No Comment — June 29, 2007, 4:55 pm

The Talented Mr. Cheney

Harper’s Magazine contributor Patricia Highsmith was a master of the psychotic thriller. Her works generally make for great vacation reading. They are a superior sort of detective fiction, perhaps greater than that, perhaps pushing the boundaries into the canon of world literature, but then again perhaps not quite there. They also lend themselves to the big screen in a natural sort of way. After a week of lurid exposés emanating from the office of the Vice President (why, please tell me, would someone need a man-sized safe in his office? Is it actually used for bodies? Is it refrigerated?), I keep thinking – for reasons I can’t quite place – of some of Highsmith’s masterpieces of moral compromise. The Talented Mr. Ripley, for instance, which may be her best-known work.

Ripley is a truly modern character in many ways. He exhibits charm, intelligence, learning – a prodigious capacity for languages, music and reading. He is sexually ambiguous. And yet to say his character has a dark side would be considerably to understate the matter. He is a multiple murderer, and he kills with a reptilian precision and utter lack of remorse. And he gets away with these multiple homicides. Ripley presents a façade of social grace and morals, but the man inside has no moral references worth mentioning. And in Highsmith’s world Ripley seems hardly alone. She gives us a small universe of characters for whom the forces of social sublimation are entirely superficial. One wonders: are these people really humans, and not animals? We should be reminded, of course, that Highsmith notoriously preferred the company of animals to people. She said she liked not having to speak with them. And there we have it again. Doesn’t all of that sound just like Dick Cheney?

The Gellman-Becker series of feature articles on the Cheney presidency were concluded on Tuesday. These are remarkably definitional pieces, describing not so much Cheney as the Bush White House as a whole. The cuckold who emerges from this recounting is the only figure in the first administration who has a political résumé clearly superior to Cheney’s: Colin Powell. Powell assumed the post of Secretary of State with the understanding – doubtless shared by most of America – that he would have the principle role within the cabinet in shaping foreign policy and a major role in shaping national security policy. Yet as it turns out, he was easily circumvented, and Cheney worked steadily to undermine his relationship with Bush.

In the days after the 2004 election, Powell went to Bush with a few sheets of paper setting out the terms on which he was prepared to stay on as secretary of state in a second term. And Bush thanked him for his service, giving the historical cue for the faithful retainer to retire in silence. That was a moment of ultimate triumph for Cheney, but, as we learn, it was but one of many. So many in fact that it is very reasonable to say that Cheney was the master policymaker in this White House, and that Bush’s role was reduced simply to signing the pieces of paper that Cheney shoved in front of him.

Powell gives some reaction to this in an interview with Larry King on CNN which is worth catching. “It was not a system in which we routinely exposed all points of view,” says Powell in reviewing the decision-making dysfunctionality of the Bush White House. And he goes on to make another powerful point:

The reason I am feeling so strongly about Guantanamo is that while we’re arguing these legal issues, we are getting killed in terms of our international reputation because of the place. And we are losing around the world. And what makes it even more difficult is some of the biggest thugs in the world and people that you want to press on moral issues and human rights issues hide behind Guantanamo and say don’t lecture us when you have Guantanamo.

But Dick Cheney does not embrace this view. His attitude is entirely different, and it can be summed up this way: “Let them hate us, so long as they fear us.” Yes, those are the immortal words of the Emperor Caligula, a perfect role model for the man that one of the best known columnists in the country simply calls “vice.”

As I was glancing over this copy before finalizing it, I opened my webbrowser to Findlaw, and found that John Dean has penned his weekly topic on Cheney and has opened it with – can I possibly be seeing this correctly? – an allusion to Patricia Highsmith. Dean introduces us to the Nietzschean Cheney, the man who, like Mr. Ripley, is unrestrained by the morals of the herd:

[I]t is becoming increasingly difficult to find a law that Cheney believes does apply to him, whether that law be major and minor. For example, he has claimed that most of the laws passed in the aftermath of Watergate were unconstitutional, and thus implicitly inapplicable. His office oversees signing statements claiming countless new laws will not be honored except insofar as the President’s extremely narrow interpretation allows. He does not believe the War Powers Act should be honored by the President. Nor, in his view, should the President be bothered with laws like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In fact, it appears Cheney has actively encouraged defiance of such laws by the Bush Administration.

For Cheney, the Geneva Conventions – considered among the nation’s most important treaties — are but quaint relics that can be ignored. Thus, he publicly embraced their violation when, on an Idaho talk radio program, he said he was not troubled in the slightest by our forces using “waterboarding” — the simulated drowning of detainees to force them to talk. There are serious questions as to whether Cheney himself has also conspired to violate the War Crimes Act, which can be a capital crime.

But Dean correctly sees the key to Cheney’s success lies not in his frequently looney positions on policy. It is in his hijacking of process.

Washington insiders have long understood that Cheney’s power stems from his knowledge of the way the White House and the Office of the President operate. This is knowledge he acquired as President Ford’s Chief of Staff. With Bush’s consent, much of the paper flow of the White House which heads up the chain of command toward the President goes through Cheney’s office. In addition, Cheney’s staff reaches down into the executive bureaucracy to shape the debate before it reaches the White House.

Those with whom I have spoken have serious doubt that Bush and the White House staff really knows what Cheney is doing, why he is doing it, or how he is doing it. From the outset of this administration, Cheney has been instrumental in placing people loyal to him throughout the Executive Branch. This is not to say that Bush in not “the decider,” for he is, but by shaping the debate and controlling the paper flow, Cheney decides what the decider will decide.

It has long been apparent that Cheney’s genius is that he lets George W. Bush get out of bed every morning actually believing he is the President. In fact, his presidency is run by the President of the Senate, for Cheney is its true center of gravity. That fact has become more apparent with every passing year of this presidency, and anyone who thinks otherwise has truly “misunderestimated” our nominal president and his vice president.

Truly this is the essential lesson to take from the last week of June, 2007. For nearly seven years we’ve spoken of the “Bush Administration.” But surprise. He’s little more than a sock puppet. The man running this show is named Dick Cheney. And as our friends at the Daily Show remind us, “We don’t know Dick.”

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