When it comes to Cheney’s rise and his persistence we are in the realm of miracles and wonders. In 1969, Cheney was a twenty-eight-year-old fledgling academic wannabe from Wyoming laboring obscurely as an intern on Capitol Hill—and lucky to be there, having twice flunked out of Yale, twice been jailed for drunk driving. Five years later he was Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff. Can American history offer a more rapid rise to power? Even the firework arc of his mentor Donald Rumsfeld pales before it. He’d owed his rise in large part to Rumsfeld’s patronage, but also to Watergate itself, to the once in a lifetime opportunities offered by the resignation of one president and the humbling of his successor. At close range Cheney, still in his early thirties, had seen the secret organs of executive power, notably the CIA, exposed to the light, humiliated, leashed. If it was true that “after 9/11, the gloves came off,” Cheney, as a young and unlikely power in the Nixon and Ford White Houses, had had a front-row seat to observe the methods by which Congress first put those gloves on.
After Ford’s defeat in 1976, Cheney won Wyoming’s single House seat and rose with astonishing speed, advancing within a decade from freshman to minority whip, the number-three leadership position. He was on his way to the Speakership when he accepted President George H.W. Bush’s offer to become secretary of defense and then, after leading the Pentagon during the wildly popular Desert Storm, left after Bush’s defeat to become CEO of Halliburton, the giant oil services company. After gaining wealth and influence as a corporate leader, he finally departed to become—to use the commonplace but entirely inadequate phrase—“the most powerful vice-president in history.”
Just as he was likely the most important and influential American official in making the decision to withhold the protection of the Geneva Conventions from detainees, Cheney was likely the most important and influential American when it came to imposing an official government policy of torture. It is quite clear he simply cannot, or will not, acknowledge that such a policy raises any serious moral or legal questions at all. Those who do acknowledge such questions, he appears to believe, are poseurs, acting out some highfalutin and affected pretense based on—there is a barely suppressed sneer here—“preserving your honor.” What does he think of those—and their number includes the current attorney general of the United States and the president himself—who believe and have declared publicly that waterboarding is torture and thus plainly illegal? For Cheney the question is not only “not a close call.” It is not even a question.
A very, very nasty man.