Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency

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9780143116165: Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency

The landmark exposé of the most powerful and secretive vice president in American history

Barton Gellman shared the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for a keen-edged reckoning with Dick Cheney?s domestic agenda in The Washington Post. In Angler, Gellman goes far beyond that series to take on the full scope of Cheney?s work and its consequences, including his hidden role in the Bush administration?s most fateful choices in war: shifting focus from al Qaeda to Iraq, unleashing the National Security Agency to spy at home, and promoting ?cruel and inhumane? methods of interrogation. Packed with fresh insights and untold stories, Gellman parts the curtains of secrecy to show how the vice president operated and what he wrought.

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About the Author:

Barton Gellman is a special projects reporter at The Washington Post, following tours that covered diplomacy, the Middle East, the Pentagon, and the D.C. superior court. His Cheney series, with partner Jo Becker, won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize, a George Polk Award, and the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Gellman also shared a Pulitzer for national reporting in 2002, and his work has been honored by the Overseas Press Club, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Gellman graduated with highest honors from Princeton University and earned a master’s degree in politics at University College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. He is the author of Contending with Kennan: Toward a Philosophy of American Power. Gellman lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
A Very Short List

Frank Keating reached for the telephone on a desk the size of a Cadillac sedan. He was the picture of a governor in command, the first Republican to break the Oklahoma jinx on reelection. Working oil rigs outside his window—drilled right there on the capitol grounds, living relics of the old frontier exuberance—pumped cash into a booming state economy. Keating had big plans for the second term, not least the construction of a grand new dome atop the statehouse. And now here came Dick Cheney on the line. Truth was, Keating had been half expecting the call.

The week before, a “Dear Frank” note had arrived from George W. Bush. Keating’s Texas neighbor had locked up the Republican presidential nomination on Super Tuesday, besting John McCain in six of ten states. Now Bush wanted advice on a running mate, “one of the most important decisions I will make this year,” he wrote on May 18, 2000. A form letter, Keating knew. The newspapers said Bush sent one to every big name in the GOP.

And yet . . . Keating could not help but tally his prospects. He was fifty- six years old, telegenic and tough and going places. Bush admired the way Keating handled himself in 1995, when homegrown terrorists in a Ryder van blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building across town. The two men had a friendly football rivalry, liked to bet on Sooners- Longhorns games, and watched each other’s back in national politics. Bush supported Keating to chair the Republican governors; Keating endorsed Bush for president early on. More than endorsed him—Keating vouched for Bush with right- to- lifers, who needed the reassurance, and he delivered his Oklahoma political machine.All that and the right kind of résumé—special agent in the FBI, U.S. attorney, senior posts in Washington at Treasury, Justice, and Housing. True, Keating did not offer a whole lot of balance to the ticket. He was an oil- state fiscal conservative, hawkish on the death penalty and union- busting “ right- to- work” laws. Too much like Bush, most probably. Still, a person might wonder.

Cheney dialed the call himself. A lot of people liked that in a man of his rank, the sense that he refused to take on airs. The habit had other aspects. Cheney was chairman of a Fortune 500 company and had been a war- winning secretary of defense. Phoning unannounced had a way of catching people off balance, depriving them of that “Hold, please” moment to collect their thoughts. Aides said Cheney liked a glimpse at an unstudied interlocutor on the other end of the line. When Keating picked up, Cheney said his piece without preamble.

“The governor would like to have you be considered as running mate,” he said.

Cheney let the statement hang, in that disconcerting way of his, stopping before the other person quite expects. Keating found nothing to read in the man’s flat, clipped tone. He waited a beat, then probed.

“Dick, I don’t really do anything for you-all,” Keating said, thinking Cheney might add a word or two.

Cheney chose to take that as a question of geography.

“No, it doesn’t matter,” Cheney said. “Oklahoma and Texas, you may be joined by a border, but that is not a factor to us. Would you be willing to fill out all the paperwork?”

Indirection was getting Keating nowhere. He decided to ask flat out. Was this just a friendly gesture, or was Bush serious? Before running for governor, Keating had been through FBI background checks and four Senate confirmation hearings. He knew, or thought he did, what it meant to hand cool- eyed strangers the keys to every lockbox in his life. He did not care to go through that again without good cause.

“I want you to know the list is a very short list,” Cheney replied.

People would talk about all kinds of names, Cheney said matter-of-factly, but most of them would be decoys. Three, maybe four, were genuine. Keating’s was one of those, Cheney said. The next day a thick envelope arrived. Inside was the most demanding questionnaire the Oklahoma governor had ever seen.

