By John Dean
“In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir”
A book by Dick Cheney
When I saw Dick Cheney dressed as Darth Vader to promote his new memoir, making a joke of his horrific behavior as vice president, all I could think about was how that video might play at his war crimes trial, if he ever were to undergo one. The prospect is not as farfetched as it might seem, particularly in light of his latest round of boasting about approving the use of “water-boarding” and other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” From time to time I check in with acquaintances who are experts in international law and war crimes. They have long told me that Dick Cheney cannot risk leaving the United States, for there are a number of highly respected prosecutors in other countries who will not hesitate to charge him for his war crimes if they get the opportunity.
Some think Cheney’s in-your-face behavior over his memoir is his pre-emptive effort against the potential of such a prosecution by a foreign prosecutor. (The Obama Justice Department has clearly given him a pass.) Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Bush administration Secretary of State Colin Powell, told ABC News he believes that Cheney has “developed an angst and almost a protective cover, and now he fears being tried as a war criminal so he uses such terminology as ‘exploding heads all over Washington’ because that’s the way someone who’s decided he’s not going to be prosecuted acts: boldly, let’s get out in front of everybody, let’s act like we are not concerned and so forth when in fact they are covering up their own fear that somebody will Pinochet him,” alluding to the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested for war crimes. A few think that Cheney dressed up as Darth Vader because he’s got a great sense of humor, but those who know him best say that, in fact, he has almost none. (In the end, the Darth Vader character comes out something of a hero in “Star Wars,” so Cheney no doubt identifies with those who go to the dark side to do what they believe is for the greater good.)
In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir
By Dick Cheney; Liz Cheney
Threshold Editions, 576 pages
After reading Cheney’s new memoir, watching several of his recent interviews about the book and revisiting my research for my three books about the Bush/Cheney presidency—“Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush,” “Conservatives Without Conscience” and “Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches”—I have a different take on Dick Cheney. The fact is that Cheney just does not get it. He believes what he did as vice president was necessary to protect the country and sees himself as a hero, the steady hand on the tiller during the Bush years when taking the ship of state through the storm.
In truth, his memoir confirms that Cheney is a small-minded man, and a prototypical authoritarian conservative. He is doing what these personalities do, because they just do not understand they might be wrong.
The memoir also reveals that its author is not a man inclined toward any real introspective thinking. Nor is his man-of-few-words style evidence of a great depth of thought; to the contrary, it shows the opposite. Cheney’s memoir is the work of a highly superficial thinker, his explanations are all starved rationalization and his reactions to others suggest he’s incapable of understanding their points of view.
Assisted by his two daughters and wife, who employed their much better cogitative skills while working with researchers and speechwriters, Cheney has produced a thin and deeply flawed narrative history that is most striking for its petty attacks on others. Cheney’s tale of his vice presidency takes cheap shots and settles scores with those who did not share his views, including George W. Bush but more particularly Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, along with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. There is only one person whom Dick Cheney appears to hold in truly high esteem: Dick Cheney, a person he believes is always correct. And he likes his mentor Don Rumsfeld, for whom he always has embarrassing, brown-nose praise. This is the way it is with authoritarian personalities.
To see long excerpts from “In My Time” at Google Books, click here.
The book contains absolutely nothing new about the key historical events of the Bush/Cheney presidency; it glosses over, or simply ignores, material essential to gaining any true understanding of this administration. (Given the fact that Cheney departed the Bush II White House with his vice presidential papers—one of the countless facts he ignores in his book—we may never know what he was really doing, or why, only what he generalizes and is willing to address.) Suffice it to say, his effort to spin history to look favorably on his tenure is not merely weak, it is at times unexpectedly boring. Cheney’s trust-me-I-know-what-I-am-doing tone may have worked with George W. Bush (during their first term, anyway), but in a narrative with no new facts or insights it gets old quickly.
This memoir reads like the work of a retired military figure, rather than a former White House chief of staff, congressman, cabinet officer and vice president. Though Cheney slides over his five draft deferments during Vietnam (claiming he would have loved serving if called), his memoir reveals an endless fascination with war. In high school, he reports, he was reading about the war in Vietnam with great interest. After getting kicked out of Yale and while working as a lineman back home in Wyoming during the days, he says, he read Winston Churchill’s multivolume World War II memoir at nights. In truth, the Cheney book itself is a war memoir, with about 20 percent discussing political wars and 80 percent addressing military wars; he tolerated the former but relishes rehashing the latter from his own point of view.
