Barton Gellman on ‘Fresh Air’
September 16, 2008 Tuesday
TERRY GROSS, host
Copyright 2008 WHYY. All Rights Reserved.
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.
Comics used to make jokes about how powerless vice presidents were, but not in
the Dick Cheney era. Cheney is widely considered the most powerful vice
president in American history. My guest Bart Gellman has written a new book
about how Cheney acquired his power as vice president and how he’s used it. He
says Cheney’s most troubling quality is a sense of mission so acute that it
drove him to seek power without limit. The title of Gellman’s book, “Angler,”
is also Cheney’s Secret Service code name. “Angler” is an expansion of the
Pulitzer Prize-winning series of Washington Post articles that Gellman wrote
with Jo Becker. The award cited their lucid exploration of Vice President Dick
Cheney and his powerful, yet sometimes disguised influence on national policy.
Bart Gellman is a special projects reporter at The Washington Post.
Bart Gellman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let’s start with how Dick Cheney
became vice president. You write about how he was head of the selection
committee. We knew that. But you also say he’d selected himself before
approaching other candidates and vetting them. So in other words he put the
other people through this complicated vetting process, knowing that he’d
already selected himself as vice president.
Mr. BARTON GELLMAN: Well, there’ve been a lot of jokes over the years about
Cheney selecting himself. I wouldn’t say exactly that. Bush selected him, but
Cheney did maneuver the process. And what’s specially interesting to me is that
he collected this extraordinarily intrusive vetting material on many candidates
and he told several of them, `We’ll be back to you later in the week, or later
in the month we’ll talk.’ And they didn’t. There were no interviews with Bush.
There were no interviews with Cheney before Bush chose Cheney, and then they
scheduled interviews afterward in order to conceal that.
GROSS: So what did he do, what did Dick Cheney do with all this very sensitive,
personal material that he’d collected from the people he was vetting for vice
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, he did what he was supposed to do. It is an intrusive
process. You don’t want a vice presidential nominee who has hidden defects,
secret surprises, or even is blackmail-able. And so every campaign vets them
carefully. There are accusations and a storyline in the book, in chapter one,
that he misused the material as well.
Mr. GELLMAN: One of the candidates, and he was often referred to “on the short list,” and in fact, Cheney told him that he was on the short list, was the governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating. Keating obviously didn’t get the nod, but when Bush won election and started to form a Cabinet, he was considered the front-runner to become attorney general. He was a former number three in justice, he was a former FBI agent, assistant US attorney and so on. Cheney didn’t want him, and there was a lot of pressure from conservatives at the Federalist Society and elsewhere to choose Keating. Next thing that happened was that portions of Keating’s vetting file made their way to Newsweek, and Keating, in a lengthy interview for the book, blames Cheney for that and explains why he thinks only Cheney could have done it.
GROSS: And at the same time you say that Dick Cheney didn’t put himself through nearly as rigorous a vetting process as he put everybody else, and that some information was withhold, like Halliburton didn’t give up information about Cheney.
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, secrecy and discretion have always been very big for Dick Cheney, and because he was not formally a candidate, and in fact kept denying interest, kept denying that he was a candidate, he never filled out the vetting form. At the time, when Cheney’s selection was announced, the campaign spokespeople, like Karen Hughes, claimed that he did put himself through the same process as everyone else. And I’ve established that that’s simply not true. He didn’t fill out the questionnaire, which would have called for a giant boxload of documents to be delivered. And when the campaign announced him and started to face the predictable political attacks, Dan Bartlett tells me that they were just caught flatfooted. They had no idea how to answer because they didn’t know Cheney’s detailed record.
The other interesting thing about Cheney’s candidacy here is that everyone else had to answer very detailed medical questions, and in fact to give a waiver to Cheney allowing him direct access to their medical records, but for the screening of Cheney’s heart condition, the campaign relied on assurances from his own doctor. And when they sought a second opinion, and they announced that Cheney had been cleared for office by a famous heart surgeon in Houston, well, I found out from the surgeon that he’s actually never met Cheney or reviewed his medical records. He, like everyone else, relied on the assurances of Cheney’s own doctor.
