By Megan Carpentier, Tuesday 30 August 2011 18.30 BST
On 31 March 1981, then Secretary of State Alexander Haig sat down in the White House situation room after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and declared himself the de facto president, a mistake – constitutionally and otherwise – that haunted his political career ever after. Vice President Dick Cheney was careful to avoid such blatant pronouncements when he effectively did the same on 11 September 2001.
In the first pages of his autobiography, published Tuesday, Cheney blithely details how he encouraged then President George W Bush to stay away from Washington, ordered away the congressional leaders next in line for the succession and then proceeded to give commands to the military – including the one to shoot down civilian aircraft deemed potential weapons – which he recommended to Bush and reportedly received approval for. When some in his own party objected to Cheney’s heavy-handed use of executive authority, he simply dismissed them. In one stunning example, about which Cheney practically brags, Cheney told Republican Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who was prevented from returning to Washington during the post-9/11 flight restrictions, that he, the vice president, had the right to tell Congress when they could reconvene – “because we’ve got the helicopters”.
In another scene detailed by Cheney, despite being encouraged to evacuate the White House – and despite the fact that Bush was on Air Force One and readily reachable – Cheney refused to leave, explaining to an aid that, “it will be at least 45 minutes before I can be back in touch with anyone.” Yet, when the choice came between monitoring television reports and participating in a situation room meeting, Cheney dropped out of the meeting because, if it was important, they could come downstairs and tell him.
But his actions on 9/11 are only the beginning of recollections that lend credence to the popular perception that Cheney was more puppetmaster than sidekick in the Bush White House. By Cheney’s remembrance, he “suggested” that then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld start planning for an invasion of Iraq shortly after 9/11; conducted the initial meetings with other heads of state; ousted then Secretary of State Colin Powell; even re-wrote the president’s speeches to his own liking; and even got his daily briefings before the president did. And while he says that Bush was “a president who strengthened all of us with his conviction”, and that he “paid me the high honour of listening to my views”, it is clear – from the framing of the occasions when Bush listened to, but then did not sanction Cheney’s views – how much the convictions that strengthened Cheney went right from Cheney’s mouth, to Bush’s ear, to Bush’s mouth, in a tidy feedback loop.
Anyone familiar with Cheney’s public persona at this point can hardly count themselves surprised at either his actions or his willingness to brag about them – a point underscored by his recent unapologetic television appearances in support, variously, of his book, state-sanctioned torture of terror suspects and the relentlessly unpopular Iraq war. If Cheney thinks he did anything wrong (other than failing to secure a pardon for former aide Scooter Libby, convicted on charges related to the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame), he certainly isn’t willing to admit to it. Distance, age and illness have not softened Cheney’s sense of self-importance or his conviction that the ends justified all his means – even those that violated laws, human rights or American citizens’ sense of right and wrong.
Cheney’s attitude – as evidenced both in his book and in his public appearances – do underscore one modern political point: conservatives who like to call Obama “arrogant” are either willfully blind to the very real arrogance once on display at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or have a rather exclusive definition of whom they consider the adjective applies to.