The World According to Dick Cheney, the feature-length documentary by R.J. Cutler premiering tonight on Showtime, opens with an off-camera interviewer firing a series of standard questions at the title subject: What’s your favorite virtue? Your favorite food? Your idea of happiness? Cheney instantly shoots back his responses, until he gets what seems to be a curveball: What do you consider your main fault?
He stares almost uncomprehendingly at the questioner, hesitates, then replies, “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults.”
No kidding. Throughout much of the one hour and 45 minutes that follows, Cheney reflects matter-of-factly on his life and career with the somewhat disengaged air of a man who clearly does not spend much time in self-reflection. As the film’s title itself suggests, this documentary both gives Cheney a straightforward forum to make a case for his time in the political spotlight as George W. Bush’s vice president and also hints that Cheney may believe this is his world. The rest of us just live in it.
Say what you will about Dick Cheney, it’s hard to deny that this man reshaped, for good or ill, the traditionally thankless office of vice president into a position of power unprecedented in American history. In doing so, he also polarized Americans like few political figures before him. His supporters still maintain that Cheney simply had the intestinal fortitude to make difficult decisions in the sincere interest of keeping Americans safe from foreign enemies. His detractors, who labeled him “Darth Cheney,” view him in a far more chilling context, as a man who systematically and ruthlessly dismantled constitutional checks put into place to safeguard against the executive branch running amok. Both these viewpoints are so deeply entrenched by this point that Cutler’s film is unlikely to change many minds. It is, however, fascinating and surprisingly well-balanced.
Even as the Florida recount in the aftermath of the contentious 2000 presidential election was still going on, it was Cheney, not Bush, who quietly but efficiently started putting together the transition team for their new administration. While political enemies occasionally accused Bush of cronyism, most “friends of George” actually didn’t make the cut for key positions simply because Cheney already had smoothly slid his own picks into place.
“Bush just didn’t know how thoroughly overmatched he was by the team that was assembled around him,” says Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind, author of The One Percent Doctrine.
In the days following 9/11, Cheney secured House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s reluctant support to declare war against Iraq by blithely misrepresenting suspicions about Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpile of those notorious “weapons of mass destruction” as documented and confirmed facts. (Cheney’s justification, in hindsight, boils down to “Well, it could have been true and we couldn’t take a chance.”)
Worse still, when Cheney later wanted to get an extension on a warrantless surveillance program he deemed vital to the nation’s security, even after the Justice Department had ruled the program was unconstitutional and illegal, Cheney persuaded Bush to issue an executive extension of the program by withholding the news of that ruling, as well as the fact that several top administration officials, including deputy attorney general James Comey, were threatening to resign if the program were continued. On the eve of those resignations, Comey was stunned to discover that Bush was completely in the dark about the matter. (Today, Cheney shrugs that, if it had been up to him, he would have let them all resign.)
It was a sharp turning point in the Bush-Cheney relationship, a rupture that would never heal, even though the two men shared their party’s successful ticket again in 2004. As Barton Gellman, author of Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, remarks, Bush now realized that Cheney had walked him to the edge of what could have been a fatal political cliff. As their second term wound down, Cheney hectored Bush to pardon Irving “Scooter” Libby, the vice president’s former chief of staff, who had been convicted by a federal grand jury in connection with the Valerie Plame CIA affair. Bush refused, and eventually told his aides he didn’t want to take any more meetings or even phone calls from Cheney.
“Cheney was a genius at understanding and acquiring political power, and he’s also a zealot,” Gellman comments near the end of the film. “If you have someone who is both, he’s going to move the needle on history.”
And Cheney insists he has no regrets or second thoughts.
“I did what I did,” he says in the closing moments of the documentary. “It’s all on the public record, and I feel very good about it. If I had it to do over again, I’d do it in a minute.”