On this page I'll post comments from readers, observations about recent developments, and corrections I plan to make in the next edition of Angler. Send your darts, bouquets and additional corrections to angler@rushpost.com.

--Barton Gellman


Not long after Angler came out, Vice President Cheney spoke at a closed-press gathering of business leaders. One of the people in the audience told me that Cheney brought up the book .... and recommended it. Didn't agree with a lot of things -- he took particular issue with the idea that congressional leaders were kept in the dark about warrantless NSA surveillance -- but Cheney said the author "did his homework." Intriguing.

Update: Turns out there's a photo of Cheney, with Angler open on his desk, displayed outside the Situation Room.

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Paul Mirengoff of the Power Line blog, who appoints me to represent the "liberal and MSM narrative on executive power," sees a sudden revisionism in my Inauguration Day story about Obama and presidential power. He says the previous story line, in Angler, was that "Bush's power grab ultimately proved destructive of presidential power." (For this, as Mirengoff notes, my story cites not liberals but senior Bush administration lawyers John Bellinger and Jack Goldsmith. This is truly the mainstream conservative assessment, supported in the book by such additional luminaries as  Ted Olson, Brad Berenson and Brett Kavanaugh. ) Because I note that Bush usually won the fights in practice, regardless of the formal rulings, Mirengoff asserts that my analysis has "shifted dramatically" as Obama takes the reins. Now, "far from receiving his comeuppance from the judiciary, President Bush actually made out like a bandit." 

I respectfully submit that this is not a very careful reading of the story or the book. Yes, Angler  shows that the Cheney doctrine, which tried to establish broad executive supremacy, led to judicial and congressional defeats. That's honestly tough to dispute. But the book also shows in some detail that the White House usually managed to do as it liked anyway. For instance, the formal ban on "cruel" interrogations, imposed by Hamdan and the Detainee Treatment Act, nonetheless left Bush free to interpret waterboarding as "not cruel" and therefore lawful. 

It isn't hard to hold both thoughts at once: the courts and Congress rejected Bush's assertions in principle, but they generally acquiesced when Cheney found ways to permit Bush to continue the specific practices at issue. The rulings and statutes may give rise to meaningful restrictions on future presidents -- that is certainly what Goldsmith believes -- but they didn't shackle Bush all that much. Paul is right to observe, on the other hand, that Obama's lawyers, including the incoming chief of the Office of Legal Counsel, are more assertive about executive power than they sounded when criticizing Bush. Johnsen has written, for instance, that a president may sometimes disregard a law. Bill Clinton's OLC chief, Walter Dellinger, held much the same view, but he made a far more limited claim than Cheney did. For those who follow such things, I explain the distinctions in an endnote in Angler

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I am not especially sensitive about tough reviews, and I enjoy a spirited exchange with critics. (I was the one who recruited Paul Mirengoff of Power Line to join this one, and he made some good points.) So I'm not complaining, exactly, about the Weekly Standard's slam in its end-of-year issue. But the review is worth a few paragraphs here, because it illustrates a straw-man style that has become too common in our public debate. The reviewer, Christopher Willcox, had some practice at this exercise when he served as deputy Pentagon spokesman under Donald Rumsfeld.

Willcox opines as follows:

Angler is neither well written nor particularly instructive on the motives and methods of a vice president who has exercised enormous influence over the last eight years. Much of the material on Cheney's reticence with the press-surprise!-and his conviction that the presidency had been weakened by an overzealous Congress, is deeply familiar. But the volume is a treasure trove of journalistic techniques deployed to bag the quarry.

He centers his indictment on my "bogus use of comparative statistics," seizing upon the following four sentences from Angler:

For Sept. 11, the National Center for Health Statistics recorded a 44 percent spike over the expected daily death rate, followed by a return to normal on Sept. 12. The year-end tally showed 2,922 lives lost to "terrorism involving the destruction of aircraft (homicide)," a figure that was comparable to the 3,209 pedestrians killed by cars, pick-up trucks or vans. (Non-terrorist homicides exceeded 17,000.) The economic damage was extensive, but no match for the losses of Hurricane Katrina or the subprime mortgage meltdown in Bush's second term

