R. J. Cutler, The World According to Dick Cheney — Better than this Documentary’s Critics Give it Credit for — a Mini Review

© 2013 Peter Free


16 March 2013



Citation — to the Vice President Cheney documentary


R. J. Cutler, The World According to Dick Cheney, Showtime (2013)



My police experience revealed that you often learn more by letting someone talk, than you do by confronting them


That’s a point that I think some of this film biography’s critics missed.


For example, see:


Hank Stuever, ‘The World According to Dick Cheney’: A too-polite form of interrogation, Washington Post (12 March 2013)


Alessandra Stanley, Serenity of a War Strategist, New York Times (14 March 2013)



What I saw in R. J. Cutler’s admittedly non-confrontational documentary of Dick Cheney’s climb to national power


Former Vice President Dick Cheney benefited from an astonishing combination of extreme good fortune, intelligence, and Machiavellian skill.


Cutler’s film makes it clear that Cheney — whose youthful exploits included flunking out of Yale twice and getting himself an alcohol-related arrest record in Wyoming — afterward fortuitously stumbled into then Representative Donald Rumsfeld’s good graces and rode that equally capable man’s coattails to behind the scenes prominence.


The documentary, therefore, is valuable — on the one hand — as a portrayal of the combination of characteristics and fortune that can get well positioned people into positions of very substantial influence.


On the other hand — this non-accusing film highlights two aspects of Dick Cheney’s remarkable character that explain a good deal of what went on during George W. Bush presidency.


What struck both of the above cited critics is Dick Cheney’s refusal to question himself during and after the Bush era — loaded as that those years were with what a substantial number of Americans now think was mistaken geopolitical direction.


But I saw more than just that — which is why I credit R. J. Cutler with having made a rather remarkable film.



First — some necessary background regarding the Bush II Administration’s conflict with its own Department of Justice


Critic though I was of many of the Bush II Administration’s doings, nothing offended my lawyer self so much as its notoriously unethical handling of brewing revolt against “warrantless wiretapping” led by high-ranking Justice Department attorneys — presumably including Attorney General John Ashcroft himself.


Readers with good memories will recall how the George W. Bush Administration attempted to end run the Department of Justice on this issue.   At the time, gravely ill Attorney General John Ashcroft was in intensive care with pancreatitis.  His deputy, John B. Comey, was acting AG.


The Administration knew that Mr. Comey and the upper echelon of attorneys at Justice thought that the warrantless domestic electronic surveillance program, which had originated in the White House, was illegal.  A number of attorneys, including Deputy Comey, had promised to resign, if the White House went ahead with warrantless surveillance, in spite of their legal objections.


Astonishingly — for those of us who believe in the rule of law and civilized decorum — White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (accompanied by White House Chief of Staff, Andrew Card) tried to end run Acting Attorney General Comey by going to Ashcroft’s hospital bedside — so as to bully him into overriding his subordinate’s legal judgment:



At the hearing, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who was leading the questioning, asked the following.


“So in sum, it was your belief that Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card were trying to take advantage of an ill and maybe disoriented man to try and get him to do something that many, at least in the Justice Department, thought was against the law? Was that a correct summation?”


Comey answered directly.


“I was concerned that this was an effort to do an end-run around the acting attorney general and to get a very sick man to approve something that the Department of Justice had already concluded — the department as a whole — was unable to be certified as to its legality. And that was my concern.”


© 2007 Michael Scherer, The Ashcroft-Gonzales hospital room showdown, Salon (15 May 2007) (a partial transcript of the hearing is here) (paragraphs split)


The Atlantic said of this episode:



At the time of the visit, Ashcroft had been in intensive care for six days, was heavily medicated, and was recovering from emergency surgery to remove his gall bladder.


Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey has said that he believes that Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who accompanied Gonzales to Ashcroft’s hospital room, were trying to take advantage of Ashcroft’s grievously ill state—pressing him to sign the certification possibly without even comprehending what he was doing—and in the process authorize a government surveillance program which both Ashcroft and the Justice Department had concluded was of questionable legality.


Gonzales has also told Justice Department investigators that President Bush played a more central and active role than was previously known in devising a strategy to have Congress enable the continuation of the surveillance program when questions about its legality were raised by the Justice Department, as well as devising other ways to circumvent the Justice Department’s legal concerns about the program, according to people who have read Gonzales’s interviews with investigators.


The White House declined to comment for this story. An attorney for Gonzales, George J. Terwilliger III, himself a former deputy attorney general, declined to comment as well.


