Dick Cheney after having lunch at a Roman Restaurant.  September 7, 2008

Dick Cheney after having lunch at a Roman restaurant. September 7, 2008

I recently finished reading Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman’s book “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.” It’s a tour-de-force of investigative, political, national security, and economic reporting based on a series of articles he co-wrote for the Post last year that won a Pulitzer Prize.

Having lived and worked in Washington DC during the first five years of the Bush presidency, the power and influence of Cheney was clear immediately.  According to Gellman’s book, Cheney’s office was intimately involved in nearly every major policy decision of the administration, and as I found out from my own investigation and field reporting while working at CNN, it was also Ground Zero for one of its biggest scandals.

The most surprising revelation in Gellman’s reporting to me was how he pieced together Cheney’s M.O.  He comes across as the ultimate bureaucratic warrior, knowing how the system works inside out, knowing where the loopholes are, and how to use them to his advantage.

Cheney was not Bush’s svengali or puppetmaster, as many liberals have claimed.  But he still managed to get a lot of his views and positions adopted in the policymaking process at lower levels in the bureaucracy, by placing ideological allies in key middle and senior-level positions throughout the federal government.  By the time the whole process had played itself out and made its way to the president, Cheney’s position nearly always came out on top.

Cheney comes across as something of a zealot, not necessarily because of his hardline conservative ideology but rather, because of his methods.  Even when the subject of the book focused on Iraq, I did not get the impression that Bob Woodward did when he wrote in Plan of Attack that Cheney had a fever regarding the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a view attributed to Colin Powell, if my memory is correct.

The biggest bombshells in the book were the behind the scenes tick-tock of the Department of Justice’s impasse with the White House over the legality of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, which nearly led to a Saturday Night Massacre-esque decapitation of the national security legal team of the federal government.  The second was the revelation from former House Majority Leader Dick Armey that Cheney misled (if not outright lied) to him about the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs during a private briefing after Armey expressed public doubt about the need to invade Iraq.

What makes the book more impressive is that Gellman was able to get a fair, balanced, and accurate portrayal of Cheney without the benefit of an interview.  He digs deep into the government bureaucracy and spoke extensively with Cheney’s friends and rivals to make sure that a well-rounded picture of his vice presidency came to light.

The major supporting character who pretty much jumps off every page in this book is Cheney’s counsel (and now chief of staff) David Addington, who shares his boss’s views about an expansive, near-unchecked power of the executive branch on matters of war and national security.   Even though Scooter Libby held the chief of staff role until his indictment in 2005, he did not come across in the book anywhere near as big a player in the government as Addington.

This is a very well-written and researched book which, until years pass and internal documents from the Bush White House are declassified and published, will likely be the standard by which all biographies of the Cheney vice presidency will be measured.

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