David Frum

03.25.12

Cheney in History

How did Dick Cheney become the most powerful vice president of all time?

This way:

Very early one morning, a voice-mail indicator began to blink in Room 6140 of the Interior Department. Sue Ellen Wooldridge played the message when she arrived."

"'This is Dick Cheney. I understand you are the person handling this Klamath situation, and I have some questions. Please call me at - "

Long pause.

"I guess I don't know my own number. I'm over at the White House."

Yeah, right.

Who would fall for that? Wooldridge, forty, was the nineteenth-ranking official in an agency that did not exactly bask in White House attention.

"I thought to myself, 'Someone is fucking with me,' Wooldridge said.

She hit *D on the keypad. Delete.

Late that afternoon, Wooldridge returned from a meeting. Another message. Guy named Ron Christie from the White House. Cheney's deputy domestic policy adviser.

"Any special reason," he asked, "why you're not returning the vice president's call?"

That story can be found on pp. 195-196 of Barton Gellman's to-date definitive study of the Cheney vice presidency, Angler.

Embedded in that story is the unsurprising secret of Dick Cheney's influence within the Bush White House, especially in the first term: he knew more and worked harder than virtually anybody else.

Cheney never sought credit. He was utterly uninterested in the trappings of office or reputation for power. I once described his method of operation this way:

It was like—you know that experiment where you pass a magnet under the table and you see the iron filings on the top of the table move? You know there's a magnet there because of what you see happening, but you never see the magnet.

In the end, the habit of secrecy became so integral to him that even his own autobiography explored new frontiers in uncommunicativeness. (The Klamath matter that Gellman described? Not mentioned. Ahmed Chalabi? Not mentioned. The energy task force that sparked a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court? Summed up in a few terse, conclusory sentences.)

I hope we all wish the vice president a swift recovery from surgery. History isn't done with him yet. If anything—it's only just begun.