The Cheney Memoir: Hype and Reality

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

I’m about halfway through the new Cheney memoir, In My Time, and it does not at all resemble the media’s description of it — a highly controversial book preoccupied with scoring points against rivals — which suggests that many of those who have written about it have not read it. Every writer defends his own record, of course, but I haven’t detected any vendettas yet. On occasion, Cheney admits errors of his own, especially unwise press announcements and rash public statements. Although he is critical of Colin Powell in the lead-up to Iraq and afterward, he is more than magnanimous in prior references to the man — no “cheap shots” that I could see.

Cheney comes across as an everyman from a mostly Democratic family who started out with no money and considers his wife and children the central focus of his life. Early on, he worked a number of hard-scrabble jobs. He is his own most severe critic about his troubled early twenties, which led to occasional drinking, bad grades at Yale, and a sense of directionlessness. At 37 he had a heart attack, and for most of his professional life was plagued by either heart trouble or worries that his health might impair his duties. Most men would have scaled back; he accelerated, and at great costs to his own health rarely turned down a call to public service. Yet he is surprisingly resigned about this sword of Damocles that has hung over him since 1978. After his tenure with President Ford, he simply, Truman-like, packed up his own car and drove it back to Wyoming.

It may be cute to call him Darth Vader, but his earlier career was characteristically centrist. He supported Jerry Ford rather than Ronald Reagan’s primary challenge, and while he admired Newt Gingrich’s audacity, he preferred a less confrontational approach in the House. Many of the profits he made as a Halliburton CEO he donated to charity, and he retains a natural comfort with the middle classes that comes from his own upbringing in Wyoming.

He had a lot of Democratic friends — remember how little acrimony he showed with Lieberman in the 2000 debate — and he even has some nice things to say about the late John Murtha, at least before the Iraq estrangement. Former friends who were later hypercritical of him in the press — mostly the Bush I inner circle — don’t earn much lasting antipathy from him. They were on the giving rather than the receiving end of the estrangement. In other words, the book does not support either the dark images of Cheney or the idea that it is a vindictive memoir. He neither backs down from nor relishes his occasional profanity and run-ins with those like Sen. Patrick Leahy. How a non-confrontational conservative with a long record of working with Democrats was transmogrified by the media into someone demonic is one of the strangest events of our times.

In many of the controversies between 2001 and 2008, Cheney seems often right — early support for the admirable surgists (Fred Kagan, Jack Keane, H. R. McMaster, David Petraeus); skepticism about mere oral understandings with the North Koreans; opposition to premature pullouts from Afghanistan.

Of course, his popularity suffered terribly from the nonstop media focus over the water-boarding of the three admitted terrorists Khalid Sheikh MohammedAbu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, between 2002 and 2003, and his refusal to admit such treatment was torture. I opposed those techniques, but we still do not have the complete record of the information that came from KSM et al. — though National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair has since said “high value” information came out of it — and by now we have forgotten the sense of impending attack and mayhem that followed after 9/11.

The fact that President Obama, to his credit, has reversed course — keeping Guantanamo open and embracing renditions, tribunals, detentions, wiretaps, intercepts, Predators, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — ironically will more than anything put into context the ad hominem attacks on Cheney and the allegations that most of such protocols were both superfluous and anti-constitutional. That we were not attacked again after 9/11 through 2008 was in large part due to many of the things Cheney insisted upon. I wish that he had discussed in greater depth the administration’s disastrous decision not to stick with all the 23 writs of the October 2002 congressional resolutions authorizing force to remove Saddam. There was no need, when one reads those bipartisan authorizations, to focus almost solely on WMD — which, of course, liberal senators as diverse as Rockefeller and Biden were worried about. Cheney was too, but had invested in regime change on more than twenty other counts.

He seems content to rest his case with future historians, confident that in the long haul he will be proven right about the removal of Saddam Hussein, the subsequent salvation of Iraq through the surge, and the necessary measures taken to ensure no repeat of 9/11. Even the decisions that sometimes put him on the wrong side of Bush — calling for the bombing of the nuclear facility in Syria, which Israel eventually did; quiet opposition to the nomination of Harriet Miers and the firing of Rumsfeld; the defense of Libby given the prior knowledge of Powell/Armitage, etc. — don’t necessarily put him in a bad light.

In short, while I am only half done with a careful reading of the book, I don’t yet see much that would make ‘heads explode’ or challenge the once-accepted image of Cheney as a pragmatic conservative whose style was Western and simple and who improbably, given his modest origins, found himself at the very center of American power over three administrations and many Congresses, where his tragic notion of human nature served the country well for almost 40 years.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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