by Barton Gellman
The public, including myself, has a certain concept of the George W. Bush administration, and it is generally not very positive. Bush himself is seen as an almost accidental president, and while he campaigned on a ‘compassionate conservative’ platform, his style of governance was criticized for being anything but. Some of his boldest campaign statements were essentially retracted after his election victory, and he himself gained a reputation for a lack of, shall we say, intellectual curiosity. Many people reached the logical conclusion that, if the administration is reneging on its promises, and if Bush isn’t all that clever, someone must be pulling the strings: it must be Dick Cheney.
Thus, Dick Cheney developed the reputation of a diabolically clever force within the Bush White House. It sure didn’t help his image when he said that the government would have to work through the “dark side, if you will.” Gellman, however, emphatically disputes the idea that Cheney essentially ran the administration, presenting instead a more nuanced picture of how the White House worked. Bush always intended for Cheney to be the first among his advisors, based both on his years of experience in the government and private sectors, and his reluctance to accept the politically expedient at the expense of principle. Bush also intended, however, to balance this with his own advisors, such as White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, and with people who would bring different views to the table, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell.
This did not prevent Cheney from creating the most powerful Office of the Vice President in history, as Cheney was incredibly skilled at bureaucratic manipulation. Gellman gives many examples of this, such as Cheney’s automatic and largely unnoticed receipt of emails sent to the National Security Council (meant for Condoleezza Rice and her staff), as well as his successful installation of loyalist Scooter Libby as both his chief of staff and as assistant to the president. Moves such as these gave Cheney unparalleled access to nearly every corner of the White House and the government, and gave him multiple chances to influence the president’s ultimate decision.
Angler details several major decisions that Cheney influenced, starting with his selection (by a committee consisting of Dick Cheney) as Bush’s running mate and the staffing (spearheaded by Dick Cheney) of administration posts. Other chapters relate Cheney’s part in the NSA’s secret domestic intelligence program, the handling of captured al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, the loosening of environmental regulation, and other significant administration policies. The final few chapters show the limitations of Cheney’s power, as by the end of Bush’s second term he has lost many of his allies, including Libby and Donald Rumsfeld.
I was reading Angler the other day and I started laughing, and my friend asked me what was funny, and how I could even read a book like that. I realize that for many people, a book about Dick Cheney may not be very appealing. Some might not want to read it simply because they believe they already have a handle on the man and don’t need their negative suspicions confirmed. While Gellman does an excellent job of staying neutral about the motives of the major players, he does not hesitate, for example, to point out that the Vice President lied about his recollection of the events of 9/11. On the other hand, he makes it clear that he believes Cheney made no vice presidential decisions out of self-interest.
While the book shows no signs of partisanship, I do understand that it is the most inside of inside stories. Angler goes into incredible detail on Cheney’s lawyers, the staffers of the Office of Legal Counsel, and other relatively obscure government positions. But just because they are not famous does not mean that they are not important, and just because the administration gave the outward appearance of harmony does not mean there were not dramatic moments. Gellman tells a great story.
If you care about politics, or if you like history, or power dynamics, or the law, or just reading in general, you should definitely check out Angler. It is always interesting and at times riveting.