The Magazine

Cheney Speaks

What he says, and doesn’t say, is revealing.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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On page 251, Dick Cheney admits a mistake. He had shot his friend Harry Whittington in the face, and in the hours that followed, did not put out a statement about the accident. “In retrospect,” he writes, “we should have.”

Young Cheney Photo

Donald Rumsfeld, Betty Ford, Dick Cheney, 1974

Getty Images

This is not an important moment in the book, or in Cheney’s vice presidency. But since the earliest days of his first term, reporters and commentators have demanded that Dick Cheney apologize for something—anything—that he did in his official capacity as the country’s second in command. They won’t find many others in the pages of In My Time.

The controversial fight to keep secret participants in the meetings of his energy task force? “It was a major victory for both us and for the power of the executive branch.” Massive tax cuts in 2001 and 2003? “The Bush-era tax cuts helped grow the economy and create jobs.” That Saddam Hussein had a relationship with al Qaeda? “Charges that would stand the test of time.” Terrorist surveillance? “This program is one of the things of which I am proudest.” Military commissions? “I believe it provides the best forum in which to try enemy combatants of the United States.” Enhanced interrogations? “The program was safe, legal and effective. It provided intelligence that enabled us to prevent attacks and save American lives.” Guantánamo Bay? “It’s not Guantánamo that does the harm, it is the critics of the facility who peddle falsehoods about it.”

Those who hoped to see in this 576-page volume a contrite and compromising Dick Cheney will be sorely disappointed. But readers interested in understanding the decision-making and dynamics of the Bush administration will find a compelling examination of those eight years, which spans nearly half the book. The rest, an account of Cheney’s life and early career, provides a fascinating look at the events and experiences that shaped the man who would become America’s most powerful and controversial vice president. While Cheney does not engage in much second-guessing of the Bush-era policies with which he is most often associated, In My Time nonetheless includes candid and sometimes surprising assessments of the debates surrounding the decisions that led to those policies, and those in the Bush administration who participated in them.

George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney as his running mate to help him govern. While Cheney brought national security bona fides and a certain level of seriousness to the ticket, he did not give Bush a boost in any of the states that would be important to his election. Cheney had been living in Texas and spent his political career representing Wyoming, with its three electoral votes. Bush had sought Cheney’s permission to consider him as a possible vice presidential candidate several times, beginning in early 2000; Cheney, who had resolved in his own mind that he was done with politics and had given those assurances to the leadership of Halliburton, repeatedly turned him down. When Cheney finally accepted, in July, he did so after Bush described in detail the substantive role he wanted a Vice President Cheney to have.

Those significant responsibilities started early when Cheney was asked to lead the administration’s energy task force. It’s a job that might sound like a typical warm-bucket-of-spit vice presidential task—but for the context. California was experiencing rolling blackouts, and there was widespread concern that they would spread to the rest of the country, already near recession.

But like so many things that seemed important before 9/11, Cheney’s role running the energy task force looks insignificant in hindsight. The broad contours of Cheney’s role as the architect of national security and foreign policy after 9/11 are well known. In 2006 I asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to name an issue on which Cheney had been particularly influential. “That’s a long list,” she replied. After thinking for a moment, she said: “I think the way that the vice president has had his biggest impact in many ways is just the intellectual contribution to the conceptualization of the war on terror.” Most of that impact came in the first term of the Bush presidency when, in the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks, Bush came to rely on Cheney to supply the historical and philosophical arguments in support of actions that he instinctively believed were necessary to defend the country.

Nearly everyone agrees that Cheney’s influence waned in the second term, and that includes Cheney, whose chapter laying out the arguments he lost on major foreign policy problems is both edifying and discouraging.