Dick Cheney's In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir is a book as dull and unimaginative as its title. Readers wouldn't have expected the former vice president and his daughter Liz (his co-author) to be a pair of subtle prose stylists, and they won't be disappointed. Slog through the early chapters on Cheney's life growing up in Wyoming (he fished, he played football), and you'll eventually reach more momentous events, which Cheney is able to render equally lifeless.
That's in part because of the way Cheney confronts the controversies that have attended so much of his public life. His descriptions of events tend to run as follows: Some things happened. Our critics said we were wrong. But they don't know what they're talking about, because we were right.
Nevertheless, interesting tidbits pop up now and then, when scores are settled, enemies are skewered, and one can detect the occasional flash of something resembling human emotion. Herewith, some excerpts to relieve you of the need to put down $35 for In My Time.
You may have heard that Cheney finagled his way out of going to Vietnam. Not so:
Shortly after I began work on my Ph.D., I turned twenty-six and was no longer eligible for the draft. In the days when I had been, I had received deferments as a student and father. Earlier, when I was doing line work, I had been classified 1-A, but draft numbers were low and I wasn't called. If I had been, I would have been happy to serve.
Take that, hippies!
There are some people Cheney doesn't like: Democrats, terrorists, people who question him, for example. But no one comes in for more withering contempt than former Joint Chiefs Chair and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Discussing preparations for Operation Desert Storm, Cheney writes, "Powell seemed more comfortable talking about poll numbers than he was recommending military options." Cheney didn't want Powell to come on a trip to convince the Saudis to accept American troops during Desert Storm, because "I wasn't sure Powell would deliver the strong message they needed to hear." He later writes that in 2002, "I began hearing from a number of former and current high-ranking government officials that Secretary Powell and Deputy Secretary [Richard] Armitage were not only failing to support the president's policies, but were openly disdainful of them." He later writes, "I was particularly disappointed in the way [Powell] handled policy differences." Cheney also blames Powell for the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, though it was Cheney himself who told his aide Scooter Libby, who then passed the information to reporters (Libby was convicted on charges of lying to the FBI and obstructing justice; President George W. Bush commuted his sentence).
Cheney has a well-known penchant for secrecy (recall that he kept a "man-sized safe" in his office for sensitive materials). No one, it turns out, is completely trustworthy. When he was heading the committee to find a running mate for Bush, Cheney apparently didn't completely trust Bush himself with information pertaining to the search:
We had not written down the most sensitive material, so I briefed the governor on it orally. Before we began this first session, I told Governor Bush that what we were about to discuss was highly sensitive, and we had to ensure complete confidentiality. Of course, he agreed, and at the end of each of our meetings to discuss the candidates, he would hand his copy of the briefing book back to me.
Let it not be said, however, that Cheney can't cut loose:
As the celebrations died down, Lynne and I stepped to the side of the stage to listen to one of our favorite singers, Lee Greenwood, end the evening with his great song "God Bless the U.S.A."
Wait a minute -- Lee Greenwood did "God Bless the U.S.A."? You mean, that one song of his? Awesome!
Shooting a hunting buddy in the face in the mistaken belief that he was a bird, as Cheney did in 2006, is a bummer. But it also affords a good opportunity to irritate the press:
The following day we issued a statement to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, a local paper that routinely covered that part of Texas, knowing that once they had put out the story it would be reported everywhere. Our choice incensed the White House press pool and the rest of the mainstream media and probably increased the frenzy of their reaction. But, again, the last thing on my mind was whether I was irritating the New York Times.
Yes, that must have been why it became a press "frenzy" -- because White House reporters were mad at not getting the story first. It couldn't have been that there is some inherent news value in the vice president shooting a guy in the face.
The anemic job creation during the Bush years (3 million jobs created, compared to 23 million in Clinton's terms, culminating in the financial meltdown), has not dimmed Cheney's enthusiasm for trickle-down economics:
The Bush-era tax cuts helped grow the economy and create jobs, and I was glad to see them extended in December 2010 for two more years. If the Obama administration had reversed course and let tax rates rise across the board, the results would have been devastating.
Like any good Republican, Cheney is sure that America is unique in every way:
I have often heard people from other countries comment on American patriotism, not negatively, but in amazement and admiration that our love for our country is so deep and abiding.
Really? Is patriotism in short supply somewhere in the world? Anywhere in the world?
Now we get to the areas where carping fools have had the temerity to question the necessary steps the Bush-Cheney administration took to keep America safe. Each of these is dealt with in short order. The prison at Guantánamo, for example. You may have thought it was an affront to core American values, established there precisely because the administration thought it would be out of the reach of U.S. law (a belief the Supreme Court disabused them of). But no -- in fact, it's a veritable luxury resort:
It is a model facility -- safe, secure, and humane -- where detainees have access to television, books, newspapers, movies, their choice of a number of sports and exercise activities, the Koran, healthy food that is in keeping with their religious beliefs, and medical care. It likely provides a standard of care higher than many prisons in the European countries where the criticism of Guantánamo has been loudest. ? [President Obama] has also suggested that Guantánamo should be closed because it is hurting America's image around the world. But it's not Guantánamo that does the harm, it is the critics of the facility who peddle falsehoods about it.
