Just How Much Power Did Dick Cheney Wield?

Andy Card, Bush 43’s White House chief of staff, says he never felt undermined by the powerful Dick Cheney. Others tell a different story.

Andrew Card Jr., who was raised in Holbrook, Massachusetts, brought the earnest, wide-eyed enthusiasm of a former Boy Scout to government service. After stints as a state representative and losing candidate for Massachusetts governor, he joined George H. W. Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign and eight years later served as his deputy chief of staff and secretary of transportation. Like Mack McLarty, he seemed not to have an enemy in the world. On visits to his father’s White House, George W. would often wind up in Card’s office, his cowboy boots on Andy’s desk, kicking back and shooting the breeze; and it was Card, of course, who successfully completed W’s failed mission to persuade his father’s chief of staff, John Sununu, to resign.

Card was organized and efficient, and he knew the workings of the White House. So, in 2000, as George W. Bush eyed the Republican presidential nomination, Card was asked to run the convention in Philadelphia. Upon arriving for a walk-through, Bush had talked about his plans for the presidency, were he to be elected, and told Card cryptically: “Keep your dance card clear.” Later, Bush asked Card to meet him in Florida; but first, he told him to drop in on his parents in Houston. Card had done so—but he found the visit very odd. “They were asking me to take good care of their son, and [saying] that I would understand, and they were really glad I would be at his side,” Card recalls. He had no idea what they were talking about. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘It doesn’t sound like a transition, it sounds like something else.’”

The Thursday before the election, Card finally met with Bush over breakfast in Tampa. “‘If you want me to do the transition, I’d be glad to do it,’” Card remembers saying. “I’m not talking about the transition,” Bush replied. “I’m talking about the big one.” For the first time, Card realized Bush wanted him to be his chief of staff. Card, who had watched five previous chiefs in action, had a couple of conditions for accepting the job. “‘First,’” he told Bush, “‘we have to have a very candid relationship. You have to be comfortable with me saying anything to you—and I will be comfortable with you saying anything to me.’ The second thing was, ‘As long as I’m your chief of staff I can’t be your friend.’ And then I said, ‘If you’re looking for more than one chief of staff at the same time, I don’t want to be one of them.’”

But first, there was an election to win. On the evening of November 7, Bush and his entourage watched the returns from the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, Texas. As the evening wore on, it was clear that the race wouldn’t be decided that night. Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, had won the popular vote, but the electoral college hinged on Florida, where the candidates were separated by only a few hundred votes. To take charge of the battle over the recount, Bush needed to send someone with world-class legal, political, diplomatic, and communications skills, and the mind-set of a killer. He chose James Baker.

While the constitutional showdown played out, Bush and his incoming chief began planning for a transition they still weren’t sure would take place. “I broke the job down into the care and feeding of the president; policy formulation; and marketing and selling,” recalls Card. “You have to make sure that the president is never hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, and that they’re well prepared to make decisions that they never thought they’d have to make. You have to manage the policy process and make sure no one is gaming the president. And the last category is marketing and selling. If the president makes a decision and nobody knows about it, did the president make a decision?”

Card continues: “Jim Baker was the role model and I learned an awful lot from him. I tried to live up to how he did the job.” But the Baker model could only go so far: Card understood that George W. Bush—like his father—did not want a chief who would be perceived as the real power behind the throne, as Baker had been with Reagan. “I think that Andy probably gave George W. Bush great comfort that it would be a White House that was well run,” says Peter Baker, author of Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. “And yet Bush did not want a more forceful chief of staff like a John Sununu or a Don Regan. That was clearly something he was trying not to have.”

And Card’s relationship with Bush was different from Baker’s with Reagan. “Andy was pretty close to the president in a way that Baker and Reagan weren’t,” says Peter Baker. “Bush and Card had a personal relationship. Andy would go biking with him, which is a big deal for Bush. He established a real alter-ego kind of relationship.”

And there was one other reason why Andy Card, as chief of staff, would be different from Jim Baker: Dick Cheney.

In the history of the presidency, there had never been a relationship like Bush and Cheney’s. For starters, no vice president had ever chosen himself for the position—but that is essentially what Cheney did. He had been leading Bush’s personnel search: “I’d walked through this process for a couple of months listening to him describe what he was looking for,” recalls Cheney of his talks with Bush about a vice president. “At the end of the process he turned to me and said, ‘You’re the solution to my problem.’ And that’s when I knew I had failed as a headhunter.” Cheney punctuates his observation with a chuckle.

