Sunday, 18 September 2011

“In My Time” by Dick Cheney (Simon & Schuster)

Cheney-InMyTimeAn interesting look at the life and career of one of America’s most polarising politicians and powerful Vice Presidents

Dick Cheney’s memoir has received a huge amount of attention in the US media. The majority of the attention has been in addressing the chapters about the post-9/11 George W. Bush administration. How, then, can anyone offer something new in a review, that doesn’t just go over what has already been analysed and picked apart by intellectuals, news personalities and also those mentioned in the memoir’s pages? Well, there’s a lot more to the book than just the post-9/11 age, so this review will focus a little more on what else is in the book.

Cheney starts off with his early life, which is actually written very well. This holds for the whole book, actually: Dick and his daughter Liz have written a very accessible, well-paced and fluid book. In My Time avoids the dry prose that often characterise political memoirs (there are very few that are gripping reads, in my admittedly limited experience). Some of this breeziness is a result of the lack of details – Cheney often doesn’t go into the detail readers will want or expect. Whether this is a decision based on style or disinterest, I can’t say.

Cheney should be commended for writing almost as much about other people as about himself – a real rarity for a politician. Over the course of his life he’s known some pretty interesting and colourful people – especially those he worked with before he enrolled at the University of Wyoming, when working around Tennessee. His attendance at University of Wyoming was actually his second attempt at university, after flunking out of Yale and utterly wasting a full-ride scholarship there. He quite clearly describes a young man who didn’t care about his studies and fell in with “some kindred souls, young men like me, who were not adjusting very well and shared my opinion that beer was one of the essentials of life.”

When writing about his early years in Washington, D.C. (which seem to have sprung on him suddenly and unwittingly, after a successful internship took him away from his PhD), he paints a picture of a somewhat star-struck youth, in awe of the people he was around and what he heard, witnessed, and was a part of. It was also interesting to see how much Rumsfeld was responsible for Cheney’s political career – from their rocky, uninspiring first meeting (Rumsfeld: “this isn’t going to work out”), to their time in Ford’s administration and beyond, it’s amazing how closely they worked together and how intertwined their political careers became.

Of his time working as part of the Ford administration, Cheney writes, “The disappointment I felt in the winter of 1977 has long since given way to sheer gratitude for one of the greatest and happiest experiences in my life.” He puts much of the blame for Ford’s failure to win re-election on the Nixon pardon. Although, when he recounts the 1976 election contest (primaries), he does show how Reagan “kept us on our toes all year”. It’s interesting that Reagan’s ‘don’t speak ill of fellow Republicans’ did not seem to apply to him at this point in his career, and while Cheney doesn’t say this explicitly, one gets the sense that Reagan really didn’t pull his weight to help Ford win the general (this is an impression I’ve taken from a number of books on Ford and/or Reagan).

The 1976 Republican Convention was an interesting event for Cheney. When discussion turned to the party platform and the “Morality in Foreign Policy” plank that was tabled, it caused quite a bit of a stir, and here’s what Cheney says about it:

“It was a thing of beauty, in its own way, a ringing affirmation of all that was good and pure in American foreign policy, mixed in with expressions of disdain for those connivers and compromisers who had given us detente. The draft language didn’t mention anyone by name, but everyone knew who the target was. Naturally, Kissinger was livid.”

The consensus among Ford’s people was to just “let it go”, which didn’t please Kissinger at all.

The section dealing with Cheney’s Congressional career is informative, but also highly detailed. Political junkies will get a lot from it, but otherwise a general skim through would be enough – mainly, it’s an account of the various people and bills he worked on. Many of them are obscure or not as widely known as his later years’ career and colleagues. He writes warmly of Wyoming, too.

In My Time is presented in a very conversational style. This was pretty surprising, considering the overall impression most people have of his demeanour. It is very well written, even if the content (particularly the George W. Bush administration-era chapters) is enough to make “heads explode” (a bit of an exaggeration, really) and news services to devote hours and pages to its deconstruction. This is a better book than President Bush’s Decision Points, but it is just as flawed – in terms of its intent and also interpretation of events and selected omissions. It’s written in a very fluid style, so it never felt like a slog to get through (certainly not the pre-GWB chapters). This, actually, is another thing the Cheneys should be commended for – they have produced a book that is very readable. It’s just a pity that it wasn’t written with the same care and attention to facts and honesty as style.

Moments that would be endearing if written by anyone else are swallowed up by his later actions, statements and politics. For example, there’s a rather amusing recollection of his first day as Secretary of Defense, when he gets stuck in the Pentagon basement because the Secretary’s private lift can’t be called from down there, therefore forcing him to trudge up to the waiting motorcade and arriving late to his first meeting with the President. The image of Cheney wandering around, lost and looking for a way out was pretty amusing. (The elevator can only be called from the Secretary’s office, as a security precaution.) Also, the image of him, Rumsfeld and another official on camels in Egypt is almost made-for-Daily Show satirising, too.

Despite the condescending and less-than-praiseworthy sections about Powell (and Condoleezza Rice) later in the book, Cheney actually writes positively of the man he chose as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: “I knew we would have important work to do together. I believed we would be a good team. And for out time together at the Pentagon, we were.” One wonders if this was an attempt to give the later passages more punch, or to offer a more stark change in Cheney’s impression of and respect for Powell. He offers a long, detailed account of the lead-up to Desert Storm, as well as the offensive itself, and Powell is portrayed very positively and there’s the impression of a solid working relationship.