Cheney doesn't bother to argue, as he has many times elsewhere, that the torture techniques used under the Bush administration aren't actually torture. But he does defend it:
Amid the heated rhetoric some basic points tended to be ignored. The [torture] program was safe, legal and effective. It provided intelligence that enabled us to prevent attacks and save American lives. Above all else, it was part of a broad effort that enabled us, for seven and a half years, to prevent any further mass casualty attacks against the United States.
Every part of that statement has been definitively refuted over and over again.
On to the Iraq War. If you thought there might be some second thoughts about this enterprise, which has cost a couple of trillion dollars and more than 4,000 American lives, you'll be disappointed:
When we looked around the world in those first months after 9/11, there was no place more likely to be a nexus between terrorism and [weapons of mass destruction] capability than Saddam Hussein's Iraq. With the benefit of hindsight -- even taking into account that some of the intelligence we received was wrong -- that assessment still holds true. We could not ignore the threat or wish it away, hoping naively that the crumbling sanctions regime would contain Saddam. The security of our nation and of our friends and allies required that we act. And so we did.
It should be noted that Cheney wrote these words not in 2003 but in 2011. However, he does acknowledge that some intelligence failures occurred. Take Powell's 2003 presentation to the U.N. about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which was universally hailed at the time as having made the definitive case for war but was later revealed to have been little more than a string of falsehoods, fabrications, and fearmongering. Whose fault was that? Powell's, of course:
Later, when it turned out that much of what Powell said about weapons of mass destruction was wrong, I think embarrassment caused him and those around him to lash out at others. [Scooter] Libby seemed to be a particular target of their ire. They excoriated the material that he and the National Security Staff had provided, while at the same time boasting that they had thrown it in the garbage. As it happened much of what they discarded focused on Saddam's ties to terror and human rights violations, charges that would stand the test of time.
In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium [pause for dramatic effect] from Africa." The story was bogus, as former Ambassador Joseph Wilson would later reveal. Cheney, however, believes that Bush's attempt to fool Americans into believing Iraq had nuclear weapons was perfectly defensible because it was attributed to someone else:
Some on the president's senior staff believed that if we issued an apology, the story would go away. I strongly opposed the idea. An apology would only fan the flames, and why apologize when the British had, in fact, reported that Iraq had sought a significant amount of uranium in Africa? The sixteen words were true.
Technicalities aside, everyone understood that the claim was bogus and couldn't be defended. Everyone, that is, except Dick Cheney. This passage from the book has gotten some attention:
[Condoleezza] Rice realized sometime later that she had made a major mistake by issuing a public apology. She came into my office, sat down in the chair next to my desk, and tearfully admitted I had been right. Unfortunately, the damage had been done.
What hasn't been well explained is that the "public apology" Cheney refers to here wasn't actually an apology but Rice's admission to reporters, when asked about the false claim about Nigerian yellowcake, that "we wouldn't have put it in the speech if we had known what we know now." Cheney believes that had they just all continued to insist that it was true, there would have been little or no "damage."
Cheney does acknowledge that everything didn't go perfectly smoothly in Iraq after the initial military campaign. Where does responsibility for the lack of planning reside? You guessed it: Colin Powell. Cheney says that Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, were wary of too much reliance on Iraqi exiles, or "externals," and therein lay the problem:
The idea that we shouldn't work closely with opponents of Saddam who were living in exile slowed us down. I think we would have done a better job in the wake of Saddam's ouster if we had had a provisional government, made up of externals and internals, ready to take over as soon as Saddam fell. This would have put Iraqis in charge of Iraq and helped avoid the taint of occupation that we began to experience under the Coalition Provisional Authority.
If only Powell and Armitage hadn't been determining Iraq policy, and Cheney had been able to get his voice heard, things would have been different.
Nevertheless, one shouldn't forget that Dick Cheney was right about everything:
A few weeks before on Meet the Press, I had told Tim Russert that 'from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.' There were certainly difficult days ahead, but contrary to subsequent assertions by war critics, my assessment had been on target. We were greeted as liberators when we freed the Iraqi people from Saddam's grip.
Finally, you may think that Cheney is a humorless villain who derives pleasure only from the idea of torturing prisoners or crushing the dreams of small children. Absolutely false -- just listen to the time in 1970 that he and his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, got a look at a real live girl's naked lady parts:
As we [Cheney and Rumsfeld] got close to the long Reflecting Pool, we noticed a commotion, as though someone had fallen in. On closer inspection we could see that a few young women, naked from the waist up, were cavorting in the shallow water and being cheered on by a fast-growing audience.
We soon realized that one of the cavorters worked for us at the OEO [Office of Economic Opportunity]. We had inherited her as a photographer in the press office, and she had made an impression as a free spirit. ? Now here she was, topless in the Reflecting Pool. In those days, there were free spirits everywhere, it seemed, even in a bureaucracy like the OEO.
When the Bush administration left office, one poll showed Cheney's approval rating at a remarkable 13 percent, just slightly higher than the rating of foot fungus. Reading In My Time, it's not hard to see why.