Maclean's Interview: Barton Gellman

Pulitzer winner Barton Gellman talks to Kate Fillion about Bush's nastiness, Cheny's secrets and why he's no Darth Vader

Q: Your title, Angler, is Dick Cheney’s Secret Service code name but also his modus operandi. As vice-president, he’s played the angles to amass unprecedented power, acting almost as co-president at times. Could this happen again?

A: The confluence of talents and personalities and strengths and weaknesses and circumstances is unprecedented and probably unlikely to recur. You had an extraordinarily experienced and bureaucratically gifted vice-president, a new President without Washington experience or, in fact, an enormous amount of executive experience at all, and an enormous challenge in national security, which was Cheney’s strength and an area in which Bush was especially inexperienced. Also, Bush’s working style is to set grand directions and keep a watch from high up on the mast, as one person I interviewed put it, and Cheney was right down there in the boiler room.

Q: Why did Bush put so much trust in him?

A: Cheney was among the best secretaries of defence the country has ever had. He was a very effective White House chief of staff. He did not make many enemies, and he had the ability to persuade people with that soft tone and very reasonable style of his. He’s always been exceptionally good as the right-hand man.

Q: But your conclusion seems to be that Cheney was promoted above his level of competence.

A: Bush gave him an enormous amount of running room and he was very nearly Cheney unbound, which wasn’t suited to that office. He did not have any regulator on his zeal for principle. If it was a matter of principle, he just would not bend, and that was highly self-destructive.

Q: But this is also the guy who headed Bush’s selection committee for vice-president, then selected himself. Wasn’t he driven by personal ambition as much as principle?

A: I don’t think Cheney started off in 2000 with a burning desire to become vice-president. I think the prospect gradually became more appealing, and he goosed the process. He collected controversial and damaging information on other candidates — that was his job, all campaigns do that — but no one collected it on him. For example, he had direct access to every page of the other candidates’ medical records. But he had his own doctor brief George Bush and say he was in fundamentally good health, and the second opinion was from Denton Cooley, a well-known heart surgeon who was the public face of the campaign, vouching for Cheney’s health. It turned out when I interviewed Dr. Cooley that he’d never actually met Cheney or seen even one page of his medical records.

Q: Unlike most vice-presidents, Cheney always knew, if only because of his heart problems, that he would never be president. How did that knowledge influence events?

A: It helped get him the job. George Bush prized fealty to the top guy pretty much above everything else. Cheney very subtly and immensely cleverly helped plant the idea back in the 2000 campaign that anybody who really wanted the job too much was inherently a bit untrustworthy, because ambition meant that you’d be looking for ways to accumulate your own power to the detriment of the president. But having no further ambition is not at all the same thing as having no agenda. And the fact that Cheney was never going to run for public office again did liberate him somewhat to be even less interested in public opinion than he was already.

Q: Cheney hates the media and is purposely inscrutable. What kind of person is he?

A: He is very often a charming man. He is exceptionally well-controlled in his temper, and deeply decent on a personal level. He does not have tantrums, he does not yell at his staff, he does not humiliate people, all of which George Bush has been known to do. There’s a common misperception that Bush is the nice guy, Everyman, and Cheney is Darth Vader. But behind closed doors, anybody who’s worked for them has seen some pretty mean, nasty, angry lashing-out by the President, but you would be hard-pressed to find somebody who’s seen that, ever, with Cheney.

Q: You write that after 9/11, “The vice-president shifted America’s course, more than any terrorist could have done.” How, exactly?

A: Here are some things that would not have happened as they did but for Dick Cheney. One, an entirely new program of domestic espionage got underway, conceived and managed by the vice-president, which is probably the first time any substantial intelligence operation has been so managed. Two, there was a conscious, secret and successful effort to break down legal barriers against the use of cruelty in interrogation; the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. criminal code and arguably the convention against torture were set aside. Both of those are deeply principled decisions on Cheney’s part. He believes that the U.S. faces a mortal threat, that the terrorists have the inside track. What he did though, and tried to do entirely in secret, was to dramatically shift what the lines of the law were and put in place a legal philosophy that said only the president could decide what the law is on many of these fundamental questions.

