Son of Nixon

In Part II of the Farewell Chronicles, Nixon aide John Dean plans the retirement of Dick Cheney—and details the veep's similarities with his former boss.

I would love to write a biography of Dick Cheney’s vice presidential years to better understand and then explain how he all but single-handedly—without being impeached or imprisoned or seriously threatened with either—rebuilt the “Imperial Presidency” (picking up where Reagan & Company left off). In doing so, Cheney revived “stonewalling” as the lingua franca of presidential communications, pushed government secrecy and unaccountability to unprecedented new levels, shamed Americans throughout the world as torturers while compounding our problems with terrorism, richly serviced his oil patch cronies, and made the once toothless Office of the Vice President a threat to Constitutional government.

To understand Richard Nixon, as I believe I do, is to appreciate that Cheney has carried Nixon’s political DNA into contemporary Republican politics and governing.

For me, Cheney is the last of a dying breed of former Nixon aides and apologists who do not believe that the disgraced president set the standard for what should not be done, rather that he provided a “to do” list legacy. To understand Richard Nixon, as I believe I do, is to appreciate that Cheney has carried Nixon’s political DNA into contemporary Republican politics and governing. Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday closed the case on Cheney’s Nixonian nature when he asked the vice president during a recent exit interview a question that produced the eeriest of echoes for anyone who has seen the Frost/Nixon film, or recalls the actual interviews from decades earlier. Nixon told David Frost, “Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.” Thirty-one years later, Wallace asked Cheney, “If the President, during war, decides to do something to protect the country, is it legal?” Without blinking, Cheney replied, “General proposition, I'd say yes.”

Like Nixon, Cheney operates best shrouded with secrecy. Cheney plays the enigma well. Unlike Nixon, however, who had intellectual heft, remarkable political acumen and a carefully developed world vision, Cheney has a small-bore mind along with a world-class Rolodex. At heart Cheney is and always has been the consummate “staff man”—an implementer of the ideas of others but neither an original nor analytical thinker. He started in Washington as a staff person and simply never grew beyond that role. As vice president, he was Bush’s super-head of staff, and when not doing Bush’s bidding, he was devoted to implementing Nixon’s vision of the presidency—a vision Cheney says he has held since Watergate.

Notwithstanding my interest, I will not write a Cheney biography. My book editor correctly points out the serious problem confronting any Cheney biographer. All Cheney’s important records have surely vanished. In September 2008, Cheney told the federal judge presiding in a lawsuit to force him to comply with the Presidential Records Act that as vice president he was not part of the Executive Branch (because the Senate pays his salary as their presiding officer), so he would decide as he saw fit what he would do with his papers. Fortunately, the court did not buy this nonsense and instructed him to comply with the law. But that instruction only covers the last few months of his tenure. There have been photos of trucks from the “Mid-Atlantic Shredding Services” coming and going to and from Cheney’s official residence at the Naval Observatory for years, so it is almost certain the good stuff is gone. In short, only Cheney can say what Cheney knew and did and why.

For years Cheney said he would never write about his government service. But, of late, he has hinted otherwise. “We’ll see,” he recently told ABC News. According to New York Times reporter Sheryl Stolberg, Cheney’s daughter Liz is pushing her father to write a book, and with his consent, she has been tracking down his pre-vice presidential papers. His other daughter, Mary, told Stolberg, “Whenever you get my dad to tell stories, you always learn something new.” This is true because Cheney never talks about his work. Apparently this is a Wyoming guy thing, Stolberg reported. What may have changed Cheney’s mind is that he is still fuming, according to Stolberg, over the way he was portrayed by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the perjury and obstruction of justice trial of his friend and former chief of staff Scooter Libby. Cheney, it will be recalled, was depicted as the evil orchestrator of the scheme to discredit Iraq war critics, including those about whom Libby lied. Additional information about Cheney’s role has been slowly leaking, suggesting that, in fact, Libby lied to protect Cheney. When Chris Wallace asked about Fitzgerald, Cheney icily responded, “I am going to pass on that.”

