Dick Cheney was never a "grown-up"

A hard look at how one man changed the face of neoconservatism.

By Sidney Blumenthal
Published April 14, 2008 3:01PM (UTC)
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After Dick Cheney shot a friend in the face on a Texas hunting trip in February 2006, the national press corps began to speculate about him as one of the great mysteries of Washington, the Sphinx of the Naval Observatory, his official residence. Cheney had been known in the capital for decades through a career that carried him from congressional intern to the most powerful vice president in American history, but now his supposedly changed character became a subject of intense speculation. Brent Scowcroft, who had been George H.W. Bush's national security adviser, and had counseled against the invasion of Iraq, told The New Yorker magazine in 2005, "I consider Cheney a good friend -- I've known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore." Scowcroft's judgment was less about Cheney's temperament than his policy positions. The press, however, sought to disclose the sources of his "darkening persona," as a cover story in Newsweek described it. "Has Cheney changed? Has he been transformed, warped, perhaps corrupted -- by stress, wealth, aging, illness, the real terrors of the world or possibly some inner goblins?" A cover story entitled "Heart of Darkness," published in The New Republic, suggested that Cheney's heart disease had produced vascular dementia. "So, the next time you see Cheney behaving oddly, don't automatically assume that he's a bad man."

In 2000, when Cheney, as head of George W. Bush's search committee for a running mate, selected himself, opinion makers in Washington greeted the choice as proof positive of the younger Bush's deference to wisdom and therefore personifying prudence. Cheney's "manner gives him immunity from the extremist label," assured David Broder, the longtime leading political columnist of the Washington Post. "Voters who saw his televised briefings during the Persian Gulf War remember the calm voice and thoughtful expression that are his natural style ... By choosing a grown-up, Bush gave evidence of his own sense of responsibility."


Five years later, in 2005, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, by then the former chief of staff to the former Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking publicly at a Washington think tank, the New America Foundation, was less concerned with the press corps' obsession with Cheney's shifting images than with exposing his unprecedented manipulations. "What I saw was a cabal between the vice-president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made." Though he had had extensive experience in government, Wilkerson had never before encountered such "secrecy," "aberration" and "bastardization" in decision-making. "It is a dysfunctional process," he said. "And to myself I said, okay, put on your academic hat. Who's causing this?"

Previously fixed on the stereotype of the "grown-up," pundits projected a new stereotype of dementia. But had Cheney, in fact, been fundamentally transformed, becoming unrecognizable to those professional observers of the press who believed they knew him well? Both Scowcroft and Wilkerson had encountered Cheney within councils of state. Had even Scowcroft misjudged Cheney as a team player when he was Secretary of Defense during the Gulf War? Was Cheney a regular, conservative minded Republican who had just gone mad? Or, if he were a member of a "cabal," did it involve more than Rumsfeld?

George W. Bush jettisoned the tenets of traditional Republicanism -- fiscal responsibility, limited government, separation of church and state, and realism in foreign policy. Instead the doctrines that had been nurtured in the hothouse of the Counter-Establishment since the Reagan period achieved their most radical expression. At every point, Cheney exercised his power.


The supply-side theory of tax cuts -- that slashing tax rates especially on the upper brackets would produce a flood of new government revenues -- was applied with a vengeance even after the Reagan experiment had disproved the notion, having fostered extraordinary deficits. On Nov. 15, 2002, after Bush's tax cuts had passed, then Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill spoke at a White House meeting of the senior economic team about an impending "fiscal crisis" because of "what rising deficits will mean to our economic and fiscal soundness." Cheney quickly knocked down his argument. "Reagan proved deficits don't matter," he said. "We won the midterms. This is our due." O'Neill was soon fired. He concluded that Cheney and "a praetorian guard" governed Bush's presidency. "It's not penetrable by facts," he said. "It's absolutism."

Conservative lawyers were installed throughout the administration and appointed to federal judgeships while radical legal doctrines were imposed. As soon as he took office Bush ended the American Bar Association's pre-screening of judicial nominees, a practice that had begun in 1948. The ABA was considered a hopelessly "liberal" organization. In its place de facto vetting was now performed by the Federalist Society, a group that "has created a conservative intellectual network that extends to all levels of the legal community," according to its website. Founded in 1982 and infused with more than $15 million in grants from conservative foundations, the Federalist Society has become the principal network for lawyers on the right. Nearly every Bush judicial nominee, every Justice Department official, every general counsel in every federal department and agency, and dozens of senior cabinet and sub-cabinet secretaries was a member.