On the subject of the media and its relationship with governing and foreign policy (an academic interest of mine), Cheney mentions a couple of things, in relation to the Gulf War. First off, the general view of the media at the Pentagon (where Cheney served as Secretary of Defense):

“Many at the Pentagon had a deep distrust of the media that was in part left over from Vietnam. There was a view – which I shared – that unduly negative reporting had soured public opinion on that war.”

And also Cheney’s preferred approach to dealing with the media:

“When it came to Desert Storm, I would try to be sure that we had maximum opportunity to communicate directly with the American people – without going through the filter of the press.”

Given that he was a government official during some of the major moments of America’s relationship with China, he writes very little about his his and the US’s dealings with the Chinese. He was Secretary of Defense during the Tiananmen Square incident, so I was a little disappointed that he didn’t discuss it at all. He was in government during the Normalisation process, but nothing. Even the big China events of the George W Bush presidency were ignored (the Belgrade bombing, the Olympics, the focus on China as the next great competitor in the administration’s initial conception of US Foreign Policy and Grand Strategy). Instead, we get a little over a page of observation about how the Chinese government doesn’t like its officials to have unscripted and unsupervised meetings with officials from other countries. From handlers barging into an attempted private sit down with Hu Jintao before he became Chinese Premiere; to another apparently private sit-down that was bugged by Hu’s entourage, Cheney has nothing else to say about the second of the two most important countries in the world.

Just as Cheney was both personally and professionally fulfilled when working for Ford, he was equally satisfied and happy to have worked for the senior President Bush. At the end of that administration, Cheney made this statement (included in the chapter):

“George [H.W.] Bush had been a tremendous leader. His wisdom had seen us through changes more significant than any of us could have imagined we would see in our lifetimes. Serving as his Secretary of Defense was one of the highest honors of my life.”

There are a few interesting observations that can be made from the book. For example, considering Cheney’s love of the outdoors and fishing, his decision to gut the EPA as Vice President (or, more accurately, give it to the chemical and polluting companies), to roll back environmental regulations, just goes to suggest he’s totally beholden to his political ambitions – otherwise, why would he want to put at risk the environment he professes to find breath-taking and part of what makes America so great? It seems to be something anti-EPA crusaders do: rail against environmental protections, attempt to lift dumping regulations and so forth, but also wax lyrical on the beauty of America’s wilderness. In many instances (though by no means all), the policies they promote will likely ruin some of America’s peerless geographic beauty. Maybe it’s just because the areas they love aren’t at risk, so they don’t care about other states?

On the subject of his heart condition, he writes about how, when he was younger and before he was married to Lynne, medical bills devastated his savings. And yet, he still has no sympathy for others in the same situation, or intent to help others avoid such a fate (which would be worse today, as medical bills skyrocket).

For me, one of the most bizarre events of the George W. Bush years was the incident involving Cheney shooting his friend, Harry Whittington, in the face. I still find it astonishing that Whittington, ended up apologising to Cheney for the trouble the incident caused the Vice President! “My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice-President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week,” Whittington said a week after the accident.

On discussing George W. Bush’s Vice-Presidential choices: “Two people not on our list were Colin Powell and John McCain. Both had made it clear that they weren’t interested. One candidate who spent a short time on the real list was Don Rumsfeld.” Rumsfeld didn’t stay on it long, however, because of lingering beliefs in the Bush camp that Rumsfeld had been instrumental in manoeuvring George H.W. Bush into the CIA top job, as a way to take him out of politics and the running for Ford’s VP choice (which would have been an interesting ticket, actually).

Of the final choice of Cheney as Bush Jnr.’s running mate, he writes:

“To the extent that this created a unique arrangement in our history, with a vice president playing a significant role in the key policy issues of the day, it was George Bush’s arrangement.”

Given Cheney’s far more considerable political experience and pull, many people at the time (and throughout the administration’s eight years) believed Cheney would be running the show. Indeed, in 2006, a reporter for American Prospect referred to Cheney as the “magic man” behind everything. Cheney says this was not the case: “From the transition onward, there were media stories that I was somehow in charge. They weren’t true, and stepping out too publicly would only have fed them.”

There are moments of self-deprecating humour, but they are contrasted by the astonishing arrogance and hubris on display as well. It makes for a very strange read, one that makes the reader question which is the genuine Cheney. Is he just shooting for shock-value in certain parts, or is he shooting for endearing in others?

The American press were never going to like this book (probably something Cheney knew and relished). Some commentators have said the book will have no value for historians and scholars in the future. I disagree. It offers an insight into the long political career of one of America’s most momentous politicians, in his own words. Sure, it’s sanitised and often only skims the surface. He burned bridges and fired off some broadsides at those he had worked with for so long. The book won’t change your mind about Cheney. It won’t redeem him in anyone’s eyes.

Love him or hate him, Cheney has been involved in and at the centre of some of the most momentous events in American political history of the past half decade and more. In My Time is a well-written book, and should share a space with President Bush’s Decision Points. I do, however, think it should not be read without Barton Gellman’s Angler and also Bob Woodward’s series of books on the Bush Presidency. They will offer a balanced opposing view and fill in the blanks and address some inconsistencies.

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