Reviews, news and comment on Angler

Nicholas D. Kristof (columnist for The New York Times):  “Jaw-dropping…. It reads like a thriller.”

Steve Clemons in the American Conservative:  “Gellman had access to a surprising number of Cheney’s close aides and others in the Bush White House. He records previously unknown anecdotes about the inner workings of the administration…. This book is simply one of the scariest stories ever written about contemporary America…. Cheney, Addington, and others operated with great success in the shadows of government. They despised media and public attention. In the last seven years, they have been the toughest circle of power players in Washington to penetrate, to report on, and to comprehend. Gellman went where Woodward was unable or uninterested in going—and thanks to that, we have an indispensable volume without which the Bush presidency can’t be understood.”

Sam Tannenhaus (NYTBR editor) in The New Republic: “Gellman’s narrative deserves to be read in full, in all its dismaying detail. It is a triumph of reporting on a figure who, in a public life that reaches back some forty years, has demonstrated unparalleled skills at remaining unknown and unknowable…. Gellman’s book may well be the fullest account we will ever get of its subject. Cheney’s papers have been sealed and will remain inaccessible for many years to come, provided that he does not have them shredded or burned, which is altogether possible…. Gellman explains how it happened, step by step, machination by machination, all of it unfolding with the logic of a one-man conspiracy.”

Stephen Holmes in the Nation:  “Angler, Barton Gellman’s study of the Cheney vice presidency, provides the most probing and comprehensive account we have, based on hundreds of original interviews, of Cheney’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering, not only in the “war on terror” but also in energy policy, environmental policy, tax policy and executive-legislative relations. But Gellman helps us explore an even more tenebrous domain. As it turns out, the proportions of calculating underhandedness and heady delusion commingled in Cheney’s political style remain frustratingly difficult to assess.”

Michael Duffy in TIME: “It is widely believed among those who have studied the Bush White House closely that somewhere along the way the 43rd President ceded too much authority to his number two in the first term and only learned in the second to take it back. That is an enduring subplot in Angler, Barton Gellman’s excellent book about Cheney.”

Theo Lippman Jr. in the Christian Science Monitor:  “In his meticulously researched, highly readable new biography, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, Barton Gellman tells the story of a man who has left a powerful imprint on American government. There is plenty of drama throughout…. If Gellman is comfortable tackling Cheney’s dark side, ‘Angler’ (the title comes from the Secret Service code name for Cheney) ultimately portrays a man primarily motivated by love of country.”

Editors Choice in the NYT Book Review:  “An engrossing portrait of Cheney as a master political manipulator.”

Ruairi Quinn (former Labour Party leader) in the Irish Times  “This book reads like a political thriller. There is a fast-moving dialogue backed up by 400 references. It is a compelling inside view of the Bush presidency.”

Richard Oppel in the Austin American Statesman: “Angler grew out of a June 2007 series of articles … that won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. (I served as a member of that Pulitzer Board.) Much of the material is new; Gellman interviewed scores of government officials and obviously has the trust of many in high places…. Published four months before the end of the Bush presidency, Gellman’s book is an early first judgment, and it is not a pleasing verdict for Bush’s friends. Yet the author’s tone is balanced and neutral. He lets fact and anecdote build to a persuasive case that Cheney controlled the Bush administration at least until the Justice Department debacle.”

Clive Crook in the Financial Times:  “the best account so far of the vice-president’s drive for ‘power without limit’. It is an absorbing if depressing book…. a remarkable tale extremely well told.”

Tom Carson (award winning critic for Esquire and GQ):  “Barton Gellman’s mesmerizing guided tour of the labyrinth of his heartbeat-away years is … scrupulous and thoughtful….equally gifted at giving us the drama of events and unstitching the larger issues lurking in the tapestry. In its unshowy way, his eye for the illuminating detail could teach more than a few novelists their job.”

Jacob Heilbrunn in the New York Times Book Review:  “Barton Gellman, in his engrossing and informative Angler… has interviewed numerous associates and antagonists of the vice president, offering the most penetrating portrait of him yet. The result is that Cheney doesn’t seem as bad as you might think. He’s even worse.”

