For a long time people have talked about how Cheney has been the "real," "secret" president, but (1) I've tended to treat it as little more than justifiable slander or exaggeration, and (2) it hasn't been entirely clear to me why that's a terrible thing as opposed to, like, a sketchy thing. Well, (1) as I learned when I went back to teach at my old school, all rumors are always true,* and (2) this alone—and it is not alone—should be enough to conclude the terrible–sketchy debate: Cheney's people assert that "the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch"—i.e., checks & balances do not apply.
I was reminded of all this by a great (but scary) article by David Bromwich in The New York Review of Books (Nov. 20, 2008). Speaking of crypto-Fascism's contempt for parliamentary, representative government—"Cheney plainly rebels against the idea that conventional lawmakers, whose only power lies in their numbers, could ever check or by law prevent the actions of a leader vested with great power." Now, The New York Review may be respectable, but it's also pretty liberal,** so can we trust what Bromwich asserts about Cheney's philosophy? Fortunately, the article uses Cheney himself as the ultimate primary source: in May 1989, as Bush père's secretary of defense, Cheney referred to the "inviolable powers inherent in the presidential office" and referred to Congress, by contrast, as "535 individual, separately elected politicians, each of whom seeks to claim credit and avoid blame.'" Not only is this discomfitingly resonant with Eco's description of "ur-Fascism," but isn't it pretty shockingly un-American? Maybe it was just my wacky Commie education, but I seem to remember learning that the different branches of government were set up and separated from each other specifically so as to avoid, like, tyranny? and stuff? This sort of arbitrary creation of a new, above-the-law branch of government doesn't seem exactly... respectful? of, you know... the Constitution?
"Cheney's ruling passion appears to be a love of presidential power. Go under the surface a little and this reveals itself as...a quality of the will that seems accidentally tied to an office, a country, or a given system of political arrangements... there is nothing particularly American about Cheney's idea of government, just as there is nothing particularly constitutional about his view of the law; and no more broadly characterizing adjective, such as 'Christian,' will cover his ideas of right and wrong." One thing that has me so excited about the Democratic Party's evident success in reclaiming patriotism, the American flag, the word "America," etc., is not just that it disables one of the GOP's most devastating political weapons, but also that it corrects a grave intellectual, philosophical, and ethical wrong. The patriotism that Sarah Palin invokes when she speaks of a "real" and a "fake" America has nothing to do with America (just as, uncoincidentally, the religious ethics of an American Christian who treats the Bible as literal truth but cherry-picks the relevant passages*** has little to do with Christianity): the moral axiom is that we, as opposed to you, are good and "real" and right. Polls indicate that McCain supporters and Obama supporters alike believe that the candidate they don't like might destroy America; I'm going to go ahead and say that the Obama supporters' fears are more valid because, although of course what we're really looking at is two opposing ideas of America, the McCain-will-destroy-America viewpoint is all about the Constitution (i.e., about the American ethos), whereas the Obama-will-destroy-America view seems pretty clearly to be about the fact that Obama is black and the fantasy that he is Muslim (i.e., about an American ethnicity). In an analogous case, the outrageous absurdity of the "War on Christmas" mentality is clear in the fact that Christmas itself is not in danger (cannot possibly be, in a democracy with such an enormous Christian majority), and what is really going on is that some religious people are projecting onto less religious people what they themselves would surely like to do to them: in other words, the fear that Christians will soon be silenced is based on the fact that the people afraid of this are very unhappy that non-Christians are not silenced...and the silencing of a minority, unlike the silencing of a majority, is and always will be a very real danger—a danger protected against by precisely the kind of Constitutional provisions that Cheney et al seem so willing to bulldoze or (even more shocking) to reject out of hand.
Bromwich's article links Cheney to an amazing range of GOP nastiness stretching all the way back to old Richard Nixon (who Cheney thought "should not have resigned"). Forget Valerie Plame and Halliburton. It's safe to say that Cheney was more behind the Iraq lies than Bush was—indeed, the "Bush Doctrine" of preemptive war is a misnomer, given that "Cheney took considerable pride in the prescription...that the US should 'act against' emerging threats 'before they are fully formed'" fully 25 years ago. Cheney also:
- opposed FISA (that thing that's supposed to keep our government from spying on us) from the very beginning;
- classified documents having to do with "CIA kidnappings, assassination plots, and illegal domestic spying" because that was none of our business;
- "sought and obtained the resignation of William Colby as director of the CIA for too readily cooperating with the Church Committee" (which was formed in response to Watergate and led to FISA);
- "advised George H.W. Bush not to seek approval from Congress for the first Gulf War";
- argued that Iran–Contra was justified and that (in Bromwich's words, not Cheney's) "Even though Congress had made a law expressly forbidding those actions, the fault lay with Congress for having meddled in affairs that belonged by right to the president";
- "plucked out of obscurity and brought back to government" John Poindexter, "still under a shadow from having been charged with various crimes in the Iran-contra [sic] prosecutions," who "became the projector of Total Information Awareness—a War on Terror idea rejected by Congress, which would have encouraged Americans to spy on their neighbors"; and
- "was the master architect" behind "extreme interrogations that included the drowning torture; renditions to 'black sites' where prisoners are tortured by the police of states known for their brutality; and the creation of a class of stateless persons-without-rights, 'enemy combatants,' to reside at Guantánamo without protection from American laws or any other laws."
But that's not all! Call now, and you'll get a vice-president whose very vice-presidence is creepy and scary and worthy of discussion on Halloween! "It is symptomatic that in the Ford administration, when Cheney served as White House chief of staff"—yes, Cheney has been in charge forever—"he declined a generous offer of cabinet status: higher visibility, he believed, would only diminish his actual potency." The evil beauty of Cheney's position is that he gets to run the country, more or less, and not be held responsible: "The fact that Bush's answers are so inadequate, from a defect of mental sharpness and retentiveness ans well as dissimulation, kills the appetite for further questions. But the fact that the questions have, in a formal sense, been asked and answered lets the vice-president off the hook... The man who held decisive authority in the White House during the Bush years has so far remained unaccountable for the aggrandizement and abuse of executive power; for the imposition of repressive laws whose contents were barely known by the legislature that passed them; for the instigation of domestic spying without disclosure or oversight; for the dissemination of false evidence to take the country into war; for the design and conduct of what the constitutional framers would have called an imperium in imperio, a government within the government."
People tend to think simplistically, and part of Cheney's power is that that power is tough to grasp in very simple terms, so it's worth holding off 4–5 days during which the name of Bush should be invoked (as in this video, 5:40–6:06 in particular) as often as humanly possible... but after Election Day, I think it might be worthwhile to shift blame to where blame is most due: forget Bush—jail Cheney.****
* I am joking, mostly.
** A Republican family friend (and college buddy of George W. Bush) once cracked me up by saying, when my father recommended the Review to this guy's left-leaning son, "Why don't you just skip that step and go straight to Pravda?"
*** E.g., choosing not to stone disobedient children to death (Deut. 21:18–21), to pick an example more or less at random.
**** Step 1: Obama for President!