George W. Bush has been faulted in some quarters for taking an extended
vacation while the Middle East festers. It doesn't much matter; the man running
the country is Vice President Dick Cheney.
When historians look back on the multiple assaults on our constitutional system
of government in this era, Cheney's unprecedented role will come in for overdue
notice. Cheney's shotgun mishap, when he accidentally sprayed his host with
birdshot, has gotten more media attention than has his control of the government.
Historically, the vice president's job was to ceremonially preside over the
Senate, attend second-tier foreign funerals, and be prepared for the president
to die. Students are taught that John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt's first
vice president, compared the job to a bucket of warm spit (and historians say
spit was not the word the pungent Texan actually used).
Recent vice presidents Walter Mondale and Al Gore were given more authority
than most, but there was no doubt that the president was in charge.
Cheney is in a class by himself. The administration's grand strategy and its
implementation are the work of Cheney-- sometimes Cheney and Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld, sometimes Cheney and political director Karl Rove.
Cheney has planted aides in major Cabinet departments, often over the objection
of a Cabinet secretary, to make sure his policies are carried out. He sits in
on the Senate Republican caucus, to stamp out any rebellions. Cheney loyalists
from the Office of the Vice President dominate interagency planning meetings.
The Iraq war is the work of Cheney and Rumsfeld. The capture of the career
civil service is pure Cheney. The disciplining of Congress is the work of Cheney
and Rove. The turning over of energy policy to the oil companies is Cheney.
The extreme secrecy is Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
If Cheney were the president, more of this would be smoked out because the
press would be paying attention. The New York Times' acerbic columnist Maureen
Dowd regularly makes sport of Cheney's dominance, and there are plenty of jokes
(Bush is a heartbeat away from the presidency). But you can count serious newspaper
or magazine articles on Cheney's operation on the fingers of one hand. One exceptional
example is Jane Mayer's piece in the July 3 New Yorker on Cheney operative David
Cheney's power is matched only by his penchant for secrecy. When my colleague
at the American Prospect, Robert Dreyfuss, requested the names of people who
serve on the vice president's staff, he was told this was classified information.
Former staffers for other departments provided Dreyfuss with names.
So secretive is Cheney (and so incurious the media) that when his chief of
staff, Irving Lewis Libby, was implicated in the leaked identity of CIA agent
Valerie Plame Wilson, reporters who rushed to look Libby up on Nexis and Google
found that Libby had barely rated previous press attention.
Why does this matter? Because if the man actually running the government is
out of the spotlight, the administration and its policies are far less accountable.
When George W. Bush narrowly defeated John Kerry in 2004, many commentators
observed that Bush was the fellow with whom you would rather have a beer. It's
an accurate and unflattering comment on the American electorate -- but then
who wants to have a beer with Cheney? The public may not know the details of
his operation, but voters intuitively recoil from him.
Bush's popularity ratings are now under 40 percent, beer or no, reflecting
dwindling confidence in where he is taking the country. But Cheney's ratings
are stuck around 20 percent, far below that of any president.
If Cheney were the actual president, not just the de facto one, he simply could
not govern with the same set of policies and approval ratings of 20 percent.
The media focuses relentless attention on the president, on the premise that
he is actually the chief executive. But for all intents and purposes, Cheney
is chief, and Bush is more in the ceremonial role of the queen of England.
Yet the press buys the pretense of Bush being ``the decider," and relentlessly
covers Bush -- meeting with world leaders, cutting brush, holding press conferences,
while Cheney works in secret, largely undisturbed. So let's take half the members
of the overblown White House press corps, which has almost nothing to do anyway,
and send them over to Cheney Boot Camp for Reporters. They might learn how to
be journalists again, and we might learn who is running the government.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.
His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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