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.
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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.
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:
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:
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:
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.