The World According to Dick Cheney, a new documentary that opened at the Sundance Festival, begins with a series of quick-hit questions posed to the former Vice-President. We learn that his most cherished value is integrity and that his favorite food is spaghetti. But when asked what are his faults, Dick Cheney stammers, and after a few seconds admits that he never thinks about his faults.
Based on 20 hours of interviews with the neocon icon, the documentary by R.J. Cutler (who produced The War Room, a documentary the team behind Bill Clinton’s 1993 campaign for President) will probably be criticized for not asking the tough questions. Instead of challenging Cheney on his series of public pronouncements on Weapons of Mass Destruction, “enhanced interrogation”, Abu Ghraib, or his belief that George W. Bush would be viewed as a liberator of the Iraqi people, he is asked about events in a neutral tone. The questions allow Cheney a great deal of latitude to explain himself and he is rarely challenged by the filmmakers on his assertions. Cutler lets his answers hang in the open, using journalists like David Corn and Bob Woodward to provide the counter-facts.
But the image that emerges of Cheney during the film is chilling. While his rise to power was impressive in its speed and trajectory (he was the youngest Chief of Staff ever at 33 years old), he is astonishingly unreflective in terms of his own decision-making. As with the decision he made to have the Air Force shoot down United Flight 93 if necessary, he remarks that while those around him seemed astonished, once the decision was made, he was comfortable with it and able to move on quickly.
It is in the early part of the film that Cheney shows his only on-screen irritation during the interview process. When he was 22, Cheney was in jail for his second drunk driving arrest. At the time he was a Yale dropout and seemed to have no direction in life. Lynn, then his girlfriend (and now his wife), apparently gave him a dressing down and an ultimatum. When asked what Lynn said to him, Cheney shifts in his seat uncomfortably, remarking that he would not be revealing personal history. Later when asked about his claims about Iraq, Abu Ghraib and “enhanced interrogation,” he displays no signs of discomfort — only certainty that he was right.
The film shows that Cheney’s rise through the ranks impressed upon him both a need for the consolidation of unchecked executive power, and most worryingly his own infallibility.
We learn that when Cheney was chosen to be Bush’s running-mate in 2000, Cheney had been the person in charge of vetting the candidates for the role. While he claimed that he had no interest in being the nominee himself, he set up a selection process that was so intrusive, Cheney admits he probably would not be willing to go through it himself. Cheney portrays his acceptance of Bush’s offer to become Vice President himself as a favor to the future President. The documentary reveals that Cheney’s acute understanding of political power was exceptionally useful in the days following the disputed 2000 election. While waiting for the process and courts to come to a decision, Cheney was also heading the Bush transition team. In this position he was able to fill all of the political appointees below the Secretary level with people of his own choosing, allowing him to build a power base within the Administration that even the President could not match during his first term.
When 9/11 happened, Cheney’s power as Vice President became virtually unprecedented. While Bush was reading to children in Florida, we learn that Cheney was making the critical decisions, including the grounding of planes and the ordering stragglers to be shot down. With a naive, inexperienced President, Cheney effectively ran the national security team in the days after the tragedy.
The climax of the film takes place just before Congress goes to vote on giving the President the right to use military force against Iraq, and reveals just how manipulative the former VP was when it came to getting what he wanted. Dick Armey, the Republican Majority Leader in 2002, was vocally against granting the President the authority and would vote ‘No’ when it came up in congress. Understanding that an ‘No’ vote would give cover to a number of Democrats and Republicans to do the same, Cheney met Armey and told him that the situation was even worse then reported — that Saddam was close to developing “suitcase nukes” and that Saddam’s family had had direct contact bin Laden (both completely false). Burdened with this new information, Armey announced that he would support the resolution, thus guaranteeing its easy passage.
While Cheney runs without peer during the first term, it also emerges that he became marginalized in the second term when he failed to tell the President that a number of lawyers were ready to resign if the unwarranted wiretapping program was allowed to continue. And when the Valerie Plame scandal emerged, Bush eventually stopped taking Cheney’s phone calls when it came to pardoning his Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby.
The World According to Dick Cheney is fascinating for political junkies and serves as a lesson in the use and misuse of power. Free of the ambition to become President himself (despite flirting with the idea in 1996), electoral politics were never in Cheney’s calculations, making complicated decisions easy for him to make. The film reveals that Cheney views introspection, doubt and uncertainty as weaknesses. In a world of grays, Cheney turned all problems into black and white.
The major theme that emerges from the film is that Cheney had the mindset of an infallible monarch and made policy decisions based on that belief. While Cheney was an elected official, it was this mindset that made him the exact type of person who should never have power in a Republic.