Now, I knew perfectly well when I wrote that passage that it would look like a big neon Kick Me sign to someone spoiling for a fight. But I wanted to explore the idea that the September 11 attacks, on their own, transformed America and the world. In the two preceding sentences (not quoted), I wrote this: "Al Qaeda took a terrible toll, in lives and property. But if 'everything changed,' as the shock persuaded so many people to believe, it was not so much because the event was nonpareil." Then came statistics that gave a bean-counter's view of the catastrophe. In the next three sentences (also not quoted) I specifically disclaimed the idea that bean counting was sufficient: "These measurements obviously did not capture the full meaning of September 11. A familiar terrorist threat announced itself that day with frightening new proximity and ambition. But decisions made in the White House, in response, had incomparably greater impact on American interests and society."

Having sliced out the context, here is how Willcox assesses the passage:

Whatever one might think of this dismissal of the September 11 horrors, it is entirely in keeping with the author's apparent conviction that terrorism is essentially a matter for the police and that the Bush administration's response is a greater threat than terrorism itself. "The vice-president shifted America's course," writes Gellman, "more than any terrorist could have done."

Three silly jibes in one sentence. Do I dismiss the horrors of September 11? Not exactly. On the day of the attacks, I had to run from the collapse of the second tower in New York, and wrote this account for my newspaper: 'I Saw Bodies Falling Out -- Oh, God, Jumping, Falling'. The book devotes all of Chapter Five to the calamity and the government's urgent response. For example, in my discussion of the controversial shootdown order (pp. 125-26), I do not question its necessity:

A suicide pilot is inbound. Time is short, communication slow. In military parlance, the enemy has fought its way “inside the decision curve” of the government, offense outpacing reaction from the defense. Does anyone really want the vice president to stand on legal niceties and permit another devastating attack? ...Exigencies do not get a whole lot more exigent. If the vice president set the law aside atsuch a moment, he had very strong grounds.

Do I think (as Willcox asserts by divining my "apparent conviction") that terrorism is strictly a police matter or that the Bush administration was a greater threat to Americans than Osama bin Laden? Dumb and dumberer. I didn't write those things, didn't imply them, and don't believe them.

Here is what I was saying, and I doubt that Willcox really missed the point. White House decisions -- where to make war, what to buy with a trillion dollars in new spending, how much to enhance state power over individual liberty, whether to discard old limits on executive authority -- were more consequential than the al Qaeda attacks themselves. "Consequential" is exactly the word that Cheney now uses to describe his two terms in office. I don't know what president or vice president would not want to say that his own acts, wielding the tools of the world's last superpower, had greater import than the plots of a cave-dwelling foe. Angler shows (and let's be serious, the details are not "deeply familiar," because most of them have not been reported before) how Cheney acquired power, where he employed it and why. The book is not reducible to "Cheney bad" or "Cheney good."

Don't take my word. Willcox is counting on the likelihood that most of his readers, disposed to distrust "mainstream media," will not read the cited passage for themselves. Anyone who cares to do so will find it on page 132.

By the way, guess what Willcox did before he became a senior p.r. guy in the Bush administration? He was editor of Reader's Digest. (The National Review called him the last "politically conservative" boss of a former "red state" magazine.) Let's hope his digestion -- his willingness to choose honest extracts of written work -- was better back then.

* * *

Three readers have emailed, so far, wondering whether Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld are secret lovers. One said it was "the first thing" that occurred to him when he read my account of their history. Um, why? Because loyalty requires a sexual quid pro quo? Because only gay people form longterm alliances? I don't think that is what my correspondents have in mind, but I'm fascinated by the way the fantasy keeps cropping up.


Embarrassing but true: I misspelled two names in Angler. Juleanna Glover uses an e, not an i, in her first name. And it's J. William Leonard, not William J. Leonard. Sorry about that.

Way more embarrassing: David Greenberg was too kind to mention it in his Slate review, but he let me know privately that I missed the date of Jack Kemp's vice presidential run by, well, 20 years. In an endnote, on p. 423, I said Bob Dole and Kemp lost the presidential election to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in 1976. Actually, as I don't need to tell nearly anyone, they lost to Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1996. You can look it up.

On page 362, there's a typo, "hunsdred" for "hundred." On the same page, my bad handwriting fooled a copy editor, during corrections to the galley proofs, into thinking I wanted to insert "unrebuffed" into a sentence about the evidence in Scooter Libby's trial. I was trying to write "unrebutted."