As he leaves office, Cheney looks overloaded and stressed, holding in check an Ubermensch level of rage mixed with self-pity. Clearly, even Darth Vader has feelings. It cannot be pleasant to have only 13 percent of America (according to the last CBS/New York Times poll) approve of your work at the pinnacle of your public career. Like Nixon, I would wager that Cheney is ready to fight ex-officio for a better reputation, and starting with a book. Undoubtedly his daughters, who want him around for as long as possible, understand that it could be therapeutic for him to unload into a book. Publishers may not want a Bush book, but Cheney would be another story, for he is seen as the real-deal, a genuine modern American Machiavelli, the stonewall itself.

Cheney has no plans to retire, as he turns 68 years old ten days after leaving office. What better way to spend his time than on a book, for he has no eleemosynary inclinations about making the world a better place, like most Democratic holders of high office when they leave. Cheney does not need to earn a living, unlike his predecessors, with his net worth estimated as high as $100 million or more gained as Halliburton’s CEO. When he leaves his undisclosed vice presidential locations he will move into a new home he and wife Lynne are building in McLean, Virginia, along with their home in Wyoming, and their retirement estate in St. Michaels, Maryland (just a stone’s throw from his pal Don Rumsfeld’s property, who is working on his book.) Lynne will be working on her book about James Madison, ironically Cheney’s favorite Founding Father (who helped establish checks and balances in the Constitution that Cheney devoted himself to contravening). With family and friends writing, Cheney cannot go fishing or hunting every day, so it seems only logical Cheney will become an author.

If past is prologue, and his exit interviews, not to mention the pattern of the last eight years, are indicative, it will be a book the GOP base will love. It could be a rip of a read about those who have been critical of Cheney, for he is a score-settler. It will not be introspective or analytical like many Democratic office holders because Cheney does not do introspection or his own analysis. Rather he will produce page after page to reassure all, as is his pattern, that he had made no mistakes in his remarkable career in which he has consistently failed upward. It will be a book much like his exit interviews, which have been filled with stunningly pathetic justifications and rationalization for the conduct of the Bush presidency. It seems Cheney is unable to do more.

It is not difficult to predict the underlying tenor and tone of Cheney’s book. There will have been nothing unconstitutional about the way they handled enemy combatants. Rather he and Bush got it right and the U.S. Supreme Court got it wrong by six to three in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, by six to three in Rasul v. Bush, and five to four in Rumsfeld v. Padilla. Or as Cheney told Chris Wallace: “Sometimes the Court makes bad decisions.” No unlawful combatant detainees have been tortured, Cheney will again report, because the “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed on 33 detainees, with waterboarding used on three, were not torture. Cheney requested and received legal opinions from the Department of Justice. Cheney will not mention how these opinions redefined torture out of existence under American law, for he never does, nor does he report that these baseless Justice Department documents were withdrawn almost as soon as they publicly surfaced, because they were not legal analysis rather legal cover. Cheney will explain that the unbridled expansions of executive powers following 9/11 were, in fact, presidential restraint. Or as he told Wallace: “If you think about what Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War, what FDR did during World War II, they went far beyond anything we’ve done in the global war on terror.” He will not mention that Congress had declared war in both those situations, and he will not explain, for he never does, how or why he equated the so-called war on terror with the Civil War, World War II, or for that matter the Cold War with its potential for world destruction. And on and on the excuses and incomplete explanations will go.

Cheney’s only real problem as an author seeking redemption and reputation will also be similar to Nixon’s. It is a Wizard of Oz problem, for he dare not pull back the curtain to fully reveal himself, because he is much more interesting, if not awesome, when hiding. In addition, he must be careful not reveal illegal behavior, for the statute of limitations for war crimes runs eight years, and I doubt Cheney truly wants to test his belief that when the vice president does it, it is not illegal.

Good-bye, Mr. Vice President. I wish you good luck with your book.

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John W. Dean, former Nixon White House counsel, has written ten books, including Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Braches, and is working on his next.

Read More Farewell Chronicles: Part I: 20 Forgotten Bush Scandals Part III: I Survived the Bush Presidency Part IV: How Much is a Bush Speech Worth?