James Mann (author, Rise of the Vulcans) in the Washington Post:  “Until now, I assumed it would take decades … for an author (say, some future Robert Caro) to uncover and describe Cheney’s secretive role. But Barton Gellman’s outstanding new book, Angler, could well turn out to be the most revealing account of Cheney’s activities as vice president that ever gets written….There will almost certainly be no vice president as powerful as Cheney for decades, and no account of what he has wrought that is as compelling as this book.”

David Greenberg in Slate:  “Perhaps a bit mischievously, Gellman goes out of his way to shower praise on the vice president. In contrast to the unreflective, superficial Bush, Cheney is routinely described with awe and reverence by many of Gellman’s sources—judgments that Gellman mostly lets stand without challenge. Old colleagues and new visitors to Cheney’s office alike paint the vice president as a quick study, exhibiting a command of policy minutiae, an iron will, and a finely honed strategic sense. In an administration that has become infamous for its incompetence, Cheney is the man who knows what he’s doing. But so does Gellman. His praise for Cheney’s strengths as an infighter and policymaker, though no doubt sincere, are also a backhanded form of damnation, since they complete his portrait of a stealthily ruthless, hypercompetent majordomo. There can be no doubt after reading this fair but quietly withering book that Cheney’s role in shaping Bush’s presidency—governing from the right, not the center; skirting procedures to achieve his goals on taxes and the environment; and above all setting an extremist course in the war against al-Qaida—has been overwhelmingly malign.”

Simon Maxwell Apter on National Public Radio:  “Angler  focuses on its characters, ably using them to tell a complex story simply. Gellman’s elegant rendering of acting Attorney General James Comey’s ‘U-turn on Constitution Avenue’ and ensuing dash to protect an ailing John Ashcroft (and the American public) from a bullied reauthorization of the Terrorist Surveillance Program is absorbing drama. So is the subsequent standoff that put an unsuspecting Bush face-to-face with the potential election-year resignations of his Justice Department’s top five lawyers and FBI director. This is the stuff of a Robert Redford movie.”

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:  a “forceful new study … connecting the dots to give the reader a visceral understanding of just how Mr. Cheney maneuvered….”

Jon Stewart on the Daily Show:  “It’s unbelievable. I mean, get this. Just spend one night reading it by the fire, and see if you can sleep again.”

Bob Woodward in Slate:  “Cheney can push and argue and have his say, but Bush is the boss. That’s why I say (and I think Bart Gellman agrees with this in Angler, his book on Cheney) that the vice president was incredibly important, powerful, and persuasive, but that President Bush made these decisions on his own.”

Condoleezza Rice on BBC ‘NewsNight’ (video), disputing witness accounts in Angler that she cried in frustration when Cheney and Rumsfeld refused to attend her meetings: “Do I look like the sort to burst into tears?”

Adam Begley in the Observer: “Dick Cheney, the subject of Barton Gellmans fascinating, appalling, compulsively readable Angler […is…] cunning, implacable, seemingly invulnerable, armed with a prodigious intellect and projecting a very spooky aura.”

The Washington Note in TPMCafe: “There is one book that explains the Bush presidency just about better than any other I have read — and it hardly deals with Bush. It focuses on Vice President Cheney’s all-but-in-name presidency. Barton Gellman’s Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency deserves another Pulitzer on top of the one that Gellman and co-author Jo Becker already won in 2008 for their riveting four part series on Cheney…. It’s a must read.”

Liz Smith in her New York Post gossip column on Sarah Palin:  “I could never vote for a woman who right upfront tells us she’d increase the powers of the vice presidency. Obviously, she hasn’t read the new book ‘Angler,’ by Pulitzer Prize winner Barton Gellman. It shows us what happened when Dick Cheney increased those powers.”

Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times:  “Barton Gellman’s carefully reported and vigorously written account of Dick Cheney’s role in George W. Bush’s administration, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency,  is unique because the subject and his conduct in office are singular…. immensely valuable clarity and perspective… [O]ne of the insights Angler provides is how the vice president and his staff already had created a kind of national security state in miniature within the White House, secretly intercepting and reading colleagues’ e-mails as well as NSA intercepts of operatives’ conversations abroad.”

Spencer Ackerman in his blog:  “….Angler is the sort of work that would allow Gellman to never publish another word again and retire secure in the knowledge that he’s one of the finest journalists of his generation. There’s unmined information in Angler — lots of it, and stunningly impressive disclosures, spurring moments when I thought to myself, Why the fuck would that guy agree to talk to Gellman? — but even more important and valuable is the context and perspective Gellman is able to bring to his discoveries….perfect summary of Cheney’s vice presidency, simultaneously damning and generous…”

Dominick Sandbrook in the London Literary Review:  “The picture of Dick Cheney that emerges from Barton Gellman’s fascinating book is one of a man for whom it is forever 1979, with the presidency weakened and helpless, the nation at bay…. As a meticuous, forensic account of Cheney’s role in the endless turf wars within the Bush White House, this could hardly be bettered. Gellman shows how, step by step, Cheney ensured that his own men took the key positions within the administration, and then managed to cut off alternative sources of advice to the president, so that when Bush thought he was thinking for himself, he was actually choosing from options already selected by his deputy…. The tragedy is that although Cheney prided himself on his administrative competence, almost everything he touched has not turned to ashes.”

Brian Lynch in the Georgia Straight (Vancouver): “groundbreaking [investigation] in such finely organized detail that the resulting picture is both more harrowing and more human than what we knew before….  Angler’s goal isn’t straightforward biography: there’s little here about the vice president’s life and career before he rigged his own selection as Bush’s running mate in 2000. Instead, we get a complex, rounded depiction of a supreme political operator at work: keenly intelligent and calm under pressure, free of scruples, and willing to sideswipe or intimidate whenever patience or persuasion doesn’t produce the desired result. At his side throughout is counsel and eventual chief of staff Addington, browbeating political opponents and censoring any unwelcome report destined for the president’s desk. Angler is a crucial document of how this combination of aggression and poker-faced intrigue was unstoppable in the two-and-a-half years following 9/11—a time when Cheney and Addington created what one former colleague calls ‘the legal equivalent of outer space’, where they cooked up intelligence about Iraq and launched the secret programs of rendition and domestic spying. The book is also an indelible portrait of the link between power and hubris, one of the oldest themes in literature about rulers. In Angler’s account, both Cheney and Addington are unable to tell the difference between morality and principle, a flaw that at one point proved near-fatal, according to the book’s closing chapters.”

Andrew Lynch in the Dublin Sunday Business Post: “In the standard liberal case against George W Bush, a special place of loathing is reserved for the balding, inscrutable figure who serves as his nominal deputy…. Gellman has replaced that caricature with a portrait that is much more realistic and almost as damning…. Impeccably sourced and stylishly written, Angler is full of telling anecdotes that illustrate Cheney’s elliptical way of doing business. Among other things, we discover why Condoleezza Rice broke down in tears during a meeting about Guantanamo and how Cheney manipulated Bush into taking back a campaign pledge to regulate carbon emissions. We also find out why a leading Republican congressman is convinced that Cheney lied to him in order to secure his support for the war…. This superb piece of journalism is the first draft of history.”

Political Wire: “a must-read to understand how Cheney wielded power in the White House.”

Dick Armey (former GOP House leader) vouches for Angler‘s accuracy:  “BISMARCK, ND, Sept. 19, 2008–A North Dakota native who served as US House Majority Leader says he was correctly quoted in a new book about Vice President Dick Cheney. In the book Angler, Dick Armey was quoted as saying Cheney misled him about Iraq’s threat to the United States. In Bismarck for a series of appearances, Armey was sked about the quotes. He said they were accurate — but he said now is not the time to dwell on the past.”–North Dakota Public Radio

Editorial in The Washington Post:  “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency  offers shocking new details on the unprecedented influence exerted in the Bush administration by Vice President Cheney, especially on national security matters…. The most startling revelation is that President Bush apparently was unaware — until the day after he signed off on the program’s renewal — of any opposition inside the Justice Department. He was also apparently in the dark about the number of officials who were poised to resign in protest.”