In Bush’s view, Cheney solved several problems: First, he had no presidential ambitions of his own. (Cheney had flirted with running in 1996, but decided against it; he couldn’t stand all the fund-raising and glad-handing.) Bush would not have to worry about a vice president with his own political agenda. “Other vice presidencies crater,” says Cheney. “And that happens because lots of times the vice president is using it as a stepping-stone for his own campaign; he’s worried about how he’s going to run in Iowa four years hence. And I didn’t carry that baggage.”

But Bush was also looking for something else in his VP: someone as seasoned in national security matters as Bush himself was unprepared. “If there was a hole in the operation, it was in national security,” says Cheney. “And not only did I work for Ford, but I’d been in Congress, I’d been on the Intelligence Committee, I’d run the Defense Department successfully. I fit the mold of what he was looking for.” Although the popular perception of Cheney calling all the shots for Bush was untrue, theirs was an unprecedented sharing of power—almost like the “copresidency” that Ronald Reagan had dangled in front of Gerald Ford at the convention in 1980.

Cheney had always believed that “the chief of staff has more power, if you want to put it in those terms, than the vice president.” But that wouldn’t be true in George W. Bush’s administration. “We had a different kind of arrangement,” Cheney admits. “I think it was unique. I don’t think it’s ever been like that.” Cheney would be a primary voice on national security affairs—and many other policy issues. That was the way Bush wanted it. “There was never a contract, and I didn’t have to really ask him for anything,” says Cheney. “I was going to have the opportunity to get involved in anything I wanted to get involved in.”

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“Cheney had a big role from the beginning that no previous vice president had,” says Peter Baker. “I think Card understood that was the dynamic he was coming into. Cheney had been chief of staff. He knew how to run a White House. So I think he was respectful of Andy Card, but just by dint of his own experience and the force of personality and his strong views, he did in fact play a quasi chief of staff role.”

Erskine Bowles watched the Cheney-Card dynamic with amazement. In the Clinton White House, he says, “the vice president was fighting his way in to have lunch!” But with Bush, “the decisions flowed through Cheney, and I think Andy was okay with that. He’s a really nice guy. But Cheney had the president’s ear. Cheney had a ton of power and influence, he had knowledge and experience, he had the total trust of the president, and he was the last guy in the room. In my opinion, Cheney was the chief of staff.” If so, Cheney was a de facto chief with a difference: He couldn’t be fired.

Can the chief of staff do his job when the vice president wields such power? I asked Cheney about that at his house in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the spring of 2015. “Yeah, well, I don’t think of it as a zero-sum game where there’s only so much power,” he says. “I think when the two of them are working together, it’s more effective. Because Andy’s doing X and I’m doing Y. Or Andy’s involved in what I’m doing. I liked the way he operated, obviously. Andy and I were good friends. Andy had a good sense for how he wanted to operate. I think Andy saw the wisdom of having me in that job.”

Cheney also liked the person he had picked as secretary of defense: Donald Rumsfeld, whose appointment Bush had agreed to despite those old rumors that Rummy had sent Bush’s father into exile as CIA director in order to remove him as a VP contender back in 1976. (“Don’t forget what he did to your daddy,” Jim Baker reportedly reminded the president when he learned of the decision.) But George W. Bush didn’t care about those ancient grudges. In fact, he and Cheney had initially planned to give Rumsfeld the job he really wanted: CIA director. But during the transition, Bush hit it off with Clinton’s director, George Tenet; and the fact that Tenet had recently named the agency’s headquarters after Bush 41 did not hurt the director’s chances.

Bush turned to Cheney’s old mentor to run the Pentagon. So Rumsfeld, once the youngest defense secretary in history under Ford, would now be the oldest under Bush.

Cheney and Rumsfeld were together again, this time more powerful than ever.

Card at first welcomed the old masters, and valued their advice. “Secretary Rumsfeld treated me very well, appreciating the burden that I carried,” he says—though the former chief was not above making Card’s life more difficult. “He would say, ‘I know you’ve got a terrible job and, I’m going to make it worse right now.’” Card laughs. “So at least he would telegraph it and give me the heads-up!” And Card says the vice president did not wield his power at his expense. “Cheney understood the job I had, and his office was right next door—and he was terrific at making sure I knew what he was up to. Yes, he had strong opinions and very erudite views on policy, but I was never blindsided by the vice president.”