GROSS: Well, not only did Dick Cheney basically choose himself as vice president while he was heading the vice presidential selection committee, he also, you say, ran the transition team for the Bush presidency and had an unprecedented role in major appointments. Who were some of the people who were selected for the Bush team that Cheney was really behind?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, there were lots of them. The first Cabinet officer that Bush announced was Colin Powell. That was not a Cheney choice, but Bush was committed to him for a long time. Cheney and Powell had worked closely at the Pentagon, but they had a fairly cool and distant relationship. As a counterweight to Powell, Cheney brought in Don Rumsfeld for secretary of defense, which was an unusual choice because he’d been out of government for so long, had done the job before. And Bush’s people had brought in Dan Coats, the former senator for an interview for the job. Rumsfeld impressed Bush. And I emphasize Bush did make these decisions. Cheney often set them up in such a way that they seemed fairly obvious.
He brought in Paul O’Neill for Treasury. He brought in Christy Whitman at Environmental Protection Agency. And he didn’t focus only on the top-level jobs. Cheney understands that an enormous amount of government policy is made at the second, third and fourth level, never rises to the level of the Cabinet. And so he was helping people get into jobs like deputy assistant secretary of interior. That was a fellow who once ran Cheney’s Wyoming office when he was a member of the House. Or the number two at Office of Management and Budget, the number two in the White House counsel’s office, because the president was bringing in his own longtime lawyer Alberto Gonzalez.
GROSS: And you say that Cheney believed that personnel is policy. In other words, if you hire the right people who believe the right things, you get the policies you want.
Mr. GELLMAN: That’s right. He did not try to micromanage every decision. It’s not possible for anyone to do that. He put people in place who he thought he could rely on, who would respond to signals, whose philosophy was like his, and let them do their work.
GROSS: You describe Dick Cheney’s role in the White House as unprecedented. For example, he sat in on the principals meetings. What is the principals meeting, and why is it such a big deal that Cheney sat in on those meetings?
Mr. GELLMAN: The principals meeting is what you call it when the members of the National Security Council meet without the president. There are statutory members–it’s the secretary of state, defense, Treasury. They’re advised by the director of Central Intelligence as the job was called at the beginning. The White House counsel, sometimes other Cabinet officers as necessary. The president chairs them when it’s a National Security Council meeting. When he’s not there–his top-level advisers reviewing policy choices that have bubbled up from below, or at their own initiative. They’re the ones preparing final options for the president.
Now, historically no vice president attended those meetings. Several vice presidents in recent years have attended it, more or less as observers when the president was there. But to be the one helping to shape policy–and not just helping, you know. If Dick Cheney walks into the room–these things are held in the situation room–he’s the only one that everyone stands up for when he arrives. He has enormous weight. And there was a proposal early on by one of Cheney’s staffers that Cheney should actually chair those meetings. Now, that job belongs to the national security adviser, who was then Condi Rice. She was quite alarmed by that suggestion, since chairing those meetings is about half of her job, because that’s coordinating options that go to the president. Cheney eventually decided to sort of sit at her right-hand chair, and nevertheless was the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
GROSS: My guest is Bart Gellman. His new book, “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency,” expands on his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles in The Washington Post. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Bart Gellman, and his new book is called “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.” It’s an expansion of his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles about Cheney that was originally published in The Washington Post.
You write a lot about the lead-up of the war to Iraq, and I think it’s fair to say from what you write that the vice president misled the American public and Congress about the reasons he was suggesting for going to war with Iraq. For example, you say that Cheney was very worried about Iran and North Korea, but there were reasons why he didn’t want to attack them. Why didn’t he want to attack them, even though North Korea, in particular, seemed to be way more advanced in their atomic development than Iran?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, this is some of the stuff that I found most interesting personally. Several of the most senior foreign policy aides to Cheney, many of them on the record, spoke for the first time about how he thought about the Iraq war and how he thought about about regime change in general. And I found it fascinating. He did not actually believe, as he often said, or implied in public, that Iraq was the most important, most significant, most imminent threat to the United States. He was much more worried about several other countries–including Iran, including North Korea, including even Pakistan and Saudi Arabia because of the influence of radical Islamists on their government–but there just wasn’t any very good option, military or otherwise, for changing those regimes for the better, as far as he was concerned.
And so he sought something that one of his advisers, Aaron Friedberg, called a demonstration effect in Iraq. If you declare a threat and you take down a government and you transform the situation on the ground, that’s meant to be an object lesson for other potential enemies. The trouble with that was it had a flip side. If you go in and mess it up and get bogged down and pay a much higher price than you expected, that sends the opposite signal.
