Dick Cheney's endless lies: Why his Playboy interview may be his most shameless yet

Cheney is full of it when he says he doesn't think about his legacy. Trying to rewrite history is all he has left

Published March 21, 2015 1:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Cliff Owen)
(AP/Cliff Owen)

Unlike his former boss Richard Nixon, Dick Cheney has never seemed to me like an especially interesting figure. In complete honesty, while I recognize him as one of the most influential and consequential politicians of my lifetime, I also find Cheney, or at least the version of him I experience through the media, to be rather dull. He’s clearly intelligent and strong-willed; but he’s also myopic and rigid. And despite having quit public office and decamped to Wyoming years ago, he still speaks in the pallid, clichéd and euphemistic language of the national security state bureaucracy, as if he never really left.

Due to his essential flatness, his basic lack of introspection and total absence of doubt, Cheney is not the kind of figure who, after a fall from grace, is usually described as tragic or Shakespearean. He’s more Iago than Macbeth. Yet as I read his lengthy interview with James Rosen in Playboy this week, the former vice president’s answers kept reminding me of one of the iconic lines from “Hamlet,” arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. During the conversation, he tells Rosen, as he’s told others before, that he does not regret his war crimes or care about how he’ll be judged by history. But as Queen Gertrude might say, Richard Bruce Cheney doth protest too much.

The most obvious sign that Cheney is either lying to Rosen or himself — or, most likely, both — is the simple fact that he’s doing the interview in the first place. Indeed, after spending most of his eight years in the White House endeavoring to shield his deeds and words from scrutiny, it seems lately that the once-taciturn vice president cannot shut up. Even more tellingly, it’s not as if the now-loquacious Cheney is sharing his thoughts on the pressing issues of the day and his vision of the future. Somewhat comically, Rosen tries to get him to talk about “the digital revolution.” But Cheney, like always, is much more interested in re-litigating the past, and laying down the narrative that revisionist historians of a conservative bent will no doubt cling to in the decades to come.

With the notable exception of GOP partisans, for example, most people today know that laying the blame for the chaos in Iraq entirely at President Obama’s feet is ridiculous. After all, he’s the man who famously described the U.S. invasion that set fire to Mesopotamia as “rash” and “dumb.” But people in the future, who won’t count the years of the Iraq War among their personal memories, will read Cheney’s claim that ISIS rose because of Obama’s “precipitous withdrawal” and be none the wiser. There are two sides to every story, people will eventually say. And Cheney will, to some degree, escape from having ISIS hung around his neck.

Cheney’s no less concerned with protecting his legacy when it comes to his other major crime as vice president: the construction of a global apparatus of systematic torture. As he did before when the reports to the contrary surfaced, Cheney insists to Rosen that President George W. Bush was briefed about torture and was fully in the know. “I can remember sitting in the Oval Office … where we talked about the techniques,” Cheney says. “I mean, we were not trying to hide it from the president,” he continues. But while it’s highly likely that Bush knew something nasty was happening “in the shadows,” he has all the incentive in the world to shift some of the blame for these war crimes off his shoulders and onto others’.

To my eyes, though, the clearest markers of Cheney’s desire to write the first draft of his legacy are the exculpating lies he continues to tell. As we’ve known for years — and were reminded of in 2014 with the release of the harrowing, vital “Guantanamo Diary” from Mohamedou Ould Slahi — plenty of miserable souls were thrown into the black hole of the CIA’s torture program for flimsy reasons. Often, they were at the wrong place at the wrong time and were swept up in an American dragnet. Sometimes, they were the victims of their neighbors’ opportunism and greed, because the Americans and their partners would pay good money for any leads on “terrorists.” But “these were people we captured on the battlefield or caught in the act,” Cheney tells Rosen.

Cheney similarly reveals himself later in the interview, when he implies that the way he pressured the Department of Justice to sign off on torture was no different from how things in Washington had always been done. Rosen notes that many would accuse Cheney of corrupting the law “to allow you to do what you wanted,” and Cheney, rather than deny it, says the charge is “fair enough.” But did “FDR ever do that?” he snarks in response, before continuing with a non-sequitur answer about how members of both parties in Congress approved of the program, too. If I’m going down, you can almost hear Cheney think to himself, then I’m taking everyone else with me.

And, in fairness, that’s not an entirely unreasonable position for Cheney to take. It is absolutely true that the former vice president found many willing partners in his drive to shred the Geneva Conventions. There were precious few government leaders who made it through the Bush years with their hands clean. But the point is not so much that Cheney and Cheney alone made America take a head-first plunge into the abyss. Rather, the point is that when the man who was once the most powerful vice president in U.S. history tells you that he doesn’t care how he is remembered, it is no more credible a statement than his claim that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes." As his never-ending rehabilitation tour shows, he does care. He cares quite a damn bit.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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