Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Valentine for the Veep

Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President, Stephen F. Hayes, HarperCollins, 592 pages

They say the Byzantines were debating what sex angels were while the Turks’ cannon were destroying the walls of Constantinople. So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Stephen Hayes, a clean-cut lad who looks like he ought to be named Chad, has just rushed out this 500-page bio gushing over every stage of Dick Cheney’s life. You might think Hayes was doing a postmortem to show where Cheney went wrong, but au contraire. Hayes’s whole effort aims to prove that Iraq wasn’t Cheney fault—and besides, the war was a good idea! It’s going great!

That’s the kind of logic you get from Hayes—and that’s the good part. Before the 200 pages on Iraq, you have to plow through 300 pages about the childhood, college career (if you could call it that), and home life of Richard Cheney. Let me summarize this part in half a sentence: dullest guy in the world.

Reading this book recalls what veterans say about war: hours of boredom interrupted by a few minutes of terror. Three hundred pages of tedium interrupted by 200 pages of passing the buck—or rather, the dinar.

This book is written strictly for the 15 percent of America that still loves Dick Cheney. They’ll swallow any nonsense because admitting that he was wrong about Iraq means acknowledging they were wrong, too, and these conceited jerks would sooner see America humiliated and bankrupt. But if you’re not part of the neocon cult, you’ll have a hard time getting through. I barely made it out of the chapters covering Cheney’s boyhood.

Only an intelligence agency could come up with a backstory this boring. The only interesting thing anybody in his family ever did was when his mom played women’s softball back in the 1930s, before it was considered normal for women. (So I guess it is genetic after all, or am I not allowed to say that?) Anyway, the rest of the family has the kind of history you’d forget in a second—just long lists of folks with three two-syllable names.

Then came the great day when Thomas Herbert Cheney married Margaret Ellen Tyler. You can tell she was a natural to join the family because she had three names with the proper number of syllables. And their union was blessed with Richard Bruce (!) Cheney.

Poor Stephen Hayes. He’s forced to strain all of his journalistic muscles built from years of practice at The Weekly Standard to make Cheney’s boyhood sound interesting. He writes like he trained at Pravda, meaning he spends most of his time licking Cheney’s boots like a commie hack doing a bio of Kim Il Sung.

For example, Cheney had a paper route. So did I. But listen to the way Hayes tells it: “Cheney started working early, at the age of nine, mowing lawns and delivering the Lincoln Journal Star. Each day, Cheney would get a bundle of papers delivered to his house. He sorted them, folded them, and wrapped them with a rubber band. Then he grouped them in a bag, draped it over his bicycle handlebars, and pedaled throughout College View firing newsprint missiles at front porches.”

Wow! I didn’t know having a paper route counted as military experience. And to think that little Dick not only fired those newsprint missiles at unsuspecting front porches but “sorted them, folded them, and”—let’s not forget—“wrapped them with a rubber band.” Straight out of Horatio Alger! Talk about seeds of greatness!

The sad truth is that up until he landed us in Iraq, Cheney was just plain dull—so dull that hardworking Hayes jumped on that paper-route bit like it was biographical gold. And he was right. Compared to most details of Cheney’s early life, this was high drama.

Young Dick went to a tech-nerd summer camp called “The Cherubs Program” and enjoyed driving drunk, accumulating two DUI convictions to add to what Hayes calls “his already impressive résumé.” In truth, the only impressive thing on Cheney’s résumé was that he got into Yale, even though he did it because a big donor liked him and called up the admissions office. Once there, he flunked out. Twice. Or, to quote Hayes, Cheney suffered from “poor academic performance.” Yeah. The kind where they cancel your scholarship and tell you to get the hell out. Then let you back in next year. Then flunk you out again.

This is awkward for the poor biographer, who wants to make Cheney out to be the deep thinker of the DUI Duo, aka the Bush administration. And the way Hayes goes about explaining why Cheney bombed so bad at Yale is like a shorter version of his story about why Cheney bombed so bad, so to speak, in Iraq. Both times, the answer is simple: everybody else is to blame.

In the Yale case, it was the university’s fault. Hayes calls this chapter “To Yale and Back,” which I guess is one way of looking at it. Cheney, you see, was just too pure for those Ivy League elitists: “When Dick Cheney arrived at Yale he brought the West with him.” Yeah, I can just see those limp-wristed Yalies now:

“I say, old boy, where did those dreadful buffalo herds come from?”

“Oh, that dreary freshman Cheney dragged them along with him. What a bore!”

Even the freshman football coach at Yale was a durn egghead: he published a book called Fundamental Football, which Hayes calls “an indication that the academic maxim ‘publish or perish’ may have extended from the classroom to the stadium.”

Well, by gosh, all that intellectualism was too much for Mr. Wild West. He and his buddies just wanted to drink beer, watch “Maverick” on TV, and engage in what Hayes calls “tomfoolery.” Now there’s a word you don’t hear everyday. In Hayes’s special neocon code, it means Cheney went to Yale, didn’t learn a damn thing, got drunk all the time, and couldn’t resist in what Hayes keeps calling “pranks.”

He could have learned any foreign language in the world and actually known something about, say, Iraq, before he decided it was ripe for democracy. He could have sat in the same room with the best teachers in the world. He could have hung out at the library. But no, he was into “tomfoolery.” Har-dee-har-har, and excuse me if I don’t think it’s as heart-warming as Hayes does.

I guess the biographer expects the stories about Cheney’s “pranks” to humanize him. If that’s the idea, it doesn’t work. Cheney’s not exactly the life of any party, and it doesn’t help that Hayes includes a picture of him on a scooter, in shorts and shades, looking exactly like the evil preppy frat boys in “Animal House.”

