Just as Dick Cheney predicted, heads are starting to explode all over Washington. Ranting ideologues who can't even get their facts close to straight (hint: Cheney was in Texas, not Maryland, when he accidentally sprayed a hunting companion with bird shot) are now having conniptions because the former vice president dares to survive on this earth without apologizing for his existence. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell already has risen to Cheney's bait, accusing his former colleague of using his new memoir to take "cheap shots" at Powell and Powell's cronies. The vitriol and extravagant denunciations from boringly predictable sources are already rolling in.
The real "problem" with Dick Cheney, though, isn't really a problem at all: It's that he refuses to let the conventional wisdom of "official Washington" stand unchallenged. He prefers facts to cheap and misleading narratives. And he refuses to kiss up to the establishment's demi-gods and demagogues.
Take Colin Powell's complaints that Cheney was wrong to resent Powell's long silence on the "Valerie Plame" affair in which Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, ended up convicted of perjury about a leak Libby himself didn't commit, involving a claim about Iraq's involvement with "yellowcake" uranium that Libby himself never made. The simple facts are that the now-identified leaker was top Powell aide Richard Armitage, that the leak was a mistake rather than part of a deliberately politicized strategy, and that Powell himself knew Armitage was the leaker but nevertheless let Libby (and Karl Rove) twist in the wind for years while prosecutors set underhanded perjury traps for him. (Rather than hash out all the details, I refer interested readers to these five stories -- two by me -- that set the record entirely straight: here, here, here, here, and here.) Powell's behavior in this incident was highly unworthy of a statesman, and Cheney has every right to take offense on behalf of his loyal and effective (and innocent) aide, Libby.
But let's set aside personal disputes and policy differences. Let's just consider the media-created image of Cheney as a dyspeptic, conniving, malevolent "Darth Vader" of American politics. When he was chosen as George W. Bush's running mate in 2000, his image was exactly the opposite: It was that of a reasonable, thoughtful, straight-shooting, wise and steady statesman. So what happened? As Cheney himself told the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger the other day, he doesn't think he changed, but the world did. Then the media jackals, having refused to see the world's changes the same way Cheney did, used the ever-silent vice president (remember how he always deferred to the president while in office?) as their bogeyman.
From what I saw and heard in five years in Washington, that image is as much of a lie as a lie can be. I can't claim any close personal knowledge of the man himself, but I formed rather strong impressions from several informational opportunities: two small-group lunches at the vice president's residence, one (mostly) on the record and one off; and a number of personal conversations with former Cheney aides who uniformly painted him in similar fashion. The picture is of a man who is, yes, all business and no nonsense, but also of one with a frequent, dry, and subtle wit; a refreshing straight-forwardness; a courage of his convictions but without a need to have his ego fed; and a striking subjugation of his own public image if necessary to best serve the policy causes he supports from sincere conviction.
His whip-smart daughter Liz sat in on both lunches, and I was struck by the fond, light, amusing banter between them both times. Indeed, what impressed me about Cheney's interactions with his daughter, indeed with the whole group of about 12 of us, was the vice president's ease of manner and comfort in his own skin. His was not a dark and brooding presence, but rather one that made up in genuine good will what it lacked in what this modern, feelings-saturated culture calls "warmth."
To a person, meanwhile, his former aides say that he is one of the best (usually the best of) bosses they have ever worked for. Of course he expects hard work, excellently done, but he is reasonable, considerate, entirely respectful of family obligations, and good at knowing what can and can't be delegated. He treats them like professionals, not like servants; and, they say, he is quietly thoughtful in myriad ways.
"The public perception of Cheney and the daily interactions with him were miles apart and polar opposites," Shannen Coffin, former chief legal counsel to the vice president, repeated to me last week. "He was a relatively easy-going boss… always cordial and professional, with an impish sense of humor that kept things light for all of us and was an absolute delight to be with."
An extraordinary career of nearly 40 years in high public life merits one heck of a memoir. If that's what Dick Cheney has given us, with nothing held back, then more power to him -- no matter how many heads figuratively explode.
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