GROSS: Are there arguments that the vice president made about going to war with Iraq that he knew weren’t true?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, there’s been a lot of examination over the last few years of Cheney’s public statements, and there have been commissioned inquiries and there have been lots of writers who’ve focused on that, and the verdict has generally been that he exaggerated, he shaded the truth sometimes, perhaps he left crucial information out. What I’ve discovered is that he went beyond that in at least one case.
Dick Armey was the House majority leader, old Republican friend of Cheney’s from his House days, and he was, I would say, more than wavering on the war. In the summer and fall of 2002, he expressed open skepticism about whether this war was necessary or desirable, even justified. And the White House worked him over pretty good. They put a lot of pressure on him. They invited him to Camp David for special briefings. None of it was working, and so Armey became Cheney’s project, and he invited Armey to a little house hideaway that he had in the Capitol building, and Cheney laid out maps, documents, photographs, and what Armey tells me, and I tell the story at some length in the book, is that Cheney told him two things that Armey now believes Cheney knew to be untrue.
Cheney said, number one, that Saddam Hussein and his family had direct personal ties to al-Qaeda, that al-Qaeda was working not with some midlevel person in the Iraqi intelligence service only, as Cheney claimed in public, but actually with the guy who ran the country. There was no evidence for that in US intelligence. The second thing he said–and this was very scary in combination with the first–was that Iraq was making rapid progress on miniaturizing a nuclear weapon. This is more or less the suitcase nuke scenario. So you put together direct, close ties to terrorists and a man-portable nuclear weapon, and that simply turned Armey around. He said, `I can’t say in the face of so much certainty on Cheney’s part about so grave a threat that there’s nothing there.’ Armey tells me he assumed that Cheney was giving him good intel, and he’s learned since that that wasn’t correct.
GROSS: I assume if Dick Armey talked to you about all this, it means he’s pretty angry about how he was treated by Cheney.
Mr. GELLMAN: He’s very angry. He feels that it was about the worst mistake he ever made in Congress. He said, and you have to think about this…
GROSS: The worst mistake Armey ever made?
Mr. GELLMAN: Yeah. The very worst mistake that Armey ever made. For this reason, it was not a given that the war resolution would pass in Congress. There were a lot of people who had a lot of doubt, but everyone was afraid to look soft, and that kind of squelched Democratic opposition in particular. If you had a right wing Republican House majority leader with a nearly perfect voting record from the American Conservative Union and elsewhere, if he came out and said, `This war is unjustifiable and I vote no,’ that would have given cover to a lot of other people. And so Armey thinks he could have actually stopped this resolution and wishes he had.
GROSS: While Cheney was banging the drum to go to war with Iraq, he was also trying for regime change in Iran by talking with people behind the scenes who he hoped would have the power to orchestrate a coup. Who were some of the people he was talking to?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, this is something we didn’t know before. It was assumed that Cheney was interested in the Iranian opposition, and it was well known that his daughter Liz Cheney at the State Department was fostering ties to some of these folks, emigres, but the story I tell here is that Cheney was meeting with the son of the deposed shah of Iran, who was sometimes “the baby shah.” He had his people meeting with a grandson of the Ayatollah Khomenei, of all people, the late leader of the Iranian revolution. This particular grandson had become kind of an apostate. He was an ayatollah himself, but had come to turn against the clerical regime in Iran and openly called for American help to topple that regime. That was known. What was not known was that Cheney’s top foreign policy advisers were meeting with him and hoping for ways to use him toward regime change.
On the other hand, Dick Cheney understood that all-out war with Iran would be unbelievably costly, and although some of his advisers actually favored that, he did not. At least, I’ve seen no evidence myself to support the claim of a lot of critics that Cheney personally, if he had his druthers, would have us at war with Iran. Regime change for him was a diagnosis more than it was a prescription. It was an assessment that a particular government was so implacably hostile to American interests and values and so unreliable that there was no plausible agreement that could be forged with that government. The government just would not follow its own promises. And so his view was, for certain governments, there was no progress possible until the regime was gone. That did not mean he wanted to go to war with all of them.
