The Vice President in His Labyrinth

Reading the first part of the Post's series on the vice-presidency of Dick Cheney - a man who “expresses indifference, in public and private, to any verdict but history’s” - I kept thinking of what Scooter Libby's defense team presented as a typical morning briefing for Cheney's chief of staff during the period when he claimed to have had a memory lapse. Here it is, via JPod:

"Bomb defused . . . explosions . . . East African extremist network . . . Info on possible Al Qaeda attack in U.S. . . . concern about specific vulnerability to terrorist attack . . . Israeli military action . . . Country's security affecting Al Qaeda . . . International organization's position concerning country's nuke program . . . Iraq's porous borders present security threat . . . Demonstrations in Iran turn violent . . . Israeli offer of cease fire to Palestinians . . . Memorandum assessing Iranian presidents view on terrorism . . . Problems in leadership in PLO . . . Info on 1920 Mesopotamia and insurgency on modern-day Iraq . . . Potential effect of improved governance in Iraq."

This was just one day in June 2003. And that's not even the end of that single intelligence briefing, which also contained a Terror Threat List updated daily.

People in D.C. love to play the “What Happened to Dick Cheney?” game. How did somebody so clinical and cautious and coldblooded end up as the architect of what seems in hindsight like such a cockeyed Iraq policy? How did the Ford-era Chief of Staff famous for insisting that everyone in the White House respect “the process” of policymaking become such a loose cannon, brazenly bypassing rival Cabinet agencies and making enemies of everyone from Colin Powell to John Ashcroft, while advancing increasingly implausible arguments to defend his own office from scrutiny by either Congress or the press? How did the man who was supposed to be the Bush Administration’s grownup-in-chief become associated with a national security strategy premised on the “one percent doctrine,” arguably the least level-headed response to terrorism imaginable?

I think it’s worth thinking about this question in a way that’s suggested by the image of Cheney’s chief of staff sitting in the White House every morning, overwhelmed by the litany of possible threats – because that’s an experience that officials in the next Administration will go through, and the one after that and the one after that, until either the threat of terrorism or the memory of 9/11 recedes to a far greater degree than it has today. From the vantage point of punditry, it’s easy to scoff at the one percent doctrine, and easy, as well, to argue that the “ticking bomb” scenario that seems to undergird Cheney’s approach to detention and interrogation never really happens, or is sufficiently rare to be a poor guide for policy. I tend to agree with both these contentions, but I also don’t come in to the office every day to find an intelligence briefing on my desk that’s probably thirty percent rumor, forty percent guesswork, and twenty percent lies, but that could turn out to be the briefing that accurately predicts the next 9/11 or something far worse. In this environment it’s easy to see, I think, how a public official who starts out with an expansive view of executive power (or even one who doesn’t) could persuade themselves that they’re effectively facing a ticking bomb scenario every single day – because every scrap of information, however it may be obtained, could be the scrap that prevents the nuclear destruction of New York – and thus that every question and criticism, whether from Capitol Hill or the New York Times, is just an case of ninnies ignoring the self-evident truth that the Constitution isn’t a suicide pact, or idiots "makin' mock o'uniforms that guard you while you sleep."

I don’t say this in defense of Dick Cheney, but in defense of the proposition that he is not a unique figure, or a uniquely pernicious one. His predecessors faced the same challenges, and the same temptations, and frequently gave into them. Woodrow Wilson imprisoned his political opponents; Franklin Delano Roosevelt interned tens of thousands of American citizens; Harry Truman massacred hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians – and all of these Presidents are mainly remembered for their successes, while their excesses and cruelties are either justified or elided. History hasn’t been so kind to the excesses of Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon, and I suspect that it will likewise fail to deliver to Dick Cheney the vindication that he expects. But that’s because, like Johnson and Nixon, he’ll be remembered for losing a war, rather than winning one as Wilson and FDR and Truman did. Victory covers a multitude of sins; defeat exposes them. And as we pass from the Cheney era into whatever comes next, his personal unpopularity shouldn't allow us to pretend that his style of governance - which treats an ever-more-imperial presidency as an indispensable bulwark against America's enemies, foreign and domestic - began with him, or that it will end with his departure.