Gellman talk at WWS: Cheney's legacy of power may impact how Obama governs
Former Vice President Dick Cheney is responsible for "many signature policies" and the "radical shaping" of Bush administration policies that may impact how the Obama administration wields power, said Bart Gellman '82, during a crowded talk March 4 about his new book "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency," in the Woodrow Wilson School's Dodds Auditorium.
Gellman, a staff writer for the Washington Post and a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton who has twice won a Pulitzer Prize, described Cheney as a “transformative figure” who expanded the traditional role of vice president, and explained that the book’s title was derived from Cheney’s Secret Service code name, which, Gellman argued, was a metaphor for the way the vice president approached power.
Gellman credited Cheney with creating a series of “rules” for power-centered governance throughout his vice presidency. The foremost Cheney rule was “know what you want,” Gellman asserted. “[Cheney] has always believed in serving the national interest as he understood it, and he believed that ruthless action is vital to our survival,” Gellman said. “On his way out the door, he defended even the most infamous opinions [of] the Office of Legal Council and Justice, the ones defining torture, and defining torture so narrowly as to almost make it impossible to commit a crime.”
While in office Cheney redoubled the defense of the doctrine of executive supremacy, Gellman said, arguing Congress in Cheney’s view could “write statutes but can’t override the president’s Constitutional authority and responsibilities,” and further viewed the executive’s responsibility to protect the country as a “tough, mean, nasty, dirty business.”
Gellman recounted another key Cheney rule which he described as, “There’s no crying in the Situation Room,” which he said was based on a series of meetings held after President Bush ordered his team to schedule trials at Guantanamo Bay during February 2004. However, these meetings were continuously rescheduled because some principals – including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld - declined to show up, and ended with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaving the Situation Room in tears. This rule was important to Gellman, he said, because “now the meetings are being chaired by people like [National Security Adviser] Jim Jones and [Secretary of State] Hilary Clinton.” Gellman emphasized, “I think we have a lot to learn about how the new Obama administration will handle these same dilemmas.”
Gellman asked his audience to think particularly about his view that “Cheney’s consequences or ‘consequentialness’ did not go away when [Bush left office and Barack Obama was elected president], partly because the problems haven’t [gone] away," he said.
In fact, Gellman said, “the legal policies and instruments that Cheney put in place, the legal basis for detention at Guantanamo, domestic surveillance, enhanced interrogation, the removal of terrorists subjects from protections of domestic and international law… they have not been excised - not as of yet by the new administration - and the new team I think is fighting harder than expected to bring about fundamental change.”
Gellman cited the issue of the rules guiding the interrogation of detainees during his talk. “The attorney general and the president have said directly that in their view waterboarding is torture and therefore forbidden, but they have not [addressed] the much more fundamental view and the one that Cheney was instrumental in creating, that this decision, this judgment, is solely the president’s to make, and they have not torn down the legal machinery that permitted the use of what the Geneva Conventions regard as cruel, inhuman and degrading techniques to coerce detainees to talk.”
In looking ahead to how Cheney’s methods of governance would impact President Obama’s administration, Gellman said “[Obama] is not necessarily looking to abandon the whole Cheney legal structure, even if his policies will be different; you can choose not to use the instrument without saying that you’re forbidden to use it.” Indeed, Gellman asserted that his sources told him his book was read by the “[Obama] transition team, partly as a ‘how-not-to’ manual, but also as a ‘how-to’ manual.” Gellman explained: “Joe Biden read it, and one of his top advisors said he read it twice, taking notes the second time.”
Dick Cheney, Gellman said, “will largely be remembered for good or evil as the man who guided the United States towards the ‘dark side’ after 9/11, and that’s not meant to be empty rhetoric. That is the term that he himself used, that he originated on the Sunday after September 11th in a televised interview with Tim Russert on NBC, and I think he knew exactly what he was invoking.” Gellman summarized the subtext of his book about Dick Cheney as “fundamentally about power, and how it’s acquired and how it’s exercised.”