“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. … There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it,” was how Lord John Acton worded his rejection of the idea that popes and kings could do no wrong.
That quote was stuck in my head as I watched our former v.p., Dick Cheney, trying in vain to defend his administration’s legacy of military aggression, torture, and secrecy in the name of national security. The speech wasn’t half-bad as revisionist history, and it may have worked if it hadn’t immediately followed President Obama speaking on the same subject. For six or seven years, Cheney has been telling us that based on the intelligence he’s seen, the extraordinary lengths his administration went to were necessary. For the past six or seven months, Barack Obama has seen the exact same intelligence — and he’s saying Cheney is wrong. The time has come for the former vice president to do what the former president has done since leaving office: sit down and shut up. It’s tough for Cheney to ride off into the Wyoming sunset because he’s been around Washington for decades, served every Republican president since Richard Nixon, and has never been more than an election cycle or two away from a job in the White House. He’s been minority whip in Congress, White House chief of staff for Gerald Ford, secretary of defense for George H. W. Bush, and after heading up the committee to select George W. Bush’s running mate in 2000, had the power to pick himself. So he did.
I don’t believe he ever took young George Bush seriously as an authority figure, and that led to what Cheney described to former Vice President Dan Quayle as a “different understanding with the president” about what his role would be. Instead of fundraising and funerals, Cheney would essentially run the White House (and the Executive Branch) as a “surrogate chief of staff,” and would always be the last person in the room with The Decider. That special relationship — plus Congressional authorization to use force in response to the hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001 and a letter from some hack lawyers saying the president is infallible during wartime — basically left Cheney free to break the law.
And break the law he did. His office leaked classified information about an undercover CIA agent named Valerie Plame to discredit her husband, a critic of the administration’s Iraq policy. On their watch, the NSA tapped domestic phone calls in a massive data-collection effort and the CIA disappeared people off the street, stuck them in Guantanamo and secret prisons in eastern Europe, interrogated them using “enhanced techniques” that were, in fact, torture, then exported those torture techniques to places like Abu Ghraib. They even held American citizens in custody without charging them with any crimes. They tainted the White House, polluted the press, compromised the intelligence community, and dishonored the military — all in the name of our security.
So there was the most powerful vice president in American history standing in the Hall of Evil that is the American Enterprise Institute trying to claim the bottom line is that his administration has kept us safe since their wake-up call on Sept. 11, 2001. Of course, that assumes I give them a pass for not keeping us safe on that day — and I don’t. I was there, so I can’t. Not when the president’s daily brief warned them about what was coming in no uncertain terms on Aug. 6, 2001 — and was ignored. Not when counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke was running around with his “hair on fire” trying to warn them something big was coming — and was demoted. Not when they took office with the official military response to the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole on their to-do list — and did nothing. Sorry, Dick, but there is no way to prove why something didn’t happen; though the ignored PDB, the demoted counter-terrorism expert, and the impotent response to the Cole bombing go a long way toward demonstrating why the hijackings of that September morning did happen. They happened because you failed to keep us safe.
With its casual relationship with the rule of law, its disastrous war policies, and the belief in a strong unitary executive, I thought the Nixon administration would go down as the most corrupt in history. Then came George W. Bush and the Nixon holdover Cheney — one tricky Dick picking up right where the other left off. He still loves Nixon’s idea of the wartime president as a tyrant American king with the power to rule the courts and the Congress, and he played that role for most of their first term. But after losing three Supreme Court cases, two national elections, and the confidence of his boss, he was marginalized to the point where he couldn’t even get a pardon for his convicted felon former chief of staff. And all Dick Cheney will be remembered for is basically being fired by the worst president ever.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider living in Santa Monica who thinks Dick Cheney committed a war crime if he suggested waterboarding Muhammed al-Dulaymi in 2003. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.