The congressional investigation into the political purge of U.S. Attorneys uncovered evaluation forms with a column to be checked about whether or not the applicant was a Federalist Society member. On every issue, from the gutting of the civil rights division of the Justice Department, where 60 percent of the professional staff was driven out and not a single discrimination case was filed, to the implementation of the so-called "war paradigm," including abrogation of Article Three of the Geneva Convention against torture, (which then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales termed "quaint" in a memo to the president), Federalist Society cadres were at the center. David Addington, Cheney's counsel and later chief of staff, directed the tight-knit group of "torture lawyers" within the administration.


Foreign policy was dominated by the neoconservatives whose agenda was galvanized after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The 2000 manifesto issued by the Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative group that advocated "regime change" in Iraq, contained a cautionary line that "the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor." September 11 became that "new Pearl Harbor," providing long hoped for political momentum the neoconservatives channeled for an invasion of Iraq.

The influence of the neoconservatives over the national security apparatus was heavy-handed and pervasive. More than 17 signatories of the Project for the New American Century statement held posts within the Bush administrations, including Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz (Deputy Secretary of Defense), Richard Perle (chairman of the Defense Policy Board), and John Bolton (Undersecretary of State for Policy and later Acting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations). But these eminences were the tip of the iceberg. Neoconservatives also staffed the Office of the Vice President, comprising the largest national security team ever assembled by a vice president. Neoconservatives were strategically placed throughout the National Security Council—for example, Elliott Abrams, NSC director of Middle East affairs, a convicted felon in the Iran-contra scandal. And neoconservatives were packed into the Office of the Secretary of Defense and his Office of Special Plans, a new office created to "stovepipe" intelligence to the White House without having it vetted by the CIA or other intelligence agencies.


The Iraq war was largely a neoconservative production conducted under the guidance of Cheney and Rumsfeld. Cheney took command of the intelligence process, even arranging for Bush to sign Executive Order 13292, written by Addington, giving the vice president the same power over intelligence as the president. The disinformation campaign that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction was a joint enterprise of the Office of the Vice President and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, providing a steady stream of evidence that was later revealed to be false and fabricated.

The occupation of Iraq was undertaken as a grand experiment in conservative ideology. The experienced hands in nation building at the State Department, who had prepared for the complexities of Iraqi reconstruction, as well as senior professionals from the departments of Treasury, Energy and Commerce, were blackballed by Cheney, Rumsfeld and their neoconservative aides. The hiring for the Coalition Provisional Authority was run by Rumsfeld's liaison to the White House (mainly OVP), who gathered resumes from the slush piles of conservative think tanks, and subjected prospective employees to rigorous tests of political loyalty, asking whether they had voted for George W. Bush and were opposed to abortion.

Cheney's reliance on neoconservatives was essential in carrying out his long conceived project of creating an imperial presidency, an executive unfettered by Congress or the press, that under the banner of war could enact any policy and obey or ignore any law that it wished. Cheney's use of the neoconservatives to attain his aims -- the core goals of the Bush presidency -- was hardly happenstance or an alliance of sudden convenience. "Has Cheney changed?" asked Newsweek. The answer to that question required delving deeply into the hidden history of neoconservatism.


Richard Nixon was the first Republican president to cultivate the neoconservatives. They were considered a potentially fresh source of ideas to deal with racial turmoil, student unrest over the Vietnam War, and the discontents of the working and middle classes. Nixon's first encounter took place on March 12, 1970, when Irving Kristol was invited to dinner with the president. Kristol was a former Trotskyist who maintained a consistently cynical view of liberalism as he drifted to the right, acting as an editor at a succession of small journals. The diary of H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, records: "Tonight P (President) stag dinner with key staff and Irving Kristol. Got off to slow start and through dinner P talked with (George) Shultz (Secretary of Labor) about labor matters, Kristol just listened. Sort of a waste of time and talent. In Oval Room [Office] after dinner the talk heated up, about whole subject of condition of the country, focused on radicalization of large number of college students, strength of nihilistic groups (in influence, not numbers), and how to deal with it all ... Must say, Kristol didn't add much."