Keating knew Cheney, trusted him. He had helped recruit Cheney five years before to chair the memorial committee for Oklahoma City bombing victims. Later, Cheney headlined a fund-raiser for Keating’s reelection campaign. “My relationship with Cheney was a good one, a correct one, and one that I thought was aboveboard and transparent,” Keating recalled. “It turned into a very unpleasant association.”

What happened after that was prologue to the play of Cheney’s two terms as vice president. Amid stealth and misdirection, with visible formalities obscuring the action offstage, Cheney served as producer for Bush’s first presidential decision. Somewhere along the way he stepped aside as head of casting, taking the part of Bush’s running mate before anyone really auditioned. And he dodged most of the paperwork, bypassing the extraordinary scrutiny he devised for other candidates.

Keating filled out the questionnaire, handed over volumes of his most confidential files. In time he would have cause to regret that.

Two states east, in Tennessee, Lamar Alexander got word that Cheney was looking for him, too. He waited a couple of days to return the call. The campaign had come and gone for Alexander, and he had made up his mind to skip the GOP convention in July.

“You’re hard to reach,” Cheney began, the Wednesday before Memorial Day.

“Oh, not so hard, I don’t think,” Alexander said. “I’m sitting right here in front of our picture of the cabinet with President Bush.”

Bush senior, he meant. Alexander had been education secretary from 1991 to 1993, when Cheney ran the Pentagon.

“Governor Bush would like to consider you as vice president,” Cheney said.

Again the words hung, unembellished.

“I don’t know what to say,” Alexander replied. “I’ve changed my life. I’ve put politics behind me.”

Not for nothing. Alexander had mounted two drives for the presidency himself, neither a juggernaut. His 2000 campaign did not last out 1999, dying with a sixth- place finish in the Iowa straw poll—behind Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan, for heaven’s sake. He was weary and disappointed and ready for his first long vacation in years.

“Surely there are other, better people,” Alexander said.

“The governor has told me to put race and gender and geography aside and go for the person who would make the best president.”

“There must be a long list,” Alexander said.

You try to make a long list,” Cheney said. “When you make a list of Republicans, using that criterion, it is a short list.”

“How about Fred Thompson?”

“He might,” Cheney said.

Another silence.

“There are plenty of people who’d like the notoriety of being on the vice- presidential list, and I’m not one of them,” Alexander said.

“I’m not talking about that kind of list. This is a short list,” Cheney repeated.

“How short?”

“A handful.”

“How big is a handful?”

“I’ve got five fingers on my hand,” Cheney said, amused or impatient or maybe neither, Alexander couldn’t tell. “How many have you got on yours?”

Alexander tacked again.

“Why don’t you do it?” he asked.

“It’s not for me. He’s asked me to find someone else to do it.”

Enough. Alexander owed the nominee a yes or no. He would have to think on the offer, talk things over with Honey. She wasn’t going to like it. Five days later, May 29, Alexander called Cheney in Texas. Send the forms, he said.

Alexander did have one question. What should he tell reporters?

Cheney knows, if anyone does, how to keep a secret. His reply might have raised an eyebrow on a more suspicious man. “Of course we want to keep this private,” Cheney said. But he added: Confirm that you’re a candidate. Tell them you’re filling out thequestionnaire.

Bill Frist and Tom Ridge, John Engler and John Kasich, Chuck Hagel and John Danforth and Jon Kyl—they all got similar calls and similar instructions. Speculation in the media was intense. With the nomination decided, the race for running mate was front and center. Feed the beast, Bush’s Austin campaign staff insisted, or the press pack will come up with its own story line. Alexander and Keating and the rest gave the talking heads something to chew on.

“I’ll send you the papers,” Cheney told Alexander, signing off. “Fill them out and send them back to me. Late in the month we’ll get together.”

Alexander headed to Nantucket for what would have been four weeks of biking alongside cranberry bogs and strolling the beaches of Siasconset. He spent half of it with his accountant and lawyer, on the phone and on a plane, assembling a comprehensive record of his life. He sent the package to Cheney in the second week of June, boxed in a heavy carton best left to younger backs. No easy task, but he understood that a campaign had to run all the traps.

“The only thing was,” Alexander recalled, “I never heard from him again.”

