Without regard for the castigation of critics or the praise of apologists, the life of Richard B. Cheney shows at least one trait of a classic hipstercon: intransigence. If not, he at least maintains a constant stubbornness that armchair apathetic iconoclasts can appreciate. For, in this memoir, Dick Cheney set out to set the record straight—for history, for the media, and for the American people (or at least those who can afford $35). In My Time tells Cheney’s story; and if the world has an image of Cheney as a fierce war hawk who propelled America into two wars, he wants everyone to know they have it wrong. If the picture of Cheney the war hawk is hazy, his apology only clarifies his profile: penetrating eyes above a wide-open beak and sharp talons.
As Cheney recounts the political history of 1970 to 2010, he steadfastly reiterates the need for active American intervention abroad to protect Americans at home. With a tone of almost incredulous surprise he stoically laments people and policies that have made Americans “less safe.” As he didactically outlines the policy details of one military action or geopolitical incident after another, Cheney sounds like the political science Ph.D. candidate he was before the balding pate. However, for Cheney academia is a road not taken, ever since the calm morning in the summer of 1968 when Congressman Donald Rumsfeld gave him a memorable tongue-lashing. For the next 40 years, Cheney was in positions of power and influence, shaping foreign policy, and in the middle of questions of war and peace.
That foreign policy streak which began during the Ford Administration with Rumsfeld continued to develop through Cheney’s congressional career. In 1984, Tip O’Neill appointed Cheney to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It was a high honor to work on this committee, and Cheney passes harsh judgment on most of his Intel Committee colleagues. Hard work was required in a committee whose necessary confidentiality precluded any Mayhewian tactics of position-taking or credit-claiming. 25 years after the fact, Cheney claims much credit (with almost adolescent geekiness he describes being among the first civilians to see the F-117 Stealth Fighter) and not so subtly takes political jabs at Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer for posturing and partiality on the Intel Committee during the Bush-Cheney administration. In 1986, Cheney became the first member of Congress to learn of the Iran-Contra affair. Showcasing his self-confidence in foreign policy matters, where he believes his actions to be above mean partisan politics, he explains his appointment as ranking member of the Iran-Contra investigative committee thus: “[Minority Leader Bob Michel] knew of my deep interest in national security issues, and I suspect he trusted me to do what needed to be done without any grandstanding.” But if it showcased Cheney’s idea of his own foreign policy being above partisanship, Iran-Contra also explicates the war hawk’s view of national security and war powers. The fault of Iran-Contra lay with Congress, not Reagan. Colonel Oliver North, Cheney writes, was simply a man “trying to save lives and protect democracy in the face of congressional vacillation.” Rep. Cheney’s committee report concluded that “Congress must recognize that an effective foreign policy requires, and the Constitution mandates, the President to be the country’s foreign policy leader.” Summing up Iran-Contra for his memoir, Cheney explains: “I thought it was also crucial to defend the presidency itself against congressional attempts to encroach on its power.” Congress could not limit the President’s ability to engage in military action around the world. Rep. Cheney’s belief in executive prerogative in foreign policy continued to play a role in the decisions he made as Secretary of Defense and then later as Vice President of the United States. Advising George H. W. Bush that no congressional vote was necessary for Desert Storm in 1991 (overruled by President Bush); informing Congress only after U.S. forces invaded Panama; withholding NSA surveillance programs from Congress; counseling George W. Bush to bomb Iran in 2006 to provoke a war despite congressional inaction (rejected by President Bush)—each of these decisions emanated from Cheney’s war hawk aims which he first announced during his congressional career.
From the first, Vice President Richard B. Cheney was the foreign policy and national security guru of the Bush-Cheney administration. With old chums Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell at Defense and State respectively, Cheney could be regarded as a veritable generalissimo on these issues. After joining Bush’s team with the assurances that he would be given policy roles on a scale never before entrusted to a vice president, the war hawk had the power to put his agenda into action. While some media reports claim Cheney seized upon the War on Terror to excuse a “revenge invasion” of Iraq, Cheney himself clarifies what really happened: At Camp David just three days after September 11, he apprised the President that invading Iraq was necessary and would now be politically practicable. Contrary to statements made by Colin Powell and (later) Condoleezza Rice, Cheney pins the blame for Iraq War failures on the State Department, claiming their cautiousness hamstrung and bungled the entire operation. The war hawk defended the Department of Defense line against State Department diplomatic policy for the entirety of both Bush-Cheney terms. Disdaining the finer tools of statecraft, Cheney advocated making immediate threats, backed by military force, against rogue states from Iran to North Korea to Venezuela. With the exception of Bush’s decisions not to bomb Iran and to engage North Korea in direct talks (both in 2006), every Cheney foreign policy proposal was implemented. Neoconservatism and activism abroad found its ablest champion in this western war hawk from Wyoming.