Jeremy Lott (vice presidential historian) in the Washington Times:  “Mr. Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for that other D.C. broadsheet, writes for the best of reasons: to understand. That’s no mean feat when the subject is Mr. Cheney. The longtime Washington hand is terse, secretive and often expressionless in a way that unnerves people. Many type-A males confess to Mr. Gellman that they have to struggle to keep their wits about them in the vice president’s presence….  Again and again, Mr. Gellman shows how, through guile and sheer stubborn resolve, the vice president moved the country. When John McCain threatens to open new fronts in the war on terror or the Republican throngs chant ‘Drill, baby, drill!’ Mr. Cheney may keep up that poker face gamely. But one suspects he’s smiling on the inside.”

David Greenberg  in Slate:  “Perhaps a bit mischievously, Gellman goes out of his way to shower praise on the vice president…. Cheney is the man who knows what he’s doing. But so does Gellman. His praise for Cheney’s strengths as an infighter and policymaker, though no doubt sincere, are also a backhanded form of damnation, since they complete his portrait of a stealthily ruthless, hypercompetent majordomo. There can be no doubt after reading this fair but quietly withering book that Cheney’s role in shaping Bush’s presidency—governing from the right, not the center; skirting procedures to achieve his goals on taxes and the environment; and above all setting an extremist course in the war against al-Qaida—has been overwhelmingly malign.”

Bruce Fein (deputy attorney general for President Ronald Reagan) in the Washington Times:  “Have President Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney committed impeachable offenses for which the duumvirate should be convicted and removed from office by duping then-House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey into supporting legislation authorizing war against Iraq with twin lies — that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had personal ties to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network; and that Saddam had miniaturized nuclear weapons, which could be unleashed by employing al Qaeda as a delivery system?  The facts – uncontradicted by either Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney – are chronicled in Barton Gellman’s new book ‘Angler.’… Mr. Armey should be summoned to testify under oath before the House Judiciary Committee about his statements in ‘Angler’ implicating Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney in lies to dupe the House of Representatives over war in Iraq. The president and vice president should be given an opportunity to respond under oath but subject to cross-examination.”

Erik Wemple in the City Paper:  “I’ve been transporting myself to presidential elections four and eight years removed. The vehicle for this pursuit is Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, by Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman…. I thought I knew a fair amount about Dick Cheney….Then I read the investigative pieces, by Gellman and Jo Becker, and realized how little I knew about Cheney. Did I have any idea how he reached deep into the federal bureaucracy to make sure that farmers in Oregon got water for irrigation–a decision that resulted in a massive fish kill? Not even close. Did I have any clue just how central he was to Bush administration decisions on the treatment of enemy combatants? Nope. Or how he was tilting the playing field on tax policy. Again, same answer. All this stuff had to be ferreted out via deep investigative reporting. Following the series came news that Gellman would extend the reporting into a book…. I couldn’t help thinking at the time: What a stupid idea! Here it was, September [2007]. This book won’t see the light of day till the waning moments of the Bush administration. Who’s going to care about it? Partial answer: me. Along with a lot of others, too, considering that the book is #335 on right now. And the reason is that, well, Cheney in this account is far more fascinating than any other political figure who’s recently done 90-minute intervals on our TV screens.”

Celestine Bohlen on Bloomberg News:  “In Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman describes in convincing new detail how Cheney, tapped to run the vice presidential selection committee, wound up getting himself selected instead…. The way Cheney handled the selection process was the first example of what Gellman calls ‘the Cheney Diet,’ a reference to how the vice president controlled what went onto Bush’s plate. On an extraordinary range of issues, Cheney and his staff, most notably his legal counsel David Addington, set out to filter information, opinions and decisions that in other presidencies went straight to the Oval Office, the author shows. The picture of stealth presented in the book is at times staggering…. Cheney emerges as a savvy, sometimes vengeful master of the Washington game — a man who used his influence to redefine the U.S. presidency, giving it powers that most constitutional experts denied it had.”

