Jonathan Mahler reminds us in today’s cover piece for the NYT Magazine of James Madison’s dictum that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition,”
…meaning that America’s divided system of government would depend on both the president and Congress forcefully pursuing their respective roles — and in so doing, acting as a natural check on each other. Why did that fail to happen during the Bush years, and will a new president and newly elected Congress act to undo the excesses of presidential power over the past eight years?
Why indeed? Or perhaps more interestingly, how did we get here?
Much of the answer to the latter question is the subject of Angler, Barton Gellman’s exhaustively reported and finely written account of the Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney. So worn out is the cartoon image of Cheney pulling the strings of Bush’s disengaged marionette of a President that nobody much talks about the extent and consequences of Cheney’s power any more. That’s where Gellman steps in.
In his telling, the sui generis nature of Cheney’s Veep-ship is hard to overstate. Cheney is the only VP history to have been in charge of a Presidential transition. As a consequence, he esentially hand picked the entire cabinet with strength and likemindedness where it was needed (Rumsfeld) and acquiesence where it was more suitable to his ends (Ashcroft). Maybe most importantly of all, driven always by the old Washington dictum that “pesonnel is policy,” Cheney assured that his loyalists were inserted several layers deep into any government agency which he thought might matter. As a result, by the time it was time for executive branch “engagement” in this matter or another, the already-baked policy cake bore no trace of the executive chef’s identity.
Cheney is stridently certain about a lot of things, but none more so than the primacy of the executive branch. As David Bromwhich observed recently in the NY Review of Books,
Those who have studied him most closely—James Mann, Charlie Savage, Barton Gellman—agree that his drive to consolidate executive power goes back to one formative experience of seeing men of power checked and denied their prerogatives. As Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, he was a witness, close up, to the Church Committee investigations of the mid-1970s. The reforms that followed those investigations would open up rights for citizens against domestic surveillance, and would create the machinery for lawmakers to curb the exuberance and inspect the conduct of the national security apparatus. Among the reforms of the time was FISA—the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—which Cheney deplored as soon as it passed and has sought ever since to circumvent. Here, as elsewhere, Addington may be supposed to give an uncensored glimpse of the vice-president’s view: “We’re one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious court.”
Something deep and unspoken in Cheney plainly rebels against the idea that conventional lawmakers, whose only power lies in their numbers, could ever check or by law prevent the actions of a leader vested with great power.
Having devised highly “streamlined” information flows and packed the highest levels of the Federal bureaucracy with his minions, it was as if Cheney were devising a grand political chemistry experiment designed to produce a nuclear-level explosion of Presidential power. All he needed was a catalyst, which of course landed in his lap on September 11, 2001.
What is perhaps most ironic about Cheney’s tenure is that the most ambitious imaginable agenda was achieved by a guy who had no further political ambitions. For Cheney, the Vice Presidency was a terminus, the capstone to a career. It’s difficult to think of someone in American politics who meant it more when he didn’t care what the polls said.
In fact, if Dick Cheney had a personal motto, it would be a simple one: