Archive for November 2, 2008

Dick Cheney: What the election is about

November 2, 2008 Leave a comment

I received the 45th anniversary issue of The New York Review of Books yesterday. In perusing the table of contents, I was pleased to see a review by Claire Messud of Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Home and a review by Zadie Smith of the novel I so enjoyed last May, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. But what I read first was David Bromwich’s article The Co-President at Work, which gives an account of Dick Cheney’s career while reviewing in passing eight books on different facets of the Bush-Cheney administration.

The article serves as a valuable reminder (in case one is needed) of what is at stake in Tuesday’s election: whether the US is a nation of laws with the Constitution as its foundation or a nation with an executive branch that can and should govern independent of law. Bush and Cheney have demonstrated unambiguously what they believe. The only book that I’ve read among those Bromwich treats — Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story on How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals — makes this disturbingly clear.

I don’t doubt for a moment that both McCain and Obama believe in a nation of laws. I do doubt, however, that McCain has the resolve to take the steps that would restore the rule of law. (In this context, Andrew Sullivan comments this morning, regarding Cheney’s endorsement yesterday of McCain: “There’s a reason Cheney needs McCain elected. He needs to avoid prosecution for war crimes and only a McCain-Palin administration can assure he won’t.”)

Here is Bromwich’s closing passage:

About none of these actions has Cheney ever been called, by a subpoena from Congress or an urgent demand from the press, to answer questions regarding the extent and legality of his innovations. It is as if people do not think of asking him. Why not? The reluctance shows a tremendous failure of nerve, from the point of view of democracy and public life. But there is a logic to the sense of futility that inhibits so many citizens who have been turned into spectators. It comes from the dynamic of the co-presidency itself, to which the press has grown acclimatized. Bush is the front man, and is known as such. He takes questions. If he answers them badly, still he is there for us to see. To address Cheney separately would be to challenge the supremacy of the President—a breach of etiquette that itself supposes a lack of the evidence that would justify the challenge.

The fact that Bush’s answers are so inadequate, from a defect of mental sharpness and retentiveness as 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. Thus the completeness of his silence and seclusion, for long intervals ever since September 11, 2001, is an aberration that has never been rebuked and has often gone unnoticed. “There is a cloud over the vice-president,” said the prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in his summation at the trial of Lewis Libby. “That cloud is something you just can’t pretend isn’t there.”

But for much of the second term of the Bush-Cheney administration, we have been pretending. 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.

Categories: History, Politics