GROSS: At the same time, he tried to block negotiations with Iran and North Korea. How did he do that?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, two of his advisers describe the process as “rope-a-dope,” the famous Muhammad Ali strategy for boxing Joe Frazier back in the day. It was to let your rivals more or less punch themselves out, spinning their wheels in the policy process, but at critical moments blocking an actual decision; or if you go along with a decision to offer direct talks with North Korea, for example, you try to set conditions that are exceedingly unlikely to be met. And so it was the position of the office of the vice president in these internal deliberations that before the United States could talk with North Korea, North Korea would have to–in advance–engage in a complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament of its nuclear weapons, which would have been the main subject of the talks to begin with.
GROSS: Barton Gellman will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.” Gellman is a special projects reporter at The Washington Post. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We’re talking about Vice President Dick Cheney and how he became the most powerful vice president in American history and how he’s used his power. My guest Barton Gellman is the author of the new book “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.” It expounds on the Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles Gellman wrote with Jo Becker in The Washington Post. Gellman is a special projects reporter at the Post.
Now, there’s so many things you write about in your book that Cheney was really behind–policy decisions, personnel decisions. This came as a real surprise to me, that the vice president designed a lot of President Bush’s tax cut program. And the two things you say the vice president really wanted were tax cuts for the wealthy and a reduction of the capital gains tax. Why was this tax policy important enough to the vice president that he took it upon himself to do whatever he could to push it through?
Mr. GELLMAN: Yeah, this is a story that is not well known. Cheney’s known for his national security work. But he has very strong feelings, strong beliefs about what makes an economy work, and although he was not a supply-sider back when the term came into vogue, he was a convert by the end of the Reagan administration. And, as I know your listeners will be aware, demand-side economics, the sort of traditional Keynesian-Galbraith economics says the way you grow an economy is to stimulate consumer demand and spending. Supply-siders say the way you do it is to unleash producers. And producers tend to be the wealthier people. They’re the ones who have capital, who can invest it, who run businesses.
Cheney believed very strongly there ought to be a capital gains tax cut. And he failed to sell that to Bush. And here my book relies heavily on reporting by Jo Becker back during the newspaper series. Cheney went to the annual retreat of House and Senate Republicans, and unlike Bush, who spoke to the whole group in a big formal set of remarks, Cheney just worked the side rooms. And Cheney went to the people who had the greatest influence over the tax bill that was forthcoming, and he said, `You really ought to reduce the president’s request for an elimination of the dividend tax,’ which Bush really liked. `You ought to say that should be cut instead of eliminated, and then make room for a cut in the capital gains tax.’
And so Bush had specifically decided not to do this, and people like Karl Rove told me that this was an example that proves that Bush was the president, not Cheney–said, you know, Cheney wanted one thing, Bush decided another. Well, Cheney basically undid that decision. He worked with House Republicans, and the House has to initiate tax bills, got the capital gains tax provision put in that he wanted, and he was present when House and Senate negotiators came to visit Bush in the White House residence and said, `Look, I don’t think we can pass an elimination of the dividends tax. Let’s split it up like this and put the capital gains cut in here.’ Bush didn’t say anything; the members of Congress all left. No one knows exactly what was said between Cheney and Bush after they left, but Bush bought it. And so he agreed to support the bill that had been revised in Cheney’s image.
And the final irony, of course, is, for those who remember, the vote in the Senate on that bill deadlocked at 50-50. And so Dick Cheney used the only power granted to him under the Constitution, cast the tie-breaking vote, and caused the passage of the bill that he had done so much to influence.
GROSS: You know, you’re one of the people who have written about the executive signing statements that President Bush wrote basically saying when he signed a bill into law, that as president he had the executive power to decide what he thought was constitutional and unconstitutional within the law that he was signing, and he could decide to obey the law, according to what he thought was constitutional. And David Addington, who was Vice President Cheney’s legal counsel during most of the Bush-Cheney presidency, would write these signing statements. And so one of the laws that President Bush used a signing statement for was the Detainee Treatment Act, which the goal was to prevent the torture of detainees. And, you know, John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham had introduced this bill. So Bush had a signing statement basically saying that he would decide what was constitutional with this. Can you tell us a little bit about what the signing statement said?
