These days it is not an easy task to write a 500-page biography on Dick Cheney and make him look good. The man is the least popular vice president in recent history; the war in Iraq, which he will always be remembered for, is viewed as an unambiguous failure in the eyes of most Americans; and the administration he serves in has been mired in scandals: warrantless wiretapping, the politicization of the Department of Justice, the leaking of the name of an undercover CIA agent, and on and on. Cheney even managed to shoot an old man in the face, but at least that was merely a reckless accident, in contrast to all the harm he has caused intentionally. So it is only natural that when Dick Cheney needed an official biographer to put something pro-Cheney into the annals of history he would look for someone who has shown an ability to portray falsehoods as truths—someone who could make “non-fiction” out of nonsense.
Enter Stephen F. Hayes.
Hayes is a senior writer for The Weekly Standard, the country’s most vociferously pro-war magazine. Cheney has always been a fan. According to The New York Times, Cheney sends someone to pick up 30 copies of the magazine each week. "Reader for reader, it may be the most influential publication in America,” said Eric Alterman of the Standard, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. “Anybody who wants to know what this administration is thinking and what they plan to do has to read this magazine."
Hayes played a crucial role in the Standard’s notorious cheerleading for the war in Iraq, writing two high-profile articles asserting the now-discredited claim that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. The first of these, 2003’s “Case Closed,” earned public praise from Cheney himself, who called the article the “best source of information” detailing a relationship between Hussein and Al Qaeda. Hayes even extended these falsehoods into a 2004 book called The Connection: How Al Qaeda’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America. Clearly, if your goal is to present a truly distorted perception of the post-911 world, Hayes is the right man for the job.
While it would be a nearly impossible task for Hayes to follow The Connection with something even more absurd, Hayes gives it a valiant effort with Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President.
The book is a wet kiss that portrays Cheney as a shrewd, measured, and respectful deal-maker. Filled with glowing praise from cover to cover, Hayes writes of a Cheney who “enjoys an unusually high reputation for competence,” is a pragmatist “rather than an ideologue,” and whose expertise is unmatched. “The staff members understood that Cheney would often know more about a particular issue than they did even if it was an issue they had been working on for years,” writes Hayes about Cheney’s tenure as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford.
Moreover, the title is quite misleading. Due to Cheney’s penchant for secrecy, the book reveals very little new or “untold” information. Hayes’ reporting reveals more about Cheney’s affinity for fishing—the last chapter includes 25 consecutive paragraphs about the topic—than it does about the most pressing issues of the Bush presidency. In the book’s preface Hayes pointedly admits that Cheney answered many of the author’s questions with lines such as “”Yeah, I can’t really give you anything on that.”
While Hayes does a respectable job outlining the less controversial early years of Cheney’s career, such as struggles to get through college and his rise through the government ranks with the help of Donald Rumsfeld, the area that is presumably of most interest to readers—Cheney’s ongoing tenure as vice president—ends up being the part of the book that is most lacking in interesting or revealing information.
Despite spanning more than 500 pages, Cheney: The Untold Story tells us far less about the vice president’s role in the White House than The Washington Post did with its 4-part series on Cheney in June. The least flattering and most controversial aspects of the Bush years are barely mentioned in this book. For example, the discredited 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s alleged weapons programs is referenced only once. And Hayes essentially places the blame for this debacle, which was central in leading our country to war, squarely on the shoulders of George Tenet and the CIA, just as the White House did. To be sure, Tenet deserves plenty of blame, but the way in which Hayes refuses even to address Cheney’s complicity in using this flawed NIE in an aggressive push for military intervention in Iraq is, sadly, emblematic of the rest of the book.
The wiretapping scandal involving the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program warrants a bit more attention, but Hayes uses his platform mostly to discredit opposition to the program. One Senate Intelligence Committee “official” is quoted as saying the Democrats “thought it was a pretty good program” up until it was made public, though Hayes, it seems, did not bother to ask any Democrats if this was true.
“Cheney’s view is simple,” writes Hayes. “Acts of Congress that interfere with the president’s ability to carry out his functions as commander in chief violate the Constitution.” Hayes’ analysis of Cheney’s position is awfully simple as well. Allowing virtually no room for nuance, Hayes does not bother to quote one lawyer or legal organization that viewed the program as unconstitutional. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the law that many consider the White House to be breaking, is mentioned only once.
The rest of the book follows this pattern. Bush’s unprecedented use of signing statements to undermine a law’s intent is not broached at all. The CIA leak controversy, including the trial and subsequent conviction of Scooter Libby, is portrayed as a circus act, with the White House merely the victim of a partisan witch hunt. Regarding the White House’s justifications of the use of torture (a word Hayes avoids mentioning) on foreign detainees, the most aggressive opposition quoted is Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who supported the Military Commissions Act that took away habeas corpus rights for anyone the president deems an “enemy combatant.”
If the book successfully (if unwittingly) illustrates one noteworthy element of Cheney’s view on government, it is his complete disdain for the democratic process in matters of foreign policy. When it comes to war and peace, Cheney sees the American public as a two-year old child who is not yet ready to learn that Santa isn’t real and therefore must be shielded from the truth.
For example, in the buildup to the 1991 invasion of Iraq, Hayes glowingly notes that Cheney—making arguments “based on principal and practicality”—did not think the White House needed to seek congressional approval “for using force” in the Persian Gulf.
“The Constitution gives the president, as commander in chief, wide latitude to use the U.S. military,” writes Hayes. “Approval from Congress was unnecessary [Cheney] said.” And throughout the book Hayes champions this “principled and pragmatic” view as an asset, never once giving a serious look into the how radically undemocratic this interpretation of the Constitution is.
Another problem is that Hayes falsely portrays Cheney’s views on foreign policy as merely a reaction to 9/11 and completely ignores the geopolitical aims of neoconservatives after the end of the Cold War, long before the 2001 terrorist attacks. It was in 1997, after all, that Cheney signed the “Statement of Principles” letter from the Project for a New American Century, the radically hawkish think tank that would, a year later, urge President Clinton to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Hayes completely ignores geopolitics in this book, instead deferring to the oversimplified platitude that “9/11 changed everything.” In fact, the book only mentions the word “neoconservative” two times. Scooter Libby calls the word “anti-Semitic,” and Cheney himself refers to it as “silly shorthand.”This hagiography ends with the phrase: “And the war goes on.” And, as Hayes’ work so aptly shows, so does the defense of its architects.