The Quintessential American

Cheney’s latest tirade against Obama offended even some on the right, but he soldiers on, unconcerned. James Carroll on the five characteristics that make him American.

Karin Cooper, CBS / AP Photo

“This is the very intrinsic-most American,” D.H. Lawrence wrote of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer. He could have been writing about Dick Cheney. The former vice president has been steadfastly in the nation’s face for months now, defending torture and warning of coming terror strikes caused by the new administration’s softness. Cheney’s attacks extended this week even to Obama’s West Point speech in which many saw not “softness,” but an essential continuation of the Bush-Cheney war policy. The man is uncivil and impolitic, rough-hewn enough for leather fringe and dung-crusted boots. He also has well-known health problems. Yet some now plump him for president in 2012—not just right-wing nut-jobs for whom Sarah Palin or Lou Dobbs don’t cut it, but mainstream opinion makers like Newsweek’s Jon Meacham, who wrote this week that a Cheney run would be “good for Republicans and good for the country.”

Though cowboy movies are passé, the Wild West still undergirds the national ethos. George W. Bush was its fake embodiment, but the man from Casper, Wyoming, is the real thing.

A frontiersman, but also a cat with nine lives, Cheney has been a political force since JFK’s New Frontier grew old with Nixon. What accounts for such staying power? More than his conservatism, his network of mentors and protégés, or even his wily knack for personal survival, Dick Cheney owes his success to his embodiment of, in Lawrence’s terms, “the myth of the essential white America.” Though held in contempt by a large plurality of the nation, Cheney qualifies as a paradigmatic American, like it or not. For all these decades, when the country has looked at him—whether as White House chief of staff, member of Congress, secretary of Defense, vice president, or just blow-hard pundit—it has seen something of itself. Five quintessentially American characteristics find vivid expression in Dick Cheney:

• True West. Though cowboy movies are passé, the Wild West still undergirds the national ethos. George W. Bush was its fake embodiment, but the man from Casper, Wyoming, is the real thing. Like frontiersmen of old, Cheney prefers force to law, which explains, for example, his prurient enthusiasm for torture. “The essential American soul is hard,” Lawrence wrote, “isolate, stoic, and a killer.”

• The future, not the past. The immigrant nation’s identity depends not on legacy, but promise, which is why Americans tend not to learn from history. The past, more denied than reckoned with, is weightless. Thus, for example, Cheney could lead the charge into the Iraq War in 2003, even after having warned in 1991 that exactly such a strategy would lead to a “quagmire.” In Cheney’s first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was left in place as the necessary unifier of sectarian Iraq and counterbalance to Iran, while in 2003, he was demonized as a new Hitler. Cheney’s current critique of Obama’s policies is likewise stunningly devoid of the knowledge of recent U.S. history—history over which he himself presided.

• Exceptionalism. The United States is constitutionally given to assumptions of superiority over other nations (“We’re No. 1.”). A cold certitude about American virtue, dating to the Pilgrims, “has never yet melted,” in Lawrence’s phrase. Cheney embodies this smugness more blatantly than any public figure of his generation, and it is visible nowhere more clearly than in his habitual snarl.

• Faux Modesty. The American masculine ideal (The Lone Ranger) shuns the spotlight, and this has marked Cheney’s sly exercise of power. Even holding the most high profile of positions, he has seemed to be operating behind the scenes. Just a regular fellow, yet with what unbounded hubris did he nominate himself to be the feckless George W. Bush’s vice president. Ubiquitous lately on television and in print, yet he cultivates the image of a man who has left the arena. Meanwhile, his self-nomination goes on.

• Tragic incompetence. But for all of its self-assertiveness, innocence, and claim to indispensability, America had regularly blundered when throwing its weight around. The U.S. wars of the last six decades (including the four for which Cheney shares responsibility) have all been marred by mishap, bad intelligence, flawed geopolitical analysis—and lack of necessity. This incompetence is sharply symbolized by Cheney’s infamous hunt—when the macho gun-slinger shot his fellow hunter in the face.

Of the Deerslayer, Lawrence wrote, “He says, ‘Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.’ Yet he gets his deepest thrill of gratification, perhaps, when he puts a bullet through the heart of a beautiful buck, as it stoops to drink at the lake… ‘Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.’ And yet he lives by death.”

This is why Cheney has become America’s shadow, sharply focusing our true profile, and why, even as we plunge deeper into war, we are never quite finished with him. “He is at the core of all the other flux and fluff,” Lawrence warns. “And when this man breaks from his static isolation and makes a new move, then look out, something will be happening.”

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.