Unveiling his methods, and some of his motives.
For most of American history, no one would have dreamed of writing a vice-presidential biography. From 1804, when the 12th Amendment established our current method of choosing VPs, until 1901, when William McKinley's assassination placed Theodore Roosevelt in the Oval Office, the No. 2 position was a steppingstone to oblivion. T.R., elected in his own right in 1904, broke the pattern. Calvin Coolidge followed suit. By the mid-1970s, VPs were routinely going on to become their parties' standard-bearers. Walter Mondale and Al Gore epitomized the vice president in the era of big government—forces to be reckoned with, armed with experience to match the president's and portfolios and constituencies all their own.
Dick Cheney is something else altogether. As Barton Gellman astutely appreciates in Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, that is due not to the warlock-like powers some have ascribed to him but to the situation in which he has served. Both Mondale and Gore worked for detail men, presidents who would never let underlings set their most important policies. Cheney has served a man who very much likes to delegate—and to delegate to Cheney in particular. Gellman also leaves no doubt that what influence Cheney has had—which has been plenty—he has enjoyed thanks to Bush's indulgence. "The president made it clear from the outset that the vice president is welcome at every table and at every meeting," White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten tells Gellman. And when, after the 2006 election, Cheney's control of the foreign policy agenda weakened, it was, Gellman explains, "because the president wanted to try a new direction."
Perhaps a bit mischievously, Gellman goes out of his way to shower praise on the vice president. In contrast to the unreflective, superficial Bush, Cheney is routinely described with awe and reverence by many of Gellman's sources—judgments that Gellman mostly lets stand without challenge. Old colleagues and new visitors to Cheney's office alike paint the vice president as a quick study, exhibiting a command of policy minutiae, an iron will, and a finely honed strategic sense. In an administration that has become infamous for its incompetence, Cheney is the man who knows what he's doing.
But so does Gellman. His praise for Cheney's strengths as an infighter and policymaker, though no doubt sincere, are also a backhanded form of damnation, since they complete his portrait of a stealthily ruthless, hypercompetent majordomo. There can be no doubt after reading this fair but quietly withering book that Cheney's role in shaping Bush's presidency—governing from the right, not the center; skirting procedures to achieve his goals on taxes and the environment; and above all setting an extremist course in the war against al-Qaida—has been overwhelmingly malign.
The basic facts of Gellman's story are not new. Like many regular newspaper readers, I had known for a long time that Cheney had supported the administration's most legally questionable policies, from the warrantless domestic wiretapping to the treatment of military prisoners. But I don't think I'd realized until reading Angler that so many of these policies originated with Cheney and his right-hand man David Addington (who, it should be noted, is as central a character to this bookas the vice president himself). And while Gellman is hardly the first to make much of Cheney's remark after Sept. 11 that "We also have to work … the dark side," I don't think that any other journalist, with the exception of The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, has assembled so concisely and carefully the portrait of a man determined after 9/11 to use any means necessary—and some unnecessary—to go after Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida or anyone who might have anything to do with them.
Moreover, Gellman also exposes at least one case in which the vice president seems to have put his personal agenda ahead of his patron's. In the effort to pass the 2003 tax bill—Bush's second big round of cuts for the wealthy—the president had previously decided against deeper, politically unpopular reductions in the capital-gains tax. But according to Gellman, Cheney furtively worked behind Bush's back to help House Republicans replace the administration bill with an alternative that included the controversial cuts—a fact that "hardly anyone, in or out of the White House, knew," Gellman reports. Cheney himself ultimately cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to get it passed.
Little stories like this one, piled one after the next, form a picture of a man determined to use to the fullest all the power that Bush would allow him and then some. In keeping with other accounts, Cheney emerges here as a canny survivor of the Nixon and Ford White Houses, who has for decades longed to restore to the presidency the sorts of unchecked powers, at home and abroad, that Congress, the courts, and the public had worked to curtail after Watergate. And his decision at the start to rule out succeeding his boss ironically served the cause: It was a choice that buffered him from the political consequences of the policies he has worked to implement.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.