Still, Card had no illusions about Rumsfeld and Cheney. “They knew how to play the game and to participate in the bureaucracies of Washington and the political dynamics of the White House quite well,” he says. “So you couldn’t pull anything over on them. They knew how to pull strings to manipulate people to do things.”

Cheney and Rumsfeld were not the only powerful figures in the White House. Bush’s cabinet looked like homecoming week for his father’s friends from the Gulf War. Colin Powell, the secretary of state, was regularly named the “most admired” American and had come close to running for president himself. Bush compared him to George Marshall, the iconic secretary of state and architect of the postwar world. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, had been Bush Sr.’s expert on the Soviets. And then there was George W.’s own powerful Texas mafia: Karl Rove, the political director who had engineered his election victory; and Karen Hughes, his communications director and close friend.

Even-keeled and steady-tempered, Card seemed well equipped to juggle all those egos. “The president wanted a guy who could deal with strong personalities like Karen and Karl and Cheney and all the rest of us,” says Mary Matalin, Cheney’s counselor, “and who could deal with people who wanted to wield power. The more power everybody had, the more effective everybody would be. The Bush model was, ‘We’re all on the same team and we all need to perform at our highest level.’ And he was prescient to choose people who didn’t promote their own agendas.”

But in truth, not since the Reagan administration had there been such a fractious and contentious national security team, riven by outsized egos, conflicting agendas, and petty bickering. It would become, as Jim Baker once memorably said, another “rat f*ck.”

One of the first battles came in early March over global warming. Senator Chuck Hagel wanted to know the president’s position on capping carbon emissions, and the Kyoto Protocol, which called on industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. Cheney drafted a letter for Bush’s signature, rejecting both the carbon caps and the Kyoto Protocol. He went directly to Bush and persuaded him to sign it on the spot. The letter made no mention of working with other countries to find alternative solutions. More important, the policy decision had not been cleared with EPA director Christine Todd Whitman—or with Powell. “Condi calls me in the morning and says, ‘The vice president wants to answer Chuck Hagel right away,’” recalls Powell. “And I said, ‘Why now? We need to take the time to break it to our friends and allies gently.’” Powell said he’d draft some language to soften the letter. “And she called back and said, ‘No, that’s not working.’ I said, ‘Well, why not?’ ‘Well, because it’s not working.’ I said that I’d be right over.”

Powell rushed to his car. “When I got to the White House, I handed the language to Condi and she said, ‘Too late. The president signed it. The vice president has already taken it to the Hill.’ And I said to the president, ‘Mr. President, you’re going to pay a big price for this. It didn’t need to be done this way, and we know you were going to get out of the Kyoto agreement—but without consulting our friends, without laying the groundwork for it, you’re going to pay a price for this.’”

It was a telling instance of the outsized influence of the vice president, and it raised the question: Where was the chief of staff?

Powell would go on to clash with Cheney on multiple fronts. Wrapping up a trip to the Middle East, the secretary of state announced that the United States wanted to convene a conference of foreign ministers to discuss Israeli-Palestinian issues. Cheney was furious and demanded that Bush put Powell on a leash. Similarly, when Powell announced that Bush would “pick up where the Clinton administration left off” on negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear capability, Cheney was incensed. No decision had been made, but Powell had evidently used a dirty word—“Clinton.”

Powell by no means lost every fight. “Rumsfeld and Cheney and I had disagreements on arms control with the Russians,” Powell says. “They didn’t want to have a nuclear agreement to reduce nuclear weapons. Guess what? We got a nuclear agreement because the president asked me to do it, and I did it.”

But during the first term, Cheney would prevail on the national security issues he cared about. He had a voracious appetite for raw intelligence reports—and indulged it. Early on, the vice president spent hours at CIA headquarters, reading reports and peppering analysts with questions. “I put together a tour,” Cheney recalls. “I did virtually the entire intelligence community. I did CIA and NSA and DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency]—and went through the whole schmear. And I loved doing it. It was always an interest of mine anyway, and now this was nirvana.” Cheney received the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) every morning before Bush did, as well as extra raw intelligence “behind the tab.” He played referee in disagreements between the agencies. “Sometimes he would insert himself,” says Card, “not to change an analysis, but to challenge it.” But Card admits that Cheney’s intrusion in intelligence matters could cause friction. “I did see some, I wouldn’t call it manipulation, but I did see some heavy-handed questions or challenges being raised,” he says. “And so that was a source of frustration. I would hear the grumblings within the National Security Council staff.”

