Sunday, 23 November 2008

“Angler”, by Barton Gellman (Allen Lane/Penguin)


An in depth look at the shadowy reign of the most powerful vice-president in US history

In Angler, Barton Gellman expands on his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles about Vice President Dick Cheney’s domestic agenda, that appeared in The Washington Post. In the book, Gellman broadens his scope, starting with Cheney’s role in his own selection as Vice President, his control over the transition team, and moving through the eight years he’s served. He’s had an unprecedented role in shaping America’s economic, environmental, and military policies during this time. Gellman details Cheney’s role in shifting the focus of the War on Terror from Al-Qaeda to Iraq, helping to instigate the domestic wire-tapping program to spy on American citizens, and also promoting cruel and unusual torture methods.

Gellman tells us that “Cheney’s overriding goal was enlargement of presidential authority”, and Angler is filled with anecdotes and explanations of the vice-presidents methods for achieving this: for example, how “amid stealth and misdirection, with visible formalities obscuring the action offstage”, Cheney managed to get his own way for many important policies and decisions that historically have not been the purview of the Vice President. These included (among others) reversing the president’s position on the environment, which Cheney achieved simply by isolating the President from those with views opposed to the vice-president’s; it also included Cheney's taking over executive office oversight of all intelligence-related projects.

Gellman’s writing style is very accessible and engaging, not to mention sparse; almost informal in tone. The quality of the writing puts me in mind of John F. Harris’s excellent account of the Clinton White House, Survivor (2006), which was narrative in style and had, at times, the feel of an intimate political novel. Unlike Harris, however, Gellman has a tendency to focus on a specific incident for longer than is really necessary, long after his point has been made (for example, exactly when the “weapons free” order was given, following the airplane collisions with the World Trade Centre). This is not a frequent occurrence, but a noticeable one nonetheless. In the main, Gellman is more than capable of holding the reader’s attention and interest.

Angler is packed with fresh insights and first-hand recollections from those close to the Vice President. Gellman was able to draw on amazing access to Cheney’s staff and associates (which he apparently condoned), as well as revealing, lengthy interviews with those who found themselves on the receiving end of Cheney’s brand of Machiavellian politics. The book particularly comes into its own when explaining the situation post-9/11. Up until that point (about the first third of the book), it had the unfortunate feel of a roll-call of Cheney’s staff, not particularly contributing much to the debate.

Using already published material, contemporary notes from officials and staff, and plentiful original reporting, Gellman has drawn a fascinating (though not particularly intimate) portrait of a man famous for his personal discretion and pathological secrecy (especially in the chapter "Dark Side"). Angler is an important book for anyone wanting to put to rest some of the conspiracy theories floating about Cheney, and also for those wanting to get a look inside the executive branch from a slightly different angle.

Recommended reading, Angler is one of the most intriguing books of this year.

Also try: Charlie Savage, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency (2008); Stephen Hayes, Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice-President (2004); Bob Woodward, The War Within (2008); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Frederick Schwartz & Aziz Huq, Unbalanced & Unchecked (2008); Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency (2007)

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