Nixon did not recall Kristol from that dinner. Kristol, after all, had been uncharacteristically quiet. Nonetheless, Nixon's aides kept sending him articles Kristol wrote on such subjects as pornography and censorship. After Kristol endorsed Nixon for reelection in 1972, causing a stir among the New York intellectuals, Nixon's most conservative aides, Patrick Buchanan and Charles Colson, recommended that Nixon hire Kristol as a domestic policy expert to replace the departing Daniel Patrick Moynihan. For whatever reason, whether Nixon's or Kristol's demurral, Kristol did not receive the appointment.

With Nixon's resignation and Gerald Ford's assumption of the presidency, a new aide arrived with the portfolio to gather ideas from conservative thinkers. Robert Goldwin was himself little known among intellectuals. He was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the oldest conservative think tank in Washington; founded to combat the New Deal, it functioned as the brain trust for Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964. Goldwin had published no notable articles or books of his own and believed generally that intellectuals did not "even have much to say to the ordinary citizen." His notion was less an idea than an impulse, a deeply seated resentment against liberalism that took the form of anti-intellectualism.


Goldwin's gruff contempt expressed the common opinion of conservatives, even conservative thinkers, of the period. AEI was less a hive of activism than a small, stagnant world apart. Its scholars had not achieved distinction in peer-reviewed academia; nor were they known for interesting articles in major publications. Kristol was an experienced provocateur and organizer, whose neoconservatism was a Leninist strategy for the right: intellectual cadres would act as a vanguard to guide the masses of Nixon's "Silent Majority" against the class enemy.

Goldwin's first service to President Ford was to arrange an hour long private meeting with Kristol, who soon began recommending neoconservatives to positions on the National Endowment for the Humanities and Library of Congress.

Goldwin also called Kristol's work to the attention of Ford's chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld, who in turn handed it over to his deputy Dick Cheney. (Cheney had also been Rumsfeld's assistant when Rumsfeld served as counselor to President Nixon.) Cheney had earned a master's degree in political science at the University of Wyoming and pursued doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin before dropping out to work as an intern for a Republican congressman from Wisconsin. According to documents in the archives of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Cheney wrote Goldwin on Jan. 25, 1975. "I greatly appreciate receiving the stuff you've been sending me… Anything like that that comes in from Kristol or others, I'd love to see."

Five days later, Kristol wrote Goldwin a letter explaining the political necessity of fostering a conservative Counter-Establishment:


"I do think the White House ought to do something for a relatively small group of men who are, unbeknownst to it, being helpful to this Administration, to the Republican party, and to conservative and moderate enterprise in general. I am referring to the men who head small and sometimes obscure foundations which support useful research and activities of a kind that the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations take a dim view of. I have got to know an awful lot of them these past years, and they never have received the barest recognition which I think they are entitled to. I am thinking of people like R. Randolph Richardson of the Smith Richardson Foundation, Donald Regan from the Merrill Trust, someone from the Earhart Foundation, the head of the Scaife Family Trust, and the head of the Lilly Endowment, etc. I say ‘head' because, in each case, one would have to determine whether it is the chairman of the board of the executive director who is the appropriate person to receive this recognition. But it would be nice if, say, the White House were to invite these gentlemen and their wives to a State dinner occasionally. If you think this can be done, I'd be happy to draw up a list for your guidance."

On Feb. 14, 1975, Cheney wrote Goldwin, "Bob, why don't you come see me on Irving Kristol. We need to come up with a specific proposal as to how he might be utilized full time." Kristol was soon sending a flow of letters and articles containing his views on a wide range of subjects to Goldwin that were also shared with Cheney. One Goldwin memo, dated Nov. 18, 1975, appended to a Wall Street Journal op-ed written by Kristol on small business, "The New Forgotten Man": "In case you missed it, this Kristol piece is excellent and addressed very directly to us in this Administration." At Kristol's suggestion, Goldwin also launched a series of seminars for senior officials within the administration that included a number of neoconservative luminaries. Cheney, who had become White House chief of staff, and Rumsfeld, who had been named Secretary of Defense, were regular attendees.

After Ford's defeat in 1976, Kristol's influence in directing the funding of right-wing foundations made him the widely acknowledged godfather of the neoconservative movement. During the Reagan years, he moved from New York to Washington, settling as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, which under his influence had shed its traditional Republican origins and become a neoconservative bastion. (In 2002, George W. Bush awarded Kristol the Presidential Medal of Freedom.) Kristol's son, William, meanwhile, continued the family business, serving as chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, an isolated outpost of neoconservatism during the elder Bush's administration that its denizens called "Fort Reagan." William became editor of a neoconservative journal of opinion, The Weekly Standard, part of press lord Rupert Murdoch's media empire that included Fox News, where the younger Kristol holds forth as a regular commentator. Two years after establishing The Weekly Standard, Kristol co-founded and chaired the Project for a New American Century, whose office was housed at the American Enterprise Institute.

