by Jim Nintzel
As promised in the print edition, here’s an expanded interview with Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, author of Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. Gellman talks about Cheney’s impact on the administration, his environmental record and more. Gellman also tells us whether he ever feared that someone would put polonium-210 into his lunch.
Gellman will speak in Tucson on Monday, April 13; details here.
Have you heard from the former vice president since Angler came out?
No, not directly. I know he read it, because I got a photo of him reading it on Air Force 2, which is a great souvenir. He talked about it in a closed-door speech to a group of young corporate leaders. He recommended it. It suggests he doesn’t really mind criticism and he has a voracious appetite for intelligence and information. If there’s a book about you, you’re bound to learn something because you don’t know what’s happening other places that lead up to where you get into the picture. He would have learned stuff from it and he enjoyed that.
How did Dick Cheney change the vice-presidency?
He fundamentally transformed it. There had been a gradual trend from about the second term of FDR and certainly beginning with Carter and Mondale, in which vice-presidencies became more important in executive roles, or at least they have more access. Mondale was the first one to have a West Wing office.
But Cheney made it into basically the job of deputy president and super chief of staff. That had never happened before. I think you can’t understand the last eight years without understanding what he did. I would say he was the most powerful person who has ever served in government who was not himself the president.
In the process, he also seems to have expanded the power of the executive branch in general.
Certainly, that was his aim. He has very strong and somewhat extreme views about the supremacy of the executive branch in our constitutional order. He usually starts with a proposition that is pretty widely accepted—such, as for example, the president is commander in chief and you can’t second-guess all his decisions on the battlefield, and he takes that past all the usual boundaries, to say that no other branch of government has say at all in the way that he uses those powers. Likewise, his law-enforcement powers.
He was able to get George Bush to go along with a lot of those ideas. In the process, he makes some very strong claims for executive authority. Now, there was backlash and pushback by the second term. Both Congress and the Supreme Court asserted themselves and bent back the executive branch. But I would say that often without people much knowing it, Cheney managed to win, practically thinking, most of the battles.
He appeared to put quite a premium on secrecy. How did you ever manage to learn this much about what he was doing?
I had the luxury of time, for one thing. I spent more than two years on the book, if you include the time spent writing the newspaper series. I did it like any reporter. I went around to everyone who might know something, and talked to them, and then went around again, and pulled on threads as I discovered them, and of course there are people who used to work there and left. There are documents that become available. Cheney himself would not talk about it, or would not let his people talk about most of the questions that are the most interesting, like his legal views or his national security views. But he was willing to let his former staffers talk about things like the economy and the environment. So I got some modest degree of help from his office.
What was Cheney’s role in developing the legal framework that allowed the enhanced interrogation techniques used on detainees?
Cheney played the dominant role. Cheney and his chief of staff and his lawyer—respectively, Scooter Libby and David Addington—were the primary drivers of the idea that in order to break the will of enemy captives quickly, you had to get rid of all restraints against cruelty in interrogation. Now, they would argue that they did not cross the line into torture. But they also were instrumental in creating a legal definition of torture that was so narrow that was actually almost impossible to commit it. The more important thing to them was that in the Geneva Convention, there is a ban on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners. And that also was written into U.S. law. And they set about removing that obstacle.
Aside from his work on foreign policy, the former vice president didn’t seem to be much of a friend of the environment, either.
There were a lot of things that happened in the 1970s, either in reaction to abuses of presidential power or the growth an environmental movement that he deeply disagreed with, that he felt went too far. He didn’t like congressional efforts to restrain presidential power after Nixon and Watergate and Viet Nam and he didn’t like the growth of this very large body of environmental laws which protected air and water quality and public land and so forth. He would never say that he was against clean air or clean water. What he thought was those things had gone way too far, that environmentalists were just another special-interest group, and that it was impossible for the national economy to thrive and produce enough energy domesticially unless you broke down those barriers as well. He’s sort of a genius at bureaucratic operations, so he could always find the pivot points in the bureaucracy that let his shift course.
For example, when endangered species got in the way of what he wanted to do and he found out there was no way around the law, he realized that you could get what you wanted if you challenged the science. If the law depended on the scientific conclusion that endangered species would be harmed, you could undermine that conclusion and then the law didn’t apply.
Cheney also clashed with Christie Todd Whitman, who was the Bush administration’s EPA chief.