Mr. GELLMAN: You need a little bit of background on this. Cheney had bitterly opposed the Detainee Treatment Act as Congress worked on it from the summer through the fall, and in fact he slipped into a White House policy statement, a veto threat. Before it had even been debated in the interagency process, Addington wrote some language issued by the Office of Management and Budget which said, if the Congress tries to regulate the treatment of prisoners or of detainees, the president’s senior advisers will recommend that he veto it. So there’s a veto threat. And then the Senate passes the bill by a veto-proof majority. I think they had 90 votes.
At this point, most of the president’s advisers counsel him to embrace the bill, to say, `Yes, we want to treat detainees humanely, and I embrace this bill,’ and they worked for weeks on a signing statement that would have done so. And at the very last minute, Addington intercepts the statement, and he literally slashes a red pen through the whole thing and substitutes a single sentence which–it’s a very long sentence–which says, in lawyer speak that the president will interpret this bill consistent with his authority as commander in chief, as chief law enforcement authority and so on, and the clear implication was that he’ll follow its provisions where he thinks appropriate and not otherwise.
Now, again, Cheney and Addington are starting with something that’s fairly widely accepted. Many presidents have issued signing statements. Every president has asserted a responsibility on his own part to interpret the law. Addington was far more aggressive about this, and the language was so forward leaning that it tended to suggest that the president need not take account of the legislature’s opinion about what the law was.
GROSS: So what happens to the president’s signing statement basically saying that he doesn’t have to follow the stipulations of the Detainee Treatment Act, what happens to that signing statement when the next president comes on? And say that president is John McCain, who pushed through the legislation in the first place. What does he do with President Bush’s signing statement?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, that’s a fascinating question. Congress often tries to lay down a record in terms of hearings and nonbinding resolutions and, say, committee reports that accompany a bill, and they lay down this record so that the words of the bill will be interpreted as Congress intends. Presidents use signing statements to say, `This is going to guide my interpretation.’ Cheney and Addington have laid down–they’ve buried a lot of little nuggets all around the federal bureaucracy that give this president and future presidents a tool that they can use to disregard portions of laws that they don’t like, or to interpret those laws so narrowly as to defeat Congress’s intended purpose.
And it’s a great question, what is the next president, and president after that going to do with those powers? You have both McCain and Obama saying that they think this president over-reached and that Cheney’s role was too powerful and that the claims on executive power have gone too far. But there are not many players in history who have voluntarily relinquished powers they’ve found on their desk when they arrived, and I think those nuggets will be stored away for possible use by presidents, whether they’re Democratic or Republican.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Barton Gellman, and his new book is called “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.” It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles that he and Joe Becker wrote for the Washington Post. Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Barton Gellman of The Washington Post. His new book “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency” is based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles about the vice president for The Washington Post.
Vice President Cheney reinvented the role of vice president. He redefined it. He expanded it. What does that mean for the next vice president? Do they automatically walk into this expanded vice presidency, or do things return to the way they were before? What’s your guess there?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, the way they were before was evolving in the direction of more influence for vice presidents. Beginning with Walter Mondale under Jimmy Carter, the vice president started to get a suite of offices in the West Wing of the White House, permission or invitation to sit in on policy meetings and often a role in some specialized area of policy. Gore, for instance, had supervision over environmental policy, over space policy. Cheney brought this to a level that’s never been seen before. He’s the closest thing to a deputy president we’ve ever had.
Now, I emphasize: Bush really was the decider. On anything that came to his attention and that he wanted to do, he made the final call. And he rejected Cheney’s choices on a number of occasions, and he did so more and more often as time went by. There was a trajectory to Cheney’s vice presidency, which peaked right around the midpoint, and he had a very productive period where he made a lot of things happen early on. And Bush realized that he had to take account of factors that Cheney was not going to take account of, and so he said no to Cheney more often. Nevertheless, Cheney had an impact on this country and on the vice presidency that is unlikely to be repeated because it depended on a very specific confluence of personalities and talents and experience and of major events in the world that themselves can’t be repeated, and so it’ll be a long time, if ever, before a vice president has this much power.
GROSS: I wonder what you make of this kind of paradoxical situation that, as the most powerful vice president in history, Dick Cheney is on the way out. John McCain has chosen as his running mate Sarah Palin, who a lot of people think of as one of the least experienced candidates to have been a vice presidential running mate.