The abbreviated history of the Ford administration, reaping the whirlwind of Nixon's failed presidency, besieged on all sides by the Congress, the press and an insurgent Republican right, scarred Cheney. His encouragement of Kristol and the neoconservatives reflected his efforts to move the Ford administration rightward. Along with Rumsfeld he pushed for the creation of a parallel commission dubbed the Team B to second-guess the CIA on Soviet military capability. The Team B's report projecting a rapidly expanding Soviet threat turned out to contain faulty data. Then CIA director George H.W. Bush, who had acceded to Team B's creation, later condemned it as having set "in motion a process that lends itself to manipulation for purposes other than estimative accuracy." Nonetheless, Team B served as an important milestone in legitimating neoconservatism within the Republican Party.


Elected to the House of Representatives from Wyoming in 1978, Cheney quickly rose within the Republican leadership, becoming the party's senior figure on intelligence matters. As the ranking Republican on the joint congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra scandal Cheney issued a report (written by his then counsel Addington) that attacked the Congress for encroaching on the president's prerogatives in foreign policy, although the scandal involved secret offshore bank accounts, rogue sales of missiles to Iran and bribery of White House officials. This parallel and illegal foreign policy was constructed to avoid adherence to the congressional Boland amendments that prohibited covert military aid to the Nicaraguan contras. Cheney's minority report was a brief for the imperial presidency. It stated: "Congressional actions to limit the president in this area therefore should be reviewed with a considerable degree of skepticism. If they interfere with the core presidential foreign policy functions, they should be struck down." In 2005, he told reporters that the report best captured his views of a "robust" presidency.

When I published this book in 1986 it appeared just months before the Iran-contra scandal was revealed. I had set out to examine the ways that conservatives had created an infrastructure for institutionalizing and magnifying their influence in national politics and throughout the federal government. Then on the national staff of the Washington Post, I knew Dick Cheney as the House Republican Whip. But I didn't imagine then that his crusade for unfettered presidential power and a unitary executive would culminate during a subsequent presidential administration.

As Secretary of Defense in the elder Bush's administration, Cheney was always the most ideological member of the national security team. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Cheney's Pentagon senior staff "a refuge for Reagan-era hardliners." After the Gulf War, in 1992, the neoconservatives engaged in a new Team B-like operation under Cheney's aegis. Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and his deputies, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (later VP Cheney's chief of staff) and Zalmay Khalilzad (later U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the U.N.), after consulting with leading neoconservatives, produced a draft document for a post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, simply called Defense Policy Guidance. The memo argued for unilateral use of U.S. force, preemptive strikes, preventing the emergence of powerful rivals including nations that were formally allied to the U.S., and pointedly did not refer to international order or multilateral organizations. Once the document was leaked to the New York Times, however, Bush administration officials killed it as contrary to their foreign policy. But Cheney was proud of the memo and issued a version of it under his name as a departing gesture in 1992 as the administration left office. "He took ownership of it," said Khalilzad. The ideas contained within it resurfaced in the 2000 manifesto of the Project for a New American Century (Wolfowitz, Libby, Khalilzad, and Cheney were signatories) and in 2002 as the basis for President George W. Bush's "National Security Strategy of the United States of America."

After the first Bush administration, Cheney became the chief executive officer of Halliburton and a member of the board of trustees of the American Enterprise Institute. His wife, Lynne, who as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993 had been a fierce cultural warrior on the right, became a senior fellow at AEI. On January 23, 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq, President Bush delivered a speech at the annual AEI dinner bestowing the Irving Kristol Award. "You do such good work that my administration has borrowed 20 such minds," he declared. The following year, Cheney did the honors. "Being here brings to mind my own days affiliated with AEI, which stretch back some 30 years," he recalled.


Cheney had not changed over the years; on the contrary, he could not have been more explicit and direct about his goals all along. There never was a real mystery about him. Early on, Cheney's notions for an imperial presidency and his relationships with the neoconservatives merged on to a single track. Since the beleaguered Ford White House, he sought out people to develop and implement such ideas, which became the governing policy of George W. Bush's administration. Only through Cheney was the rise of neoconservatism made possible. Now its next phase will revolve around finding a new sponsor to return them to power despite the catastrophic consequences of their ideas.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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