Q: Yet he more or less slipped some fundamental questions past the President and made sure no one else advised him. It’s hard to avoid concluding Bush is not an intelligent man.

A: Bush is a very intelligent man. But he is not book smart, he’s not a guy who will study texts and language for nuance. And look, he was sympathetic to the ideas Cheney brought him: we’re not going to coddle terrorists anymore, we’re not going to handcuff ourselves with dumb little legal technicalities — that sounded just fine to Bush. The problem, for Bush, was that not enough people were in on the conversation, so the downside, the risks and the disadvantages, were not made clear to him. And in fact, anyone who tried to raise them was putting him or herself in the position of being the naysayer, the wimp.

Q: You show how Cheney’s habit of insulating the President from opposing points of view nearly caused the administration to implode over the reauthorization of the domestic surveillance program. Did Bush become a better president after that incident?

A: Bush became a different president, to a degree. He found out very nearly too late that there had been an intense three-month debate over the legality of domestic surveillance, of which he was aware dimly, if at all. Only at the last moment, when his FBI director and the top five layers of the Justice Department and some people in the intelligence agencies were about to resign on principle, did Bush find out that Cheney had been trying to suppress this rebellion all along. It was very close to a complete political disaster. No one in the White House thinks Bush could have won the 2004 election if he had had mass resignations. So he learned to keep a closer eye on Cheney, and filter his advice a little more. He understood Cheney’s principles and agreed with them in large part, but a president has to consider other factors, including political sustaiability of a policy. And Cheney just was not inclined to do that.

Q: He used his principles even to justify unprincipled behaviour.

A: Dick Cheney is not a venal man, he was not trying to enrich himself or his friends, he was trying to do what he thought necessary for the country. His views are extreme but sincerely held, and he was prepared to use every power at his command and the President’s command, including keeping things secret and occasionally telling untruths. Dick Armey, who was the House majority leader, Republican, says flatly that Cheney told him things Cheney knew to be untrue in order to win his vote on going to war with Iraq. Cheney thought it was just that important, and the truth was secondary.

Q: Do you think Cheney was a cautionary tale for McCain, who decided, “a powerful, experienced number two is dangerous”?

A: Cheney is now the least popular VP in the history of modern polling. His approval ratings have slipped from the twenties down to the teens. It was a pretty sharp repudiation when Cheney was used as a laugh line by multiple candidates in the Republican primaries.

Q: This may be completely off base, but your depiction of Cheney — his intellect and mastery of minutiae, his work ethic — brings to mind Bill Clinton.

A: Someone else who makes that comparison is Alan Greenspan, who until recently headed the central bank in the U.S. He’s worked with every president since Nixon, and told people privately that only Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were a match for Cheney in terms of intellect and command of substance, and that neither of them was a match for him in terms of the ability to translate strategic objectives into operational plans and make things happen.

Q: Yet he made so many bad decisions. What was the worst?

A: If you think about the things Cheney really cared about — economic growth, energy production, national security — things have not worked out very well, though there’s no denying the fact that there’s not been a repetition of the 9/11 attacks, and that’s not because al-Qaeda has suddenly decided they’re not going to do that anymore. Cheney claims credit for that on behalf of the President and their policies, which is hard to prove or disprove. Rather than a single decision, I would say the most troubling quality was that Cheney was so convinced of his own rightness and the urgency of the problems he faced that he was driven to break free of just about any constraint on his power and the presidential power, and that led him to secrecy, back channels of policy, to crossingboundaries of domestic and international law that no previous occupant of the White House had tried to cross.

Q: How does he take his measure?

A: He says that his only real judge ought to be history. That’s a fairly convenient thing to say in the thick of political combat; it means you don’t need to take much account of what others in government or among the electorate think. The funny thing is that Dick Cheney has done more than anybody in the White House for quite a long time to throw up roadblocks against future historians. They invented a new form of quasi-classification that invited ordinary working papers to be treated as though they were highly classified, and he and his lawyer were the driving force behind a new executive order that creates a much larger class of documents essentially exempt from release by the national archives long after [the administration responsible for them is] gone from the White House.

Q: Do you think he still has faith history will judge him favourably?

A: No one ought to be under any illusion that Cheney privately thinks himself a failure. I don’t think he has any doubt at all that the course he and the President set has been the right one.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.