WASHINGTON — I’m often asked why, given my lower-than-low opinion of this administration, I don’t at least raise the subject of whether George W. Bush should be impeached. I answer with three scary words that tend to end the discussion: President Dick Cheney.

Then again, Cheney would probably think of moving into the Oval Office as a demotion. The president, at least, has some accountability to public opinion — if he’s going to defy it, he has to offer some explanation. The president has to hold an occasional news conference, tolerate meetings with his opponents on Capitol Hill and endure lectures from world leaders who question his policies. Cheney can just blow it all off.

Cheney will be remembered not just as the first sitting vice president since Aaron Burr to shoot someone, but also as the first vice president in history clever and determined enough to turn what is usually a ceremonial office into a center of vast independent power.

It’s ironic that the latest outrage from Cheney is his claim to be exempt from a presidential order concerning the handling of classified documents because his office is not actually, or at least not exclusively, a part of the executive branch. Cheney, you see, has spent the past six years pushing the envelope of executive authority, asserting for Bush and himself the right to do pretty much any damn thing they want.

Didn’t Cheney claim executive privilege as his reason for keeping secret the process he followed in developing the administration’s energy policy, including the names of the people with whom he met?

The flap over secret documents is a mere bagatelle, however, compared with the way Cheney has usurped, concentrated and wielded power. A remarkable series of stories in The Washington Post about Cheney’s unprecedented role began Sunday with the amazing tale of how, two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Cheney got Bush to sign an order denying foreign terrorism suspects access to any court of law, military or civilian.

Cheney presented Bush with the order, which had been written “in strict secrecy” by Cheney’s lawyer, as the two had lunch. Within the hour, the document had been made official with Bush’s signature — and neither Secretary of State Colin Powell nor National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had been informed.

Rice was “incensed,” according to the Post, while Powell didn’t learn of the order — which had enormous implications for U.S. foreign policy — until he heard it reported that evening on CNN. His response: “What the hell just happened?”

What happened was that Cheney had taken him to school.

Cheney went on to oversee the development of the shameful philosophical and legal framework the administration has used to justify submitting “war on terror” detainees to what Cheney called “robust interrogation” — and what international agreements call torture. Cheney supported a hair-splitting distinction between torture on the one hand and “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment on the other.

I’ve never bought the theory of the Bush-Cheney relationship as Pinocchio-Geppetto — it lets Bush off too easily to imagine that Cheney pulls all the strings. But it’s clear that Cheney is the toughest, smartest infighter in the administration, and that his toughness and smarts have been employed partly in service of an independent agenda. Cheney came into office believing that the presidency — and, by extension, the vice presidency — had been deflated, and he set out to puff them back up again.

Students of public administration should have to take a course called “Cheney.” How he has amassed and employed his power offers a case study in how government really works — and how a skillful operator can make a bureaucracy dance. Take Cheney’s penchant for secrecy, which seems to border on the maniacal. His office stamps “SECRET” on routine documents, including talking points for officials to use with reporters. He keeps papers pertaining to everyday business in huge Mosler safes. Is this loopy? No, he’s just putting into practice the dictum that information is power. Sunshine is for losers.

This vice president whose Secret Service code name is “Angler” really does know all the angles. And above all, he knows how to survive. His one-time mentor Donald Rumsfeld is gone, his one-time top aide “Scooter” Libby is on his way to jail, yet Cheney — defiantly, disastrously, unbelievably — remains. It will take years to uncover and undo all the damage he has wrought.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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