Powell believed that Cheney was out of bounds. “This was an odd White House arrangement, where the vice president was right in the middle of it all and he would see everything that was going to the president and he was instrumental in monitoring the national security staff,” he says. In Powell’s view, it was a direct challenge to Card’s role as honest broker, and to Rice’s authority as head of the NSC. Such intrusions, he says, would have been unfathomable in Reagan’s White House (or H. W.’s): “It’s not the system that I grew up in. It’s not the way I ran the National Security Council. It’s not the way I dealt with Ken Duberstein, who was the chief. We all were one team.”

Meanwhile, Islamic terrorism was on the rise, and the Bush White House seemed to be looking the other way. In the spring of 2001, alarmed by growing threats against American interests by al Qaeda, CIA director George Tenet proposed an aggressive plan to destroy the terror group in its homeland. The plan, he said, called for “launching a paramilitary operation, getting into the Afghan sanctuary, creating a bridge with Uzbekistan. We knew exactly what to do. We were ready to do it.” But the CIA plan was rejected. “The word back was, ‘We’re not quite ready to consider this. We don’t want the clock to start ticking.’” Tenet says the Bush White House was focused elsewhere. “Because of other agendas, there was not a will to take this final action.”

Cheney says he doesn’t recall the CIA proposal. “I would think I would have been aware, if they were really pushing that hard,” he says. “I was at that point up to my eyeballs trying to get reacquainted with the whole situation, and not focused just on al Qaeda by any means.” And he downplays the quality of the intelligence he was provided. “We did know about bin Laden. The kind of information we would get, it wasn’t anything you could act on. Just there’s a threat out there—yeah, there’s a threat out there.”

But the warnings about al Qaeda would reach an alarming crescendo on July 10, 2001. That morning, at CIA headquarters, the head of the al Qaeda unit, Richard Blee, burst into the office of Cofer Black, the counterterrorism chief. “The sky’s falling,” he said. The CIA had reports of imminent threats against American interests—they were multiple-sourced and credible. Director Tenet picked up the phone and called the White House. “I said, ‘Condi, I have to come see you. We’re comin’ to the White House now.’” The CIA team briefed Rice on the gathering threat: “There will be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months. The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple. They could be in the U.S. Al Qaeda’s intention is the destruction of the United States.” Finally, Black slammed his fist on the table. “We need to go on a war footing now!” he said.

The CIA’s warning was met mostly with blank stares. Rice later wrote that her memory of the meeting was “not very crisp.” The president was traveling in Boston that day, and Cheney does not remember hearing about the CIA alarms. “I do not recall George coming in with his hair on fire saying, ‘They’re coming! They’re coming! They’re coming!’” he says. Card, too, insists the nature of the al Qaeda threat was vague. “The mind-set of the people that I knew, even in the intelligence world, didn’t really think of planes as weapons of mass destruction,” he says. “So even if we had been told that’s what it would be, it would have been very hard to anticipate what kind of reaction we should have. Do you say no one should fly?”

Black, the former CIA counterterrorism chief, believes the Bush White House simply couldn’t grasp the nature of the al Qaeda threat. “I think they were stuck back somewhere when they were last in power,” he says. “You know, they thought terrorists were Euro lefties who drink champagne by night, blow stuff up during the day. It’s almost incomprehensible to me how you could warn senior people so many times, and nothing actually happens.”

A few months later, of course, the threat from al Qaeda would become terrifyingly concrete—and Andy Card would find himself in a situation he’d never bargained for.

Reprinted from THE GATEKEEPERS: HOW THE WHITE HOUSE CHIEFS OF STAFF DEFINE EVERY PRESIDENCY Copyright © 2017 by Christopher C. Whipple. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Chris Whipple, the author of The Gatekeepers, is an acclaimed writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker, and speaker. A multiple Peabody and Emmy Award-winning producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Primetime, he is the chief executive officer of CCWHIP Productions. Most recently, he was the executive producer and writer of Showtime’s The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs.