Dicking Around

Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President by Stephen F. Hayes (Harper Collins, 578 pages)

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Lesser authors, when setting out to glamorize their subjects, enthusiastically present their hero's works as world-beating triumphs, explain away their flaws with argumentative dexterity, and detail at length the venality of their enemies. Stephen F. Hayes, instead, has done something unique in the annals of hagiography.

Hayes, a senior writer for the Weekly Standard, offers a bizarrely passive-aggressive lionization of the vice president: his biography consistently offers an uncritical portrait of Dick Cheney's actions, but Hayes just as consistently writes with disinterest, moving with little comment from one aspect of Cheney's career to another. There's no attempt to offer any theory or explanation of Cheney, making Hayes more like a sympathetic chronicler than a biographer. If for nothing else than to view something new under the sun, give this man the money you were going to spend on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Throughout 524 pages of turgid, soul-killing narrative, Hayes presents meaningless anecdotes about Cheney in robust detail -- did you know Cheney has "dozens" of books about fishing in his library? -- while skimping on most instances that could be expected to shape the man. A case in point: Cheney was with President Ford, whom he served as deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff, on April 23, 1975, when Ford authorized bringing the final American remnant home from Vietnam. What effect did proximity to the end of the defining foreign-policy debacle of the era have on him? Hayes doesn't tell us. Despite receiving vastly more access to Cheney than any other reporter, he instead quotes from press secretary Ron Nessen's memoir that Ford, Cheney, Nessen, and Donald Rumsfeld "stood there silently, staring at the carpet, alone with our thoughts, unable to say anything appropriate." Hayes opts instead to relate in detail world-historical flashpoints like the time when Liz Cheney was forced to admit that a Georgetown driver had totaled her dad's Mazda RX-7 while she had borrowed it.

Nor do we see character treatments of key Cheney aides like David Addington, Scooter Libby or John Hannah. Most aides who appear in the book, even those who have been with Cheney across decades, flit in and out, occasionally dropping an admiring quote before disappearing. If Hayes believes that they're not ultimately very important to understanding Cheney, he doesn't spell it out.

Additionally, there are a number of publicly available documents that Cheney guided or helped author that, sometimes by his own telling, offer glimpses into his thinking. But Hayes gives them either short shrift or total neglect. Take for instance, the 1987 Minority Report into the Iran-Contra scandal, compiled when Cheney was the ranking Republican on the House's investigative committee. The report presents an apologia for presidential illegality premised on the idea that congressional restrictions into foreign policy are constitutionally illegitimate. This is an idea resurrected in the Bush administration by, among others, Addington, a long-time Cheney aide. Hayes deals with this seemingly seminal document in three short chapters, without a shred of analysis as to what the contention, endorsed by absolutely zero constitutional scholars who haven't worked for the Bush administration, reveals about Cheney.

Similarly, during Cheney's final months as secretary of defense, his policy chief, Paul Wolfowitz, put together under his auspices a controversial document -- known first as the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance and later the 1993 Regional Planning Guidance -- for an aggressive post-Cold War defense posture designed to "prevent the reemergence of a new rival." Several observers have pointed to the document as offering a rough draft of what would become the Bush doctrine: an emphasis on unilateralism and military power in order to export democracy and safeguard American hegemony. If Hayes believes that neither incident ultimately says much about Dick Cheney, that would be one thing; but it's hard to understand why Hayes wouldn't make any argument about events that even relative Cheney novices understand to be significant to the man.

It's not that Hayes doesn't present any motivation for Cheney, or any consistent threads to his public life. Several themes emerge throughout the book: Cheney as anti-politician; Cheney as enamored with secrecy; Cheney as vigorous proponent of executive power; Cheney as skeptic of the intelligence community. What's so unsatisfying about the book, however, is that Hayes is so satisfied with superficial explanations for why each of these facets of Cheney has developed. Cheney felt the Church and Pike Commissions into CIA abuses in the 1970s had the effect of making the intelligence committee risk-averse, and he saw the CIA fail to forecast the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Both are good reasons to treat intelligence with a jaundiced eye. But Cheney has taken this way too far, sponsoring as vice president a Pentagon alternative intelligence-analysis shop that the current intelligence chief tells Hayes was an inappropriate exercise in wish-fulfillment masquerading as intelligence. Perhaps Hayes ultimately finds Cheney inscrutable, but the narrative demonstrates a surprising lack of curiosity about what drives the man he's devoted so much effort to covering.

As a result, it's hard to escape the suspicion that Hayes isn't really interested in Dick Cheney. He's interested in Stephen F. Hayes. Cheney is his chosen vehicle to vindicate the last book that Hayes wrote, The Connection, which argued that Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda. Hayes is at his most vigorous when he presents Cheney's dubious or refuted assertions about the gossamer links, largely because they're the same ones that Hayes has made his career promoting.

One storied chestnut is about the meeting in Prague between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent, which Cheney put forward on Meet The Press as evidence of a connection. In 2002 and again in 2004, Cheney called it "credible" but "unconfirmed at this point." In fact, by the spring of 2002, FBI and CIA investigators discredited the idea that Atta had left the country; the 9/11 Commission authoritatively establishes that the meeting could not have happened.

Hayes writes in 2007 that Cheney was justified in using his clearly misleading contention because an unnamed intelligence official told The New York Times in 2001 that a meeting between the two men occurred, and because then-CIA Director George Tenet equivocated on the question so as not to embarrass the president. Not once can Hayes simply concede that the meeting didn't happen -- curious, because even for a proponent of a Saddam-Al-Qaeda connection, the meeting is fairly marginal. By contrast, he quotes Cheney as saying, "It's possible that I am sloppy on occasion, but I try not to be," making the vice president appear comparatively reflective.

The result is that Hayes doesn't bother with the most important question about Cheney: has he been good for the country? Hayes clearly thinks the vice president has left an impressive legacy. But he doesn't want to bother demonstrating that, for instance, Cheney's fervent desire to invade Iraq has left the U.S. better off than before the invasion -- largely for the self-evident reason that it hasn't. His final chapter quotes Cheney as saying the reason Iraq war opponents favor a withdrawal is because "they don't perceive that it is an effort to do anything positive or affirmatively in terms of dealing with the war on terror that they don't believe exists." Taking the statement on its own merits, it's notable that Cheney doesn't offer a defense of the war's wisdom, as opposed to casting aspersions on his critics.

It's a comment, like many of the ones in Cheney, that cries out for analysis. But rather than put forward either an endorsement or a critique of Cheney's argument, Hayes quickly moves on to the pressing historical question of the vice president's love for fishing. It's enough to suggest that he doesn't care enough about his own work to take it seriously -- and that Cheney deserves either a real opponent or a real hagiographer.