Chris Wallace on Dreamliner:  “Gellman won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for a series on Vice President Cheney’s domestic agenda and I expect he will win the 2009 prize for this book. Love the Vice President or loathe him, this book delves deep.”

Charlie Beckett in POLIS:  “The conventional liberal caricature of this duo is of a Presidential buffoon manipulated by cunning Cheney, the Neo-Con war monger. A new book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency by Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman presents a much more subtle portrait of the vice-president. In some ways it is more disturbing than the Left’s idea of a evil ideologue…. Perhaps the most interesting charge in Gellman’s lucid and unpretentious narrative is that Cheney re-invented the role of the VP in a way that created an unprecedented and unaccountable powerbase in the White House. Gellman describes it as a ‘shadow presidency’ and a lot of unpleasant things happened in those shadows.”

The Water Cooler in The Times of London:  “With perfect timing, Pulitzer prize-winning author Barton Gellman is in London this week ahead of the US presidential election. He will be giving a talk at the London School of Economics on ‘The Cheney White House: Lessons for the next US President.’ Gellman is also promoting his book, Angler, a forensic expose of Cheney of the Vice President, how he acquired power, reshaped the role fo the vice-presidency and the dilemmas facing his successor. The book is of particular interest to lawyers as it uncovers how the US constitution and international law could be distorted to service a radically conservative agenda; and reveals Cheney’s hand in some of the most fateful decisions made by the Bush administration: its wiretapping programme, shift in focus from al-Queda to Iraq and reversal of energy policy.”

Lindsay Beyerstein on Majikthise: “Bart Gellman’s reported biography of Dick Cheney, Angler, is much more emotionally compelling because Gellman is constantly showing, building a case by recounting dozens of small, concrete decisions. George W. Bush is a supporting character in Gellman’s book, but he comes across as a far more interesting character. Gellman’s Bush is no affable bumber. He’s shallow, unreflective, and completely convinced of his own righteousness. Gellman sees Bush as a manager who is so recklessly indifferent to the details of his operation that he really has no idea what’s going on.”

Jonathan Steele in the Guardian:  “Angler is the codename his Secret Service bodyguards gave him, and Barton Gellman uses it as a metaphor for Cheney’s efforts to slip his ideas into every White House policy discussion and get his way…. As Gellman sees it, Cheney’s central contribution was on the war on terror. Within hours of 9/11, while still ensconced in a White House bunker, Cheney already called for a sea-change in US practice. There would have to be a huge programme of wire-tapping and other surveillance of US citizens. The administration would seek legal cover for captured enemies to be tortured. The executive branch must be freed of judicial and congressional restraints. Gellman puts it well: ‘The vice-president shifted America’s course more than any terrorist could have done.'”

Stephanie Grace in the New Orleans Times-Picayune:  “More than three years have passed since Hurricane Katrina, but … details of the White House’s reaction are still coming. The latest may be the most shocking. Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman’s new book on Vice President Dick Cheney, Angler, reveals that the president had once asked Cheney to lead a Cabinet-level task force on Katrina response — and that Cheney had said no…. [H]ow could he? Isn’t the vice president supposed to answer to the president, in theory, anyway? Doesn’t he have some obligation to the people he represents, to pitch in during a national catastrophe?”

Peter Behrens in the Globe and Mail:  “Gellman ranges wider and deeper, delivering a cogent, incisive piece of reportage on Cheney’s methods, as well as the policy objectives – domestic and international – he has been shooting for….Gellman is judicious. Many of the men and women he interviews have tremendous respect for the Vice-President, even if he scares the pants off most of them. Anyone looking for the Dick Cheney of liberal caricature – that evil genius cutting deals to line the pockets of Halliburton cronies, while wielding a reckless shotgun – is bound to be frustrated by Gellman’s nuanced appraisal of an idealist in realist’s clothing…. The Vice-President seems to have grasped better than most people – better than President Bush – how the machinery of power actually works in Washington, where the meaningful buttons and levers are. Cheney likes power, and is often called an ‘operator,’ which suggests a Slick Willy more interested in process than policy; whereas Cheney is, finally, all about outcomes. The Veep revealed in this book is not much interested in the compromises and pork-barrelling that grease the wheels of the actual, as opposed to the ideal, republic.”