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, if you look at national and foreign policy experience, it’s hard to say that Sarah Palin is not the least experienced vice presidential nominee in modern times. You know, she didn’t have a passport until a couple of years ago. She’d done almost no foreign travel. She had very little connection to big national questions. She is in some ways the anti-Cheney, and McCain made very clear during the campaign he did not want a vice president with that much power. He said it needs to be very clear who the president is, and he even joked that the vice president’s main job is to come into the office every day and inquire as to the health of the president. He got a pretty good laugh from Republican audiences on that. I mean, the sad thing for Cheney is that he is repudiated by the electorate, by even his own party, in a way that also is unprecedented in modern times. His disapproval rating surpassed Dan Quayle’s quite some time ago.
GROSS: Now, John McCain’s–one of his top political advisers now within his campaign is Steve Schmidt, who was Vice President Cheney’s communications director. I don’t know how much you know about Steve Schmidt, but what are some of the things that he accomplished for Vice President Cheney?
Mr. GELLMAN: Steve Schmidt was not a familiar name in the Bush administration to most people in the public, but he was very important in the White House and in Cheney’s office. Cheney had enormous influence, among many other things, on Supreme Court appointments. And when Bush selected Roberts and when Bush selected Alito, Cheney told Schmidt, `You’re going to be in charge of the confirmation campaign,’ and he was the one who shepherded those two nominees through Congress and through the media. Not, for example, Dan Bartlett, who had the parallel job for President Bush.
GROSS: Steve Schmidt is also someone who used to work with Karl Rove. Have you been following his role in the McCain campaign since he has this Cheney connection?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, I’ve noticed the very influential role he’s had for John McCain, and he’s described as the driving force behind the transformation of McCain’s campaigning style from the open `come ask me questions whenever you want, ride along in the bus’ style that McCain has had as his trademark to highly scripted appearances, very few interviews, and a very aggressive pushback against news organizations who write things a candidate doesn’t like.
GROSS: So right now, how would you describe Dick Cheney’s power within the White House?
Mr. GELLMAN: Cheney’s influence moved over time from someone who could drive policy to someone who could block it, and blocking power is still very important. He has managed to keep up the rope-a-dope strategy, for example, in negotiations with North Korea and Iran, even though the president has authorized greater and greater concessions. The talks haven’t gone anywhere, and in part because he’s helping draw lines that the other side can’t or won’t cross.
He has been very successful in slow rolling the president’s desire to close Guantanamo Bay. He has salvaged the harsh interrogation methods that he did so much to bring about, even though Congress and the courts have seemed to repudiate them. When you look at the fine print of the Detainee Treatment Act or the Military Commissions Act and then you connect that with executive orders that the president then signs, you have a situation in which formally, and in terms of, I’d say, nomenclature, the president is constrained to treat detainees humanely and not to violate the Geneva Convention ban on cruelty. But Congress was persuaded to say that the president would decide what was cruel and what was humane, and the president reasserted that even in stronger terms in an executive order that was prepared under Addington’s direction, and so, de facto, because of Cheney, Bush retains just about the same discretion he’s always claimed to order harsh interrogations.
GROSS: Have you been thinking about how history will judge Vice President Cheney?
Mr. GELLMAN: Well, I’ve been trying, and I know more importantly that Dick Cheney has been thinking about that. He talks about it openly. He has a model of democracy and of representation that assigns a fairly restricted role to voters and the public in his own times, and he says a leader can’t be governed by the polls–he makes polls sound a little bit like a dirty word–and that only history will judge the quality and impact of the work that he and Bush did.
The odd thing to me is that for a man who is invoking history and the judgments of posterity, he is working quite hard to conceal some of the records from the national memory. He’s making it very hard for future historians to get at the papers and deliberations in this administration even well into the future by taking care not to write some things down, by making up a new form of classification that’s not anywhere in the statutes or in executive orders that will make it hard for the National Archives to release records, and by being the driving force behind an executive order which says that both for presidents and vice presidents, there’s a possibility of a broad exemption for records relating to national security, relating to legal advice, relating to internal deliberations. These tend to be some of the main things that historians are interested in, and so the judgment of history is going to be a little bit more blinded than it would have been had Cheney not done these things.
GROSS: Bart Gellman, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GELLMAN: Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Barton Gellman is the author of the new book “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.” He’s a special projects reporter at The Washington Post