Secrecy was part of the bargain Cheney struck in the first week of April, when he agreed to run Bush’s vice- presidential search. Worked best out of the limelight, he said. Fewer involved, fewer the leaks, fewer the egos to stroke. For Cheney, the low profile was a means to an end, the way to get things done without obstruction. Bush did not worry about losing control—the final word was his anyway—but he enjoyed the cloak- and- dagger by temperament. Old hands had long observed the pure pleasure he took in ambushing know- it- alls in the press, subverting expectations of critics and rivals. Aides who followed Bush and Cheney to Washington would see the pattern again and again, not only in their mutual secrecy but in the way the two men reached a meeting of minds for different reasons entirely. “Cheney was pushing on an open door,” recalled Dan Bartlett, who became White House communications director, even if Bush took a different path to meet him.

Not even Bush’s closest aides were allowed inside the machine that Cheney built to sift the vice- presidential contenders. Not Dan Bartlett, not Karen Hughes, not Karl Rove, and not Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s former chief of staff and campaign manager. Sometimes Bush would tell his people about a candidate or a piece of advice he heard, like the letter from Dan Quayle on behalf of Lamar Alexander. (Quayle pitched Alexander as the kind of right- to- lifer who doesn’t scare off swing voters. Rove cared a lot more about the base than the swing, but he phoned Quayle to let him know that Bush had shared his note.) There were plenty of things Bush could not have told his retinue, though, because he did not know all the fine points himself. He was a big- picture man, comfortable with broad objectives, broadly declared. He had given Cheney marching orders, described the qualities he wanted in his Number Two. He left most of the legwork to the older man, taking briefings when his vetter had something new to say. Cheney lived in a different world. He had spent his professional life in places where ends and means collide, where the choices are often zero- sum and outcomes ride on the details.

Only three people were privy to the dossiers that Cheney assembled. One was his older daughter, Liz Cheney, thirty- three, a politically active lawyer who had left the State Department for private practice. Another was David J. Gribbin III, a loyal retainer since high school who had followed Cheney to Congress, the Pentagon, and Halliburton. The third was David Addington, the gifted and ferocious attorney who had been Cheney’s intellectual alter ego since the Iran-Contra hearings of 1987.

Addington and Liz Cheney wrote an exhaustive questionnaire, the language honed to pierce attempts at evasion. In precise legal prose, it asked about things a person might not tell his best friend—addictions, infidelities, crimes proved and unproved, plagiarism, bad debt, mental illness, embarrassing failures to pass a licensing test. Even by the bare- it- all standards of American politics after Watergate, the questions from the Cheney team were strikingly intrusive. For a Top Secret clearance in the U.S. government, which entrusts the holder with information that could do “exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” an applicant must answer thirty questions, generally limited to events of the past seven years. The Cheney form had close to two hundred questions under seventy- nine headings, requiring answers that covered the whole span of adulthood. “By definition, this is a process that looks very deeply into the lives of public figures,” Gribbin recalled. “It’s an extraordinarily sensitive process.”

Some of Cheney’s inquiries were more or less standard in the vetting of potential running mates. Presidential campaigns had accumulated lengthy checklists over the years, adding fresh queries in each election to guard against the scandals of the last. Mental health became fair game when a history of electric shock therapy drove Thomas Eagleton off the Democratic ticket in 1972. Spouses came in for scrutiny after Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s 1984 running mate, was dogged by questions about her husband’s tax returns. Two years later, William Rehnquist made a contribution to the checklist when his confirmation as chief justice of the United States was imperiled by news that he once owned property under a deed forbidding sale to Jews. Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing in 1991 revealed the political risk of a sexual harassment charge. Beginning in 1993, when Zoe Baird was forced to withdraw as nominee for attorney general, candidates for high office had to answer for the green cards and tax returns of their domestic employees. Other political scandals, great and small, lent precedent to Cheney’s questions about defaults on child support or student loans, controversial business clients, and links to foreign governments or donors.

Even so, the structure of Cheney’s questionnaire bespoke unusual distrust of those who filled it out, with a corresponding demand for access to primary evidence. Cheney and his team were not prepared to accept a doctor’s summary of the candidate’s present health and medical history, which traditionally focused on fitness for the rigors of office. They asked for copies of all medical records, complete with clinical notes and laboratory results. Unlike investigators for U.S. security clearances, who tell applicants they may withhold information about “marital, family, or grief counseling, not related to violence by you,” the Cheney team also sought details of any visit, for any reason, to a “psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist or counselor.”

Another distinguishing feature of Cheney’s review was its expansion of the usual scope of inquiry. Cheney asked about the military service records, the criminal histories, and other intimate details of parents, children, siblings, spouses, and in- laws as well as the vice presidential contenders themselves. He asked about not only professional sanctions and allegations of malpractice but also “misconduct in school”; not only whether the candidate had been charged with a crime but also whether he had been identified as a suspect or witness; not only about recorded civil judgments and admissions of wrongdoing but also about no-...

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