The Dick Cheney of ‘Vice’ just craves power. The reality was worse.Roundup
tags: Dick Cheney, Vice
James Mann, the author of “Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet,” is at work on a book about Dick Cheney and Colin Powell. Follow
During a memorable scene early in Adam McKay’s new film, “Vice,” a biopic about Dick Cheney, the protagonist stands outside the stark government office of Donald Rumsfeld, for whom he has just gone to work. They are at the Office of Economic Opportunity, the first in a string of jobs Rumsfeld held in the Nixon and Ford administrations in which he hired Cheney as his top assistant. The young Cheney asks his boss what they believe in. Rumsfeld just laughs uproariously, making clear that the answer is nothing — and, as he watches Rumsfeld go back into his office, Cheney laughs heartily along with him. The message: Our antihero is all about acquiring power, by whatever means necessary. The ideas for which power might be used are, well, irrelevant.
It’s a disastrous misreading of the former vice president. By disregarding his views and ideology (and several important historical moments that helped form them), “Vice” suggests that Cheney’s legacy is a soulless quest for power, rather than the advancement of fallacious beliefs that seriously damaged our nation: his unilateral approach to foreign policy, his preference for military force over diplomacy, his considerable overestimation of American strength and his desire to reshape the Middle East.
In “Vice,” Cheney’s push to increase the power of the executive branch seems to come from nowhere — and looks like just a power grab. That’s because the film omits several epochal events that formed his convictions, such as the Vietnam War. Cheney was serving as President Gerald Ford’s deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff when, in reaction to Vietnam, Congress passed a series of laws limiting the power of the executive branch in foreign policy. The film also skips the Iran-contra affair, which prompted Cheney, as a leading Republican congressman, to set down his fullest statement of executive power. Cheney directed the Republican minority report on the scandal, which denounced “aggrandizing” intrusions by Congress into foreign policy, saying, “The boundless view of Congressional power began to take hold in the 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam War.”
Most amazingly, there’s barely a few seconds’ mention of Cheney’s role as defense secretary during the Persian Gulf War — perhaps because it might have complicated the movie’s one-dimensional portrait. In that period, after the United States flattened Iraq’s military on the way to Baghdad, the public perceptions of Cheney were largely positive. He and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell rode in a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York, a laurel previously accorded to Charles Lindbergh, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and the Apollo astronauts. In a story in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd, then a reporter, portrayed Cheney as a possible presidential candidate.
Yet, while “Vice” passes over the Persian Gulf conflict, it helps explain the origins of some of Cheney’s convictions and where they went astray. The American military triumph in Iraq came just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States was suddenly the world’s unchallenged superpower. How should it use its new, unrivaled power? Should it seek to perpetuate the status quo, or should it try to upend the existing order in favor of new arrangements — such as, for example, a Middle East more favorable to the United States (and to Israel)? Should America give the same weight to its allies as it had during the Cold War? ...
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