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'Dick' casts critical eye on vice president

Biography argues Cheney second-in-command in name only
/ Source: The Associated Press

Secret Service agents gave Dick Cheney a code name, “Backseat.”

In a four-decade career in politics, he has mostly kept a low profile, especially for someone who served as White House chief of staff, member of Congress, corporate CEO and now vice president.

For long stretches, he has gone largely unseen, as during his small-town swings in the 2000 presidential campaign and his disappearance to a “secure, undisclosed location” after Sept. 11.

Cheney’s ability — and inclination — to fly below the news media radar has served him well, argues John Nichols, author of a new, critical biography, “Dick: The Man Who Is President.” (New Press, $23.95)

It has allowed a man lacking the glibness, social ease and looks of many traditional politicians to move quietly and relentlessly, the author says, toward a lifelong goal: ever-increasing power.

Nichols, Washington correspondent for the liberal magazine, The Nation, has a straightforward thesis: Cheney has achieved that goal — and is president in all but title.

When Cheney chaired the running-mate search for Republican nominee George W. Bush, many feared the candidate wasn’t ready to be chief executive, Nichols writes. Cheney offered himself as “a baby-sitter vice president willing to relinquish the symbolism of the Oval Office for the satisfaction of complete control over the mechanisms of government.”

While Nichols employs a wicked wit and brings together much overlooked Cheneyana — from his youthful drunken driving arrests to his ire at a reporter’s description of him as “moderate” — the book’s basic thesis ultimately feels oversimplified.

To demonstrate that No. 2 really is No. 1, the author begins on the day in February 2001 when a gunman fired shots at the White House — a moment of crisis when Cheney was found busily dispatching aides and preparing a speech while Bush was working out in the gym.

Near the end of the book the author asserts:

“George W. Bush, who had campaigned for president as a reluctant warrior who did not want to be the world’s policeman, had only placed a seal of approval on another man’s plan to launch a preemptive war against a distant land. This was not Bush’s war, this was Cheney’s war. And because of that, this was not George W. Bush’s presidency. It was Dick Cheney’s.”

While it’s hard to dispute that Cheney has amassed power and promoted the Iraq war, it is too simple to make Bush a zero in the political calculus, especially after Sept. 11, which other authors say focused Bush and contributed to a sense of personal mission.

Still, Nichols’ book performs a service.

If Cheney has long operated as a Washington insider unscrutinized by a press corps that, as Nichols sneers, “willingly performs stenography to power,” his book turns a searchlight on the votes, the statements and the other details that have largely been ignored.

In a chapter titled “Apartheid’s Congressman,” Nichols details Cheney’s record in the House.

The author counts 10 votes by Rep. Cheney opposing various measures to pressure South Africa to end its apartheid system, which long subjugated the country’s black majority — including a vote against calling for the release of political prisoner Nelson Mandela, who would go on to become president.

Willing to make an exceptionWith typical tartness, Nichols writes: “It is not the practice of Nelson Mandela to speak ill of other prominent players on the world stage, but he will make an exception for Dick Cheney.”

Cheney as a congressman was isolated in the “Less Than 10 Club,” Nichols says:

Among 435 representatives, he was one of four to vote against the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, a plastic gun measure; one of eight who opposed the Older Americans Act in 1987, a nutrition program; one of eight who, the same year, voted against reauthorization of the Clean Air Act; one of nine who opposed a plan to grant federal employees time off to care for sick relatives.

Nichols devotes pages and pages to the paper trail: Besides the voting record, he details chapter and verse of Cheney’s Vietnam draft deferments, and goes on at length about Cheney’s compensation by Halliburton Corp., and the billions in government contracts his former company received. Though Nichols has covered Cheney and spoken with him briefly on occasion, the author says his aim was a book “grounded in the official record and news reports.”

Cheney has been largely overlooked by biographers, though he appears prominently in some recent presidential histories. Nichols’ book does not fill the need for a dispassionate study of this important figure. Though he includes a 23-page “note on sources,” the book is polemical.

Mostly, his distaste for his subject is presented artfully, sometimes even with a light touch. Occasionally, though, Nichols is merely blunt.

After recording the new Halliburton CEO’s statement that he had decided to “wrap up my political career” (a few years before picking himself for vice president), Nichols says simply, “Cheney was lying.”