It was his executive leadership in the Cabinet as Secretary of Defense and later as Vice President that made Dick Cheney famous. But when President George H. W. Bush asked the Wyoming Republican to become Defense Secretary after the disastrous John Tower nomination, the war hawk was taking a different career path to work out his convictions. On election night 1994, two years after the end of the Bush-Quayle administration, when a balding Dick Cheney looked to be at the end of his political career, a nostalgic sense of what might have been crept over him. “I couldn’t help but contemplate what might have been if I stayed in the House leadership instead of going to the Defense Department. My friend, and successor as House Republican Whip, Newt Gingrich, was about to become Speaker of the House.” While poised, as the leading Republican, to become Speaker, Cheney in 1989 had come to the same conclusion his mentor Gerald Ford did in 1975—endless Democratic control of the House meant that his personal advancement lay in the executive branch. Then, on that November night in 1994, Cheney saw a Republican majority. What would a Speaker Cheney have looked like? How would American history have been different?
We can do more than guess at the answers. While still in the House in 1983, Cheney’s didactic academic again showed himself through a book, Kings of the Hill. In this little-known work he profiles eight men, and shows how the underappreciated speakers of the house have exerted tremendous effect over the American destiny. Cheney lionizes Henry Clay as the creator of the modern Speakership, beginning in 1811. Cheney’s hero was a man of action—and a war hawk. “[Clay] would transform the post of Speaker, which had previously been largely ceremonial, into a power center—and he would use it to propel the country into war” (emphasis added). Henry Clay entered the House in January 1811 at the head a freshman class dominated by the frontier West. Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Langdon Cheeves, and Felix Grundy—these were the “War Hawks.” Haphazard Indian raids along the western line of settlement necessitated a war of retaliation and conquest of Canada, the Indians’ protector and safe haven. Cheney embraces this cause in Kings of the Hill, with obvious parallels to later terrorist attacks against outlying Americans which necessitated war, retaliation, and the occupation of Iraq. Speaker Clay and his War Hawk allies pushed the United States into war with Britain, despite congressional opposition and a reluctant President Madison. Cheney presents a misguided John Randolph of Roanoke, a ragged figure who denounced wars “of conquest, of aggrandizement, of ambition” for “the government of the United States is not calculated to wage offensive war, it was instituted for the common defence and general welfare.” Speaker Clay soundly defeated the opposition of reactionary Randolph in Cheney’s gleeful narrative—on the question of war, on points of parliamentary procedure, and even on the question of the hounds Randolph attempted to bring into the House chamber. “In 1812, Clay was the undeniable victor, supported by a majority of members who were weary of words and ready to fight.” These western War Hawks of 1812 and their iron-handed Speaker are taken by an admiring Cheney to be worthy of emulation.
Though he never wielded the mighty gavel as a modern war hawk speaker to propel America to military action in the face of a dithering president, Dick Cheney made history. His life-long belief, in a proactive American defense that set America in an offensive position around the globe, seems to take second place only to a good trout stream somewhere out West. In his memoirs, he takes on the critics who misunderstood his positions as erratic war-mongering—they were calculated; deadly serious, he maintains. Cheney has become a political pariah across almost the entire American political spectrum for his brand of strident neoconservatism, through a lifetime of fidelity to his driving principles of action. Like a hipster, Cheney defined his own “hip.” (And yet, perhaps the raspy, shrill voice of the solitary contrarian from Roanoke expresses more truly the characteristics of the hipstercon?) America has not simply stayed home to secure its national borders and better its general welfare, and that is in large measure the result of the adherence of Richard B. Cheney to his own guiding principles, in his time.