Articles by Barton Gellman on Cheney after ‘Angler’

“The Power of Vice” in Slate:  “Cheney brought to office a singular blend of knowledge, experience, discipline, zealotry, and operational talent. The last two are especially rare in combination, and mercifully so. Zealots drive history harder than opportunists do when they get their hands on the wheel…. Neither Palin nor Biden will arrive on the job with all of Cheney’s tools. But the position is what you make of it, and aspirants to ‘fourth branch’ status (as one blog has taken to calling the VP’s office) need not despair. The vice presidency comes with great advantages for those who seek to shape events of state.”

“Cheney Rules” in the Washington Post Outlook: section: “Anyone can learn Cheney’s methods. For busy aspirants, I herewith offer an executive summary.”

Response to the ‘Angler’ series in the Washington Post

…although I like Cheney’s style, it’s become pretty clear that the Cheney method leaves a lot to be desired…. That’s certainly the upshot of an epic exegesis on Cheney’s tenure that is unfolding like daily Pulitzer bait in the Washington Post this week…. Seemingly countless sources inside the Bush administration tell the Post that he has a contempt for bureaucratic and legislative consensus-building that rivals his contempt for cultivating public support through the media. As a result, he often succeeds in bulldozing policies — on enemy interrogations, etc.– all the way to the president’s desk. But he’s isolated when it comes time to defend these policies in Congress and the public.
–Jonah Goldberg, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2007

Isn’t it worth noting that on most of the internal debates mentioned in the WashPo series, Cheney was usually right? Today’s article leads with a story where Cheney advocated a cut in capital gains taxes in 2003 preference to elimination of the tax on corporate dividends. The dividend cut was a short-term maneuver largely intended to goose the stock market in advance of the 2004 election – a gimmick in other words. The double taxation of corporate earnings is a serious problem, agreed, but the right way to address it is by reforming the corporate income tax. Meanwhile, the abolition of the tax on corporate gains really would advance the US economy, but over the longer term, not on a campaign schedule. Cheney was right on Harriet Miers too, naturally. There are real accountability issues in having the vice president wield so much influence, and do so in ways largely invisible to Congress and the public. I agree with that. But credit where it is due please.
–David Frum, National Review Online, June 26, 2007

For four days last week, the front page of the Washington Post was dominated by a remarkable series of articles slugged ANGLER: THE CHENEY VICE PRESIDENCY. The series, by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, occupied sixteen broadsheet pages and topped out at twenty thousand words…. the pattern that emerges from the accumulated weight of the reporting is, as the lawyers say, dispositive. Given the ontological authority that the Post shares only with the New York Times, it is now, so to speak, official: for the past six years, Dick Cheney, the occupant of what John Adams called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived,” has been the most influential public official in the country, not necessarily excluding President Bush.
–Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker, July 9, 2007

Cheney, as described in a breathtakingly detailed series in The Post this week by reporters Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, is something else. What they discovered, in a year of work that reveals more about the inner workings of this White House than any previous reporting, is a vice president who used the broad authority given him by a complaisant chief executive to bend the decision-making process to his own ends and purposes, often overriding Cabinet officers and other executive branch officials along the way.
–David Broder, syndicated column, June 28, 2007

…the Post’s ‘Angler’ series seems to be becoming the trigger for [a] transition moment [in] consensus establishment opinion.
–Josh Marshall,, June 29, 2007

I suspect that there will be not much debate when jurors get together this coming winter to choose Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University. Few entries will be able to stand up to “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency,” a four-part series by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, published in The Washington Post last week. The series details the operations of this most secretive White House and, with telling examples in both foreign and domestic affairs, of the most influential vice president in history.
–Richard Reeves, Universal Press Syndicate, June 30, 2007

… a classic piece of Washington Post journalism. Under the headline “The Angler” — a reference to Cheney’s secret service code name — two Post journalists, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, have dissected Cheney’s approach to his job in forensic detail.
–Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, July 30, 2007