I have come to believe I did an injustice to Jonathan Fredman, a senior lawyer for the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. On p. 187 I quoted an infamous line he is said to have delivered at Guantanamo Bay ("if the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong"), the source of which was an unsigned memo released by the Senate Armed Service Committee. Upon closer inspection and further reporting, I have lost confidence in this document, which purports to be minutes of a meeting Fredman attended but plainly departs from verbatim quotation. I have removed the reference to this alleged quotation in the paperback, with an explanation in the chapter notes.

I doubt it's possible there are no other errors in a 400-page book with 70 pages of endnotes. Do tell.

Comments from Readers

Here's a reaction to the closing scene of the book from someone who was there. The scene described Cheney's 4th of July visit aboard 'Old Ironsides,' the last remaining colonial ship in the active naval fleet.

"I thought the ending was perfect i.e. his visit being closed to the public and press. There was quite a bit of emphasis on privacy during our planning, so when I read that I laughed out loud!"
-- Lt. Cdr. Erik Neal, executive officer, USS Constitution

Regarding the showdown with the Justice Department, chapters 11 and 12:

"Jim Comey is now a personal hero."
-- Shanna Jacobson

"I've just finished Angler and rate it as one of the most important books written about this administration -- and I've read most of them. In addition, and I don't use this word lightly, I think you've written a profound book -- less about the man, per se, and even about the Administration itself, but about the inseparability of politics and policy in the hands of a few dedicated people."
-- R. Garrett Mitchell, author, The Mitchell Report.

I've changed nothing in the next email (or any others) and deleted only profanity.

"Striaght to the point: You book is crap. It is anything but studious and accurate. You are a typical liberal--a liar. You hate Cheney and your phlegm laden diatribe is, of course, fully supported by those of your ilk--the Washington Post, the media (at least the 90% that is devoted leftwing).... Wish I had you in my sights, I'd throw a shoe."
-- John P. Hurabiell

Cheney's popularity being what it is, I tend to get more criticism from the left. People who don't like what the vice president did often object to my depiction of a man who was generally true to his principles and believed he was serving the national interest.

"I welcome anything that sheds light on what Cheney has done with the vice-presidency and the country. I couldn't help, however, be a little surprised at your expression of admiration for the man. I realize he is a hard worker, a zealot as you said, but it is largely his wrongly calculated ends (that would justify the means) that make everything this man has touched toxic and stained with death."
-- Owen O'Toole

Lots of fishing letters, in keeping with the title of the book.

"Apparently, Cheney wasn't the least bit interested in what was happening in New Orleans in the very early days of Katrina. He was on a fishing trip in Montana or Wyoming."
-- Pat Williams

More fishing. I'm always amused when people express surprise that Cheney is capable of warmth or friendly banter. In his personal life, people tell me, there's plenty.

"I’ve done a few fly fishing books in the past few years; through an odd string of circumstances, a golf course architect I know happened to pass along a copy of one of the books to Mr. Cheney – and snap a photo. The amazing thing is that Mr. Cheney is smiling with what some might perceive to be an earnest, happy smile!"
-- Chris Santella

Here's a question I get a lot, and did my best to explore in Chapter 14. But no one can give a well-informed answer, because Cheney never made public his medical files.

"has anyone explored the possibility that dick cheney is one of those heart patients who undergoes a post-surgery personality change? ... i've often wondered if his behavior was altered by serial coronary events."
-- Ellen Sweets

Another frequent question.

"The unabashed facts about Cheney, Addington and their cronies scare the living daylights out of me. My question is...why aren't these men brought up on criminal charges?"
-- Mara Altschuler

"I must fault you for your 'footnoteitis'. You have delegated far to much information into footnotes that should have been included in the main narrative. I belive footnotes should be primarily used for reference purposes, not an extension of keyhole information. Otherwise an excellent read."
-- Leon Levasseur

"I hope you are planning a follow up piece that can warn the country and the incoming administration about what 'land mines' and 'sleeper cells' he's laid down."
-- Bob Houle

Finally, I count on friends and family to ask what really matters.

"Hey Bart! Are you done yet showing your bugly mug on TV and radio?"
--Tim Cripe, my college roommate and eminent pediatric oncologist