The world according to Cheney

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," (Penguin, $27.95, 484 pages) is unique because the subject and his conduct in office are singular. No previous vice president has wielded the sort of influence and exercised the sort of power Cheney has for most of the past eight years. It seems likely that many of the policies and initiatives for which President Bush will be remembered originated with Cheney and his handpicked, like-minded, fiercely loyal staff.

The outlines of Gellman's account of what ought to be called the Bush-Cheney administration will be familiar to anyone who follows national news, because the book grew out of a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning reports the author and Jo Becker produced for The Washington Post. Arranging those reports in narrative fashion creates clarity and perspective and enables Gellman to supplement his reportage with information gleaned by Post colleague Bob Woodward, The New York Times' Eric Lichtblau and The New Yorker's Jane Mayer and Sy Hersh.

The Cheney who emerges from Gellman's portrait is rare in American politics -- a man who systematically sought power because he was ambitious for his ideas rather than himself. Despite muttering about Cheney's connections to his former employer, Halliburton, and to the oil and gas industries, Gellman shows conclusively that he never profited from either. In an era, and setting, in which venal self-dealing is virtually a given, Cheney's record is free of taint.

What the vice president appears to have been after was the power to redirect a national government he believed he had seen go badly astray while serving as chief of staff to President Ford. The legislative and judicial restraints imposed on the imperial presidency in the post-Vietnam War period were, in Cheney's estimation, a fundamental mistake. That impression was reinforced when he re-entered government as President George H.W. Bush's secretary of defense. In the years after that, Cheney found a theory to fit his conclusions -- the so-called Unitary Executive concept popular among members of the conservative Federalist Society -- and seems to have conceived a method by which it could be implemented: stealth.

As Gellman sketches things, Cheney -- assigned by George W. Bush to vet his vice-presidential hopefuls -- made the process so bureaucratically burdensome that the choice fell naturally on him. As in the years ahead, the vice president functioned as the "ultimate staff man" -- the powerfully knowledgeable insider, pulling unseen levers with an invisible hand. He made sure that he salted the incoming administration's departments and agencies with well-situated loyalists and helped select a presidential staff that was less experienced and assertive than his own.

And he did it all without leaving tracks. As Gellman writes:

"Cheney, at bottom, did not promote secrecy for fear of embarrassment. Neither his advisers nor their advice embarrassed him. Cheney favored stealth, in part, because it gave him practical advantages. ... It was easier to win a battle when the opponents did not show up."

Much of the publicity around Gellman's book has centered on how Cheney and his chief aide, David Addington, triggered what turned out to be a lawyers' revolt over plans to unilaterally adopt a program of torture and domestic spying that the Justice Department, FBI, Office of Legal Counsel and the lawyers for all the intelligence agencies believed was illegal. Had Bush not intervened at the last moment -- and almost by accident -- the administration would have suffered an unprecedented mass resignation, something Cheney and the loyal Addington were prepared to accept, Gellman writes.

Indeed, one 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-mail as well as NSA intercepts of operatives' conversations abroad.

Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, told Gellman that he thinks history will treat Bush and Cheney "unkindly in equal part." That's true, although probably for different reasons. Somehow, the verdict that seems most appropriate in the vice president's case is the one Grant delivered on Lee, whose immense abilities simply amplified the awful destruction of the historical moment in which he found himself. Lee, Grant said, had served his cause with the full measure of devotion, "though I believe that cause to be the worst to which any man ever gave himself."