There was an obscure-sounding but very important rule that had to do with power plants. If you’re building a new power plant, you have to install all this clean-air technology—scrubbers and sensors that reduce the emissions. Old power plants were exempt because they were grandfathered. Cheney wanted to change a rule so that if you’re an old power plant and you upgrade yourself, then the law says you have to put in all this cleaning equipment. Cheney drove through an exception that said if you could basically remodel your plant, up to 20 percent of it a year, without triggering that requirement. So over a period of five years, you could build a whole new plant. That’s what Whitman resigned about.
He really seemed to take advantage of that interpretation that he was neither part of the executive nor the legislative branch. If he’s not either of those, where does that put him?
That’s another one of those places where Cheney starts with something valid and takes it past the point of no return. The fact is, the vice presidency is mentioned in both Article 1 and Article 2 of the Constitution and he’s president of the Senate but not a senator and so on. So over the years, the Justice Department has said that for some purposes, rules that apply to the Senate or the executive branch didn’t apply to the vice-president’s office. He basically took the position that comprehensively, he was bound by neither the rules of the Senate nor the rules of the executive branch. And that gave him quite a bit of freedom, at least as he saw it.
What kind of relationship did Cheney have with Bush at the end of the administration?
Angler describes a sort of trajectory of the Bush administration, in which he creates this enormously powerful office and has enormous influence over a much younger and much less experienced president in the first term and gradually, his power diminishes, for lots of reasons. One of them is that Bush lost some confidence in his judgment.
There was a moment that’s sort of the dramatic center of the book, in which Cheney just about drove Bush off a cliff and just about brought Bush to the point where his whole Justice Department and the head of the FBI were about to resign, which would have been politically devastating, among other things, and almost certainly, according to Bush’s top advisors, would have cost him re-election. Bush realized he would have been a one-term president if he had followed everything that Cheney advised him to do. He still valued Cheney’s expertise and his judgment in many places, but he understood that Cheney was a zealot.
Cheney is as close to an anti-politician as we’ve ever had in high office. A president can’t be an anti-politician. You can’t govern as an anti-politician because you won’t get re-elected and you lose your ability to influence the public. Cheney doesn’t care what Congress or the public thinks. The most important thing is to get the policy right and he thinks he knows that better than other people do. The thing about Angler is, I give him his principles. He is not a bad man or a cartoon caricature. He believes that he is serving the national interest. He had very strong views about that and they were somewhat extreme views.
Cheney has been much more critical of the Obama adminstration than other Bush administration officials. What do you make of that?
The tradition for former presidents and vice presidents has been to retreat quietly from public life and let the new guy have his chance. If you’re going to start to come out and try to influence debate and criticize, you usually wait a long time before you do that. Al Gore waited until George Bush started his second term before starting to say anything and so did Bill Clinton. So did their predecessors. I don’t think George Bush is going along with Cheney. The former president hasn’t said a word about Obama and his people have put out word that he thinks it’s not appropriate—he hasn’t directly criticized Cheney, but it seems implicit. Cheney feels strongly about where the country needs to be going and he is prepared to keep on talking about it.
What you write a book like this, do ever worry that someone is going to put polonium-210 into your lunch?
Cheney’s a tough guy and he tends to be ruthless from a bureaucratic point of view, but he’s not vengeful. I never thought I was going to have my taxes audited or anything like that. Cheney is not a guy who takes things personally. If you get in his way, he’ll try to go around you and if he needs to, he’ll go through you and over you. But he doesn’t try to exact revenge because he doesn’t like what somebody said.
You've been talking about Angler, but I wanted to ask you about how you hopped a ride on the back of motorcycle to get down to lower Manhattan on 9/11 to cover the World Trade Center collapse.
I had been a war correspondent. I’ve been to Iraq. I’ve covered Israel during a lot of suicide bombings. I saw people starving to death in Somalia. But I’ve never experienced horror on a personal level the way I did on that morning. I can’t really explain what it was like to be standing fairly close to the second tower as it collapsed. On TV, it looks awful, but when you’re there, the most dominant sensory impression is the sound—the pressure wave. It was the kind of thing that just physically shook you and reverberated through your chest. I was stunned in a way that I’ve never been before. You’re a reporter and you’re standing there at a big event and somewhere in the back of your mind, you realize, “I’m supposed to be taking notes.” And I looked down at my notebook and I just wrote, “Gone.” And then after standing there for awhile longer, I looked down again and I knew I was supposed to write something else and I underlined it three times. I was wordless for a while.