James Madison was the Founding Father most concerned with the prospect for abuse of power by the executive. He worried in particular that presidents in the future would wage war for trivial and improvident reasons with a political subtext: to silence dissent and elevate their powers as president. Dick Cheney is the man that James Madison was warning us about. In a fine column at the Daily Beast, (which also publishes my work) former Nixon White House counsel John Dean gives us a keen assessment of Dick Cheney the politician.
For me, Cheney is the last of a dying breed of former Nixon aides and apologists who do not believe that the disgraced president set the standard for what should not be done, rather that he provided a "to do" list legacy. To understand Richard Nixon, as I believe I do, is to appreciate that Cheney has carried Nixon's political DNA into contemporary Republican politics and governing. Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday closed the case on Cheney's Nixonian nature when he asked the vice president during a recent exit interview a question that produced the eeriest of echoes for anyone who has seen the Frost/Nixon film, or recalls the actual interviews from decades earlier.
Nixon told David Frost, "Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal." Thirty-one years later, Wallace asked Cheney, "If the President, during war, decides to do something to protect the country, is it legal?" Without blinking, Cheney replied, "General proposition, I'd say yes."
Like Nixon, Cheney operates best shrouded with secrecy. Cheney plays the enigma well. Unlike Nixon, however, who had intellectual heft, remarkable political acumen and a carefully developed world vision, Cheney has a small-bore mind along with a world-class Rolodex. At heart Cheney is and always has been the consummate "staff man"-an implementer of the ideas of others but neither an original nor analytical thinker. He started in Washington as a staff person and simply never grew beyond that role. As vice president, he was Bush's super-head of staff, and when not doing Bush's bidding, he was devoted to implementing Nixon's vision of the presidency-a vision Cheney says he has held since Watergate.
Dean discusses the need for a definitive book on the Cheney presidency but despairs that Cheney's practiced art of "disappearing" his essential papers will make that impossible. But on this point he's wrong-we already have the remarkable forensic work done by Barton Gellman in his book Angler.
Originally posted at Harper's, January 2009.