Friday, April 26, 2013

On The Unusual Historical Significance of a Certain Vice President

Still giving the orders
Vice Presidents don't matter much.  In terms of policy, they tend to have less influence than the First Lady, and while some have had more importance than others, overall they don't tend to leave their mark on history.  But it may well be that there was one whose influence, choices, ideology and policy agenda will echo through American and global history for the next hundred years, if not more.  That VP is none other than Dick Cheney.

With the opening of the George W Bush library this week, there has been some re-examination of the Bush Presidency, which feels weird because there's been a pretty robust consensus that nobody would ever talk about him again,  and he would be allowed to slink off into history the way the horror of a bad dream fades as the morning progresses.  Even the odious former President has limited his public appearances, preferring instead to publish a book and learn to paint.

But in the course of revisiting the Bush White House, it becomes apparent that, in spite of the ultimate unmitigated disaster that was the Bush Presidency, there were a surprising number of issues, from AIDS to education to homelessness, even to health care where the Bush policies were well-meaning, compassionate and, most remarkably, effective.  Now make no mistake - at the end of the day, GW Bush was an incurious, bumbling nitwit, utterly unqualified to be President of the United States,  completely controlled and manipulated by government and party staff.  And much of his National Security, Intelligence and Foreign policy was dictated by the Vice President's office, Cheney and his band of bloodthirsty armchair warriors.

Which leads me to wonder: Just how much of the horrors, madness and monumental failures of courage and vision of those years would have been avoided merely by the selection of a different running mate in 2000?  How different might those years have been, and how many debacles - from torture to warrantless surveillance to indefinite detention to the invasion of Iraq - would never have happened at all, and what events and accomplishments might have stood in their place?

So often in the Bush era the actions of his Administration would engender the question "stupid or evil?"  And sure enough, in the case of a presidency that resulted in such widespread disaster, there's room for both.  But I can't help but believe that Bush mostly supplied the stupid, while the evil was largely contributed by Dick Cheney.  It's hard to even fathom the depths of anger and inhumanity that the originally bookish politician Cheney turned to after 9/11.  His lust for murder, torture and an odd, uncaring deployment of massive military force without any serious consideration of strategy, without any interest in post-combat planning, political or diplomatic management or any real advancement of American goals and interests is even more chilling in retrospect than it was at the time.  He seemed only interested in inflicting maximum pain and suffering, destroying and killing without any thought to what would be accomplished.  The most favorable interpretation of his random bloody-mindedness-as-policy is that he hoped to intimidate the world into kowtowing to some kind of Pax Americana.  The less charitable, but more realistic assumption is that, at some point, he became a rapacious homicidal maniac in control of the most powerful military on the planet.

The costs were immense, and are still being counted.  And not just the costs in blood and treasure.  America used to hold a kind of moral high-ground, a place from which we could at least challenge those who would use undemocratic and extra-constitutional practices like torture, detention without due process and unlimited government surveillance in the court of world opinion.  Now, of course, any brutal dictator, from Putin to Assad can invoke the generalized concept of "terrorism" to justify any act, no matter how horrific, and, if challenged, can point to that icon of human rights, the United States, as the model for their behavior.

So as we watch the attempt to rehabilitate the legacy of President GW Bush, two things should be uppermost in our minds.  First, he was a disaster of the first order as President, an incurious and bull-headed ideologue uninterested in any knowledge beyond his own preconceptions, but he was ultimately probably not as bad as the actual legacy he leaves behind.  A great deal of the real horror of the Bush years stains the hands of his Vice President.


  1. Replies
    1. You mean Dan Senor, don't you?

      P.S.: Wouldn't be picking nits if there weren't a "Reply" function, but I can't resist.

    2. I think picking nits is an evolutionary trait.

    3. Yeah, but in which direction?

  2. Indeed, very true.

    But Cheney was a special case, clinically insane as near as I can tell, and interested only in spilling the maximum amount of blood possible - any blood, any nation, any excuse...

  3. You don't even mention that Cheney chose himself to be Veep. (No one else was as qualified, right?) At this point it's more than fair to wonder if Dick knew exactly what he was doing & was confident he could wrap W. around his little finger & get away w/ almost anything.

    I'm not really sure he's clinical. I remember shrinks & the like saying that most suicide bombers/fliers of planes into bldgs. were not insane in a way that the DSM could classify. I suspect Cheney was just the same.

  4. On The Unusual Historical Significance of a Certain Vice President

    Spiro Agnew?

  5. No, but that IS one of the great politician's names of all time. It sounds like a species...

    1. Dan Quayle then?

      Forgive me, but we've had so MANY unusual vice presidents....

    2. But, as near as I can tell, only one with power.