Dick Cheney Is Still the Worst
A friendly reminder
Last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney released a very good ad on behalf of his daughter, Liz, attacking Donald Trump as a “coward” (true dat!) and calling him the greatest threat in the two-hundred-and-forty-six-year history of our Republic. The ad comes in the closing days of the Wyoming GOP primary campaign for that state’s lone House seat. Liz Cheney first won that seat in 2016, but because of the stand she has taken on Trump and January 6, she is about to lose it, and lose it in a rout. Cheney obviously cared about her political career, likely had higher ambitions and knew she was giving all that up when she took on Trump and, therefore, almost the entirety of her party in Congress. She has made a meaningful and admirable sacrifice.
As for the elder Cheney, at this stage in our history, we’ll take all the help we can get, so “welcome to the resistance,” as they say.
But, while I’m not suggesting that there are a whole lot of Democrats trying to resuscitate pere Cheney’s larger political reputation, duty compels me to remind you all of just how bad his tenure as Vice President was. The baleful consequences of Cheney’s corruption and dishonesty persist to this day and, one can fairly argue, helped pave the way for the monster he and his daughter now abhor.
The most egregious of Cheney’s crimes, and one of the very worst in our modern history, was the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. The results of that invasion are a litany of horrors: hundreds of thousands dead and mutilated Iraqis, millions more turned into refugees, years of near total anarchy and misery in large parts of the country, thousands of dead American military personnel, many more grievously wounded, and trillions of dollars (yes, trillions) diverted from an infinite list of actually constructive purposes to a bloody fiasco. Cheney was perhaps the central player in that catastrophe, among its key architects and most insistent advocates and agitators. He leveraged his substantial knowledge of the intersecting bureaucracies to orchestrate an all-out propaganda campaign that misrepresented intelligence findings to convince the public that Saddam possessed WMD. Publicly, Cheney repeatedly misled or outright lied about the very uncertain and contradictory intelligence concerning Saddam’s weapons programs. Cheney also regularly suggested or claimed that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks, a surefire way to inflame public sentiment and bring to heel easily cowed members of Congress. This was true despite the absence of any credible evidence of a link, which Cheney himself was well aware of. And Cheney continued to lie about all of it well after the invasion itself destroyed the credibility of the primary justifications for the invasion.
Cheney’s high crimes and misdemeanors didn’t begin or end with the Iraq war. It’s long since become clear that he was the key force behind the United States’ use of “enhanced interrogation techniques",” i.e., torture, as well as indefinite detention, to prosecute the War on Terror. Cheney successfully bypassed the National Security apparatus, State Department officials and Congress who ought to have been in the loop about such matters. In the process, Cheney was the driving force behind a moral and political disaster for which the United States - not to mention its victims around the world - continues to pay a high price.
Cheney also did everything in his power to conceive of and realize a vision of the presidency (the Unitary Executive) shielded as much as possible from any accountability and in service of a warped view of the constitutional order and the separation of powers. As New York Times reporter Charlie Savage, one of Cheney’s most incisive chroniclers, said:
“Dick Cheney has been the driving force behind the Bush administration’s systematic and highly successful project to expand presidential power, a push that was articulated on their first day in office, long before 9/11, and whose first battleground was the fight over whether Cheney would have to comply with open-government laws that mandated that he tell Congress and the public whom his energy task force had met with.”1
One doesn’t have to squint hard to see in Cheney’s ambitions and record the foundations of the pervasive corruption and indifference to norms and institutions that marked the Trump presidency. James Baldwin once wrote “children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Trump didn’t need Dick Cheney to learn that rules are made to be broken. But in his ruthlessness, contempt for accountability and indifference to the misery his actions might cause, one can fairly argue that there has been no better role model for Trump’s own politics than Cheney himself, even if the former Vice President is smarter, more savvy and better able to speak in complete sentences than the ex-President.
By the end of Cheney’s eight years as Veep, he was abjectly unpopular - his approval rating was 13%. So, I am not all that worried about an undeserved rehabilitation of his reputation. But if we’re ranking the most dangerous people in the Republic’s history (and the Civil War era would like a word), perhaps we should save a spot for Cheney alongside his newfound foe.
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