The real giveaway of the book is its priorities: all the room in the world for “tomfoolery” at Yale, but guess how many pages for Cheney’s work on the first Iraq War, America’s only strategic victory since 1945: You might think that a patriot like Hayes would be happy to show how well Cheney did back in the days of Bush Senior. But you’d be wrong. Hayes covers Gulf War One in two ultra-fast paragraphs. He concludes, “There was only one problem: Saddam Hussein remained in power.”

Of course Hayes thinks that was a terrible thing; it meant we just had to go in and occupy the whole godforsaken country in 2003. Funny thing, though: he quotes a certain official from Bush Senior’s administration explaining exactly why we didn’t do that, and why it would be a disaster if we did. It’s such a clear-headed, brilliant summary of why not to occupy Iraq that it’s hard to believe it came out of the mouth of Dick Cheney himself:

The question that is usually asked is why didn’t we go on to Baghdad and get rid of [Saddam]? … We made that decision not to go on to Baghdad because …we’d liberated Kuwait and destroyed most of his offensive capability—his capacity to threaten his neighbors. … If we’d gone on to Baghdad … we would have moved from fighting in a desert environment, where you had clear areas where you knew who everybody was … there was no intermingling of any significant civilian population. If you go into Baghdad, that changes dramatically … you’re fighting in a major built-up city, a lot of civilians are around, significant limitations on our ability to use our most effective technologies and techniques. … You know, then you have accepted the responsibility for governing Iraq. Now, what kind of government are you going to establish? Is it going to be a Kurdish government, a Shia government, or a Sunni government…? And the final point … I don’t think you could have done all that without significant additional US casualties. … And the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damn many. So I think we got it right …

Damn right we did, Mr. Cheney.

That little quote, coming right in the middle of this book, was as decisive as Hiroshima for me. That was the voice of Dick Cheney back when he was the solid, rational SecDef. You can see why Dick Armitage said, ten years later, that he couldn’t recognize the old Dick Cheney in Bush Junior’s veep.

The rest of the book is all downhill. Like Cheney said himself, we got it right the first time. All that was left was to get it wrong the second time around. That’s when the book goes from dull to insane.

Hayes tries to blame everybody but Cheney for the decision to invade while pretending it’s all going to work out. If you read the White House’s statements on Iraq, you know that tune. And it’s just as lame in the pages of this book. Hayes quotes Cheney even trying to blame the Army, despite the fact that the military did a brilliant job of conquering Iraq and had plans for the occupation that Cheney and the other neocon geniuses tossed in the trash basket.

Of course Hayes is convinced Saddam was “linked” to 9/11, and that justifies the invasion. Hayes even had a bestseller, The Connection, aiming to prove Saddam was behind the WTC attacks. I love that word, “links.” Doesn’t prove a thing, but it sounds great.

The fact is that Saddam tried to activate his “terror networks” all through the first Gulf War, with broadcasts in lame code ordering his imaginary loyalists to strike all over the West to avenge the humiliation of the Iraqi army. Remember what happened? Not a thing. Saddam was an old-school dictator, running a family operation that had no loyalists south of Tikrit. He ruled the rest of the country through pure fear. He could have been king in Iraq 3,000 years ago because the same skill counted then that counts now: the knack for sniffing out conspiracies and making a gory example of plotters. Stalin had it too; the only difference is that he actually did have loyalists all over the world.

Even if—and this is a huge, crazy if—Saddam was somehow linked to 9/11, occupying Iraq would still have been a totally disastrous idea—for all the reasons Dick Cheney laid out way back in 1992. But Cheney’s reaction to the catastrophe has been pure denial so crude that it can’t be papered over. Remember his claim that the insurgency was in its “last throes”? Then there’s his downright psychotic take on those missing WMD: “I think they will be found.” Yeah, around the time Jimmy Hoffa strolls home.

Tough job for a biographer, sprucing up material like that. So what does Hayes do? Again, the old Pravda trick: censorship. Abu Ghraib gets part of one sentence, on page 480. But leaving out unpleasant facts won’t do the job on its own, so he does what any Bushie would do: he slimes everybody who ever dared to say that the invasion might not have been a good idea. And he doesn’t even do it well. Karl Rove would be disgusted by Hayes’s amateur-night smear techniques.

One of the funniest examples is the case of David Addington, Cheney’s former chief of staff. As long as Addington is pro-Cheney and pro-war, Hayes flatters him all over the place: “Cheney trusted Addington more than anyone else other than his own immediate family.” They watch fireworks together, hang out with Cheney’s daughters together. They’re inseparable.

Then Addington crosses Cheney and his consigliore Scooter Libby by giving “statements contradicting Libby’s claims about how and when he learned the identity of Valerie Plame.” And oh boy, does Hayes change his tune!

First, he alters history. Before, he said Addington was closer to Cheney than anybody but his family. Now, it’s Scooter who’s the friend—his “relationship with Cheney … friendlier and less formal” than Addington’s. Unlike cuddly li’l Scooter, Addington “struck even those who respected him as aloof and … needlessly acerbic.”

They say you need a good memory to be a good liar. If you’re a biographer, you also need a good proofreader to make sure you don’t change your characterization of one of the central characters in the story on page 478, which is when Hayes starts painting Addington as Dr. Evil.

It’s no use, of course. This is Cheney’s War and always will be. The English fought something called the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”; this one might end up being known as “Cheney’s Throes.” It’s as if his whole life—from that embarrassing blurt that he had “other priorities” during the Vietnam War to his “Saturday Night Live” routines about imaginary WMD—was a set-up for this horrible punchline, and the other 300 million of us are just along for the ride, screaming at the top of our lungs while Cheney and Stephen Hayes tell us everything’s fine.

Gary Brecher writes the War Nerd column for The eXile, a Moscow-based weekly newspaper.