at the Pentagon) and Scooter Libby (Cheney's vice presidential chief of staff) shared a formulaic, interventionist view of Middle East policy and recognized the unique opportunity that the national trauma of 9/11 offered for putting it into effect by launching twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Billions of dollars and thousands of American lives later, what is one to make of that response? In his thoughtful, well-researched Sands of Empire, the distinguished journalist and historian Robert Merry--hardly a raving lefty--summed it up rather neatly:

Administration rhetoric justifying and explaining the war policy turned out to be riddled with inaccuracies and misperceptions. The war was justified primarily on the basis of the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam possessed and was building. No such weapons were ever found. Vice President Cheney insisted Saddam was linked to the al Qaeda network that perpetrated the September 11 attacks, but there was no evidence of consequence to that effect, and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet felt obliged to correct Cheney privately on more than one occasion.

Donald Rumsfeld, he adds, bluntly asserted that "no terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq." Subsequent events proved that statement erroneous, Merry points out; the ongoing terrorist threat "was much greater than any threat from the hapless Saddam Hussein and his military, severely attenuated by the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent U.N. Sanctions."

Believing what his advisors told him, Dick Cheney had said of the Iraqis, "I really believe we will be greeted as liberators." The same advisors had also sold both Cheney and Rumsfeld on the merits of the London-based Iraqi National Congress, a shadowy exile group headed by convicted bank swindler Ahmed Chalabi who fed his backers doctored or fabricated intelligence inciting America to invade. Interestingly, in the many pages he devotes to defending his role as chief administration hawk, Dick Cheney omits any mention of the dubious Mr. Chalabi.

IT IS UNFORTUNATE that a book with such an overwhelmingly positive story to tell--a triumphant and honorable personal rise from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of power, a warm family saga, and an instructive look behind the curtain of public politics to the way the executive and legislative branches really work--should in the end be weighed down by an obsessive attempt (as Miss Korbel recognized all those years ago, "Richard does not give up easily") to justify understandable mistakes rather than acknowledge them.

Given his parlous state of health, I can sympathize with Dick Cheney's sense of urgency in going to press. And, like the president he served, he deserves full credit for keeping our country safe from further mass terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. But history will surely record that the greatest victories in the war on terror have been won on the ground in America where murderers with box cutters can no longer board planes at their pleasure, and through carefully targeted intelligence work and small, elite force operations like the one that took out Osama bin Laden.

And let's not forget Dick Cheney's masterful election debate performances in 2000 and 2004. They helped keep two prime liberal goofs (Al Gore and John Kerry) and one dirty, rotten scoundrel (John Edwards) at a safe distance from the White House. In the end, that alone should earn Dick Cheney a place of honor in the conservative pantheon.

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.