A Tale of Two Vice Presidents
They both served as VP. Faced hordes demanding their imprisonment. Shot people they knew. Colin Powell’s former chief of staff draws the eerie parallels between Dick Cheney and one of American history’s great rogues, Aaron Burr.
Who are the two U.S. vice presidents who have marked themselves indelibly in the book of shame? Aaron Burr and Richard Cheney (Spiro Agnew's peccadilloes are miniscule in comparison), some two centuries apart. Perhaps that speaks volumes for the soundness of the system our Founders designed: A scoundrel every 200 years in that high office is a fair record.
Spiro Agnew's peccadilloes are miniscule in comparison.
In presidential electoral votes, Burr tied Thomas Jefferson in 1801. With the election thrown into the House of Representatives for resolution—as ironically the election of 2000 with Cheney and Bush was thrown to the Supreme Court—it came down to Jefferson's archenemy, Alexander Hamilton, to stun his fellow Federalists and declare his support for Jefferson. That support carried the day in the House and Thomas Jefferson became our third president. Burr was vice president, as was customary for runners-up during our country’s first few decades.
Burr would later kill Hamilton in a duel—after, as some historians record it, Hamilton had averted his pistol shot—and thus send himself into damnation so far as most of his contemporaries were concerned. Oddly, Cheney would only manage to shoot a friend while quail hunting and, apparently, on the booze a bit too much.
Burr, in 1807 and no longer vice president as Jefferson had rejected him, would be tried for treason and for attempting to incite a war with Spain, among other nefarious dealings. John Marshall, never a friend to Jefferson, so narrowly defined "treason", however, that Burr was acquitted. Today, if Cheney were put on trial the results would likely repeat: If he were tried for war crimes, which he most assuredly could be according to U.S. law, he would be acquitted for fear that a conviction would be too tumultuous for the nation to endure.
But perhaps the greatest similarity in these two vice presidents, Burr and Cheney, is summed up by what Alexander Hamilton described about Burr's actions when Hamilton was at the operational head of the American army during the heightened period of tension with France.
"General, you are now at the head of the army," Burr told Hamilton. "You are a man of the first talents and of vast influence. Our constitution is a miserable paper machine. You have it in your power to demolish it and give us a proper one and you owe it to your friends and the country to do it." Hamilton replied: "Why Col[onel] Burr, in the first place, the little army I command is totally inadequate to the object you mention. And in the second place, if the army were adequate, I am too much troubled with the thing called morality to make the attempt." Burr then said: "General, all things are moral to great souls."
That last sums up Cheney's view perfectly.
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson was Colin Powell’s chief of staff while he was Secretary of State during George W. Bush’s presidency. He has served as director of the U.S. Marines Corps War College, and on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College, the College of William and Mary and The George Washington University.