Although this president is famously known for rarely becoming immersed in the details—even on the issues he cares the most about—Gonzales has painted a picture of Bush as being very much involved when it came to his administration’s surveillance program.


In describing Bush as having pressed him to engage in some of the more controversial actions regarding the warrantless surveillance program, Gonzales and his legal team are apparently attempting to lessen his own legal jeopardy.


© 2008 Murray Waas, What Did Bush Tell Gonzales?, The Atlantic (September 2008) (paragraphs split)


And the Washington Post observed that this instance was the first time that the public heard that the Department of Justice thought that President Bush’s warrantless surveillance program, then two years old, was illegal.



With this background in mind — the key to Vice President Cheney’s character — as revealed in his painful betrayal of President George W. Bush


Inferred from the Cutler documentary, the events that led up to White House Counsel Gonzales’ astonishing breach of ethics, regarding Attorney General Ashcroft, were exclusively Vice President Cheney’s doing.


Apparently the Vice President — arguably the warrantless surveillance program’s chief architect — had known for months that Justice Department attorneys were unhappy with the Administration’s proposed renewal of the program.


Yet, the Vice President never told the President.  And President Bush reauthorized the program, apparently not knowing that the Justice Department opposed it.  Shortly after the renewal, he learned, reportedly entirely by chance (from Deputy Comey) that a revolt at Justice was underway.


Thereafter, the President never trusted Dick Cheney again.  And the Vice President’s influence on policy reportedly dropped to near zero.



Why Cheney’s behavior in the wiretapping instance is indicative of something deeply revealing about him


Dick Cheney is unquestionably an immense figure in recent America history.  Who he is and why he acted as he did is important.


I don’t find that his lack of self-confessed introspection (as to triumphs and mistakes) to be particularly revealing in regard to his Machiavellian machinations.  That outlook is typical of a significant number of movers and shakers, though some pretend otherwise.


Instead, his lack of loyalty to his Commander in Chief is telling — in two ways.


Looking at that disloyalty, we need to parse the reasons why the Vice President — who had been picked precisely because he would not be so personally ambitious as to disregard the President’s best interests — had acted in such a profoundly dishonorable manner.


In my view, R. J. Cutler’s documentary answers this question.  Letting Dick Cheney talk, unopposed, tells us that he valued what he perceived to be the nation’s safety over every other consideration, including the display of competent and politically foresightful loyalty to his President.


His perspective can presumably be traced to (a) significant personal conceit or (b) a hypothetically accurate assessment that everyone else was too naive to be trusted in the matter of national defense.


In either case, it is obvious that Dick Cheney was not fundamentally inclined to be a team player.  He and Donald Rumsfeld worked like a unit, but it is probably safe to infer that Cheney was more interested in maneuvering other people like pawns in pursuit of his personal objectives, than he was in genuinely seeking their ideas and soliciting their strengths.


After he betrayed President Bush — in the Department of Justice matter, by withholding critically important political information — his influence tapered to nothing.


That fall from influence probably showcased some of the President’s own political abilities.  In other words, I am relatively certain that Vice President Cheney consistently underestimated the man he was chosen to serve.


Though the Cutler documentary does not overtly focus attention on them, it records a handful of instances in which the President’s political judgment and humanity far outweighed Cheney’s.  That is as I had suspected.



And there’s more — a self-defense that wrecks the object of its protection is no defense at all


I have always respected Dick Cheney’s ability.  But he fell blindly short in one critical element.  The Vice President never seemed to understand that self-defensive measures cannot, by their very nature, destroy the democracy and liberty that they are ostensibly aimed at preserving.


That’s a failure of insight and imagination.


The World According to Dick Cheney makes the Vice President’s shortcomings as a human being and a purportedly democratic leader clear.



The moral? — An excellent documentary, if you watch it without preconceptions


Letting people talk is sometimes the best way to insight.  From my seat, Dick Cheney comes across as an admirably talented man, who somehow lost a necessary part of his humanity on the way to power.


R. J. Cutler’s worthy film left me sad, watching the now elderly former Vice President fly fishing on a swiftly moving western river.  With probably hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and liberty weakened in his wake, somewhere, Dick Cheney ultimately missed the point to leadership.


A person who sees no cause for self-reflection is one who is almost certainly incapable of learning the ins and outs of soul — and rectitude.  Dick Cheney fell short of what his talents might have achieved on humanity’s behalf.


On the other hand, given his humble origin, what he accomplished — for good, ill, or both — remains genuinely astonishing.


I highly recommend The World According to Dick Cheney.  There is a morality play concealed beneath its flow of obviousness.


Excellent work from R. J. Cutler and crew.