Given the human toll and economic cost of the “war on terror,” which for Cheney of course included the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I kept waiting for him to give some justification for the remarkable financial burdens these wars have placed on the American economy. While the former vice president boasts about his role in working on the pre-9/11 Bush tax cuts, which he helped get through Congress, he never addresses the economic impact of those tax cuts along with the staggering financial costs of the wars he and Bush gave the nation. Given the fact that we are still reeling from the Bush/Cheney tax cuts and wars, he could not easily have forgotten. Rather, he cannot explain away such thinking, so he ignores it. Thus, nowhere does he acknowledge, not to mention provide any arguments to counter, the fact that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida’s goal had been to bleed and bankrupt the United States. Reading this memoir, I had the feeling that Cheney has been sucker-punched by our enemy, but has yet to realize it. Money never seems a problem to the writer of this book; rather, he takes it for granted. He is simply blinded by his arrogance and worldview.
Most of Cheney’s score-settling is based on his characterization of events, and mischaracterization of the positions of others through less than full or inaccurate depictions of situations. At times he claims someone was wrong on some minor matter, which he inflates to significance by raising it. Most of these are little more than historical spitballs that will be forgotten quickly. But there is one score-settler I found particularly unseemly, not to mention that it may be based on classified surveillance information that Cheney uses to harm no less than a former president of the United States: Jimmy Carter.
Cheney’s hard feelings toward Carter are those of a bad loser. It was Carter who beat Jerry Ford in the 1976 presidential election, when Cheney was Ford’s White House chief of staff. After sprinkling several pages of the memoir with negative comments about what a miserable president he felt Carter had been, Cheney reports that his “biggest frustration with President Carter” occurred when Carter was out of office and Cheney was secretary of defense: “President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker were working to get U.N. Security Council approval of a resolution authorizing the use of force to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait in 1990-91. We found out that former President Carter was actively lobbying against the U.S. position. He had contacted heads of government with seats on the Security Council to urge them to oppose our resolution.” Cheney says Carter’s efforts were “ineffective” and “totally inappropriate for a former president.”
In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir
By Dick Cheney; Liz Cheney
Threshold Editions, 576 pages
Surely Cheney knows that this “by the way” information is, in fact, charging former President Carter with criminal behavior under the federal criminal law, a violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits citizens from conducting foreign relations without authority. More specifically, 18 U.S.C. § 953 states: “Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.” While the statute of limitations has expired regarding any actions that might be taken against Carter, the claim, if true, that he was lobbying heads of state with seats on the U.N. Security Council clearly violates this statute.
Cheney does not say how he learned this information. But this is precisely the type of information that the widespread U.S. government electronic surveillance of the United Nations circa 1990-91 might have picked up. If Carter’s action were truly “frustrating” to President George H.W. Bush, or Secretary of State Baker, they were the type of men who would have picked up the phone and asked Carter to cease what he was doing, and probably would have warned him he was violating the Logan Act. More likely, this was a tidbit of classified electronic surveillance that Cheney picked up as SecDef and stored away to use later, as he now has. He stops short of calling the behavior with which he disagreed treasonous; instead, for revenge against Carter, he offers it up all these years later as a conspicuous violation of the Logan Act. How remarkable, and ironic, that a man who may one day be charged as a war criminal would leak information suggesting criminal behavior by a former president trying to stop a war.
As I mentioned to friends when I started this read, I was doing it so others would not have to. And, as a precaution, I did it alone in case my head exploded. It did not. This book is a bomb, but not the exploding kind. Rather, I can certify it is a dud. However, one thing is clear from Cheney’s memoir, and his promotion of it: He is not likely to be traveling abroad soon. Cheney’s “In My Time” speaks to the mentality of a contemporary war criminal, but it certainly provides no defense. Along with videos of him dressed as Darth Vader, it would make a nice exhibit at his war crimes trial.
John Dean was Richard M. Nixon’s White House lawyer for 1,000 days and is the author of several books. Also, he is a columnist at Justia.com and a commentator on Current TV’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” Contact him on Twitter: @johnwdean.