If you had asked me ten years ago what I knew about Dick Cheney, the first thing I would have said was “He and his friends made a lot of money in the Iraq War.” Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine how much more powerful and war-hungry he was.
Vice is categorized as a biographical comedy-drama. As biographical movies go, artistic license is the standard justification for simplifying personalities, events and issues. I kept that in mind while watching the film. I figured I could always cross check the “facts” as they were represented in the film with what other documentation is available on the web.
Three things are especially interesting.
First, Cheney’s fixation with the unitary executive theory (i.e., that anything that President does is legal because it is the President).
Second, his power-sharing arrangement with Bush Jr.
Third, his indirect role in the birth of ISIS.
Early exploration of the unitary executive theory
Vice does not make clear what brought Cheney to Washington D. C. to begin with. In the film, he was already an intern in Congress when he heard Illinois Representative Donald Rumsfeld speak, felt inspired, chose to be in Rumsfeld’s staff and he decided right there and then that he was going to be a Republican.
And so Cheney’s rise to power began. When Rumsfeld resigned his Congressional seat to join the Nixon administration, Cheney went with him. When Rumsfeld was appointed U.S. Ambassador to NATO (a position that Rumsfeld referred to as a “fuck off assignment” in the film), Cheney remained in the White House.
Events during this period are incontrovertible. Watergate happened, Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president. Rumsfeld was recalled back to D.C., became White House Chief of Staff before getting appointed Secretary of Defense. It was after this last appointment that Cheney became Chief of Staff.
According to the the film, it was at this early stage that Cheney began exploring the unitary executive theory and had discussions with Antonin Scalia (who later on became Supreme Court Justice) about it.
When Gerald Ford ran for the presidency, Cheney was campaign manager. Ford lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter; Rumsfeld and Cheney were out.
Cheney’s minority report in Iran-contra investigation showed Cheney’s strong belief in the unitary executive theory
According to public records, Rumsfeld worked in the private sector after Ford’s defeat. By the time Reagan became president, Rumsfeld was partially back in the White House in various advisory capacities.
During the same period, in the film as well as according to public records, Cheney was elected to the House of Representatives where he stayed for ten years.
(Cheney’s stint in Congress coincides with the two-term Reagan administration. Although the film did outline how Cheney voted for and against bills in Congress to expose his biases, nothing was said at this point about his role in the Congressional inquiry on the Iran-Contra scandal which broke out during Reagan’s second term.
He saw the Iran-contra investigation not as an effort to get to the bottom of possible abuses of power but as a power play by Congressional Democrats to seize duties and responsibilities that constitutionally belonged to the president.“Mr. Cheney’s Minority Report“, The New York Times
Apparently, even while serving as a legislator, Cheney’s belief in the unitary executive theory remained strong.)
When George H. W. Bush was elected president, Dick Cheney was appointed Secretary of Defense.
Vice skips through much of this period as well. That Cheney, as Secretary of Defense, directed both the U. S. invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm was not mentioned.
Instead, Vice highlights this time as when Cheney’s younger daughter, Mary, came out to her family as gay. And when Cheney toyed with the idea of running for president, he decided that the intense scrutiny and possible damage to Mary by his political opponents were enough reasons to forego his presidential ambitions.
The deal with Bush Jr.
When Bill Clinton ended Bush Sr.’s dream for a second term, Cheney joined the private sector and eventually became CEO of Halliburton, an oil service company. He would not rejoin government until Bush Jr. asked him to be his Vice President.
But things did not happen as simply as that, according to Vice. Acknowledging that the VP had no real power, Vice sought to show how Cheney made sure that he was not going to be a lame duck VP before accepting Bush Jr.’s offer.
He gathered enough legal opinions to make sure that he would not be accountable to either Congress (even if the VP is also President of the Senate) or the White House.
Then, he made a deal with Bush Jr.
Cheney: “Maybe I can handle, some of the more mundane jobs overseeing bureaucracy, managing military, uh energy, uh, foreign policy.”
Bush Jr.: “That sounds good.”Dialogue from Vice
So, with Bush Jr. agreeing to let Cheney do the President’s job, Cheney agreed to be his Vice President.
The unitary executive theory became a “legal” policy exploited by the most powerful Vice President in U. S. history
The film said so. Journalists and political analysts said so. History says, yes, Cheney’s powers as VP was unprecedented.
Cheney gathered a team of people as ruthless and as ambitious as himself including his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld. Together, they overrode the President’s own team to make sure that policies were shaped in the way they deemed fit.
According to Vice, Cheney was in bed with CEOs of oil companies, among others. He gained access to a map of oil fields in Iraq with a list of companies that might be interested in them if they were available.
Then, 9/11 happened and the unitary executive theory was no longer a theory.
With legal memos supporting the position that the President’s power (or, per Bush Jr.’s agreement, Vice President Cheney’s) to protect the nation as Commander-in-chief supersedes any obligation to Congress and treaties. The executive branch was able to monitor private emails, texts and phone calls. Then, warrantless arrests and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the latter, under existing international laws, was really torture) became “necessary” in the “War on Terror”.
The movie says all that. So does history.
The flimsy link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, a pre-emptive war against Iraq and what led to the birth of ISIS
To gain public support for “War on Terror”, it had to be made clear just with whom the war was against. Iraq was the choice.
Cheney, according to Vice, with his access to intelligence reports, began cherry-picking from unverified intelligence, including rumors of biological and chemical warfare — Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. But the connection between Saddam and Al-Qaeda needed to be established to make Saddam a real and immediate threat to the Western world.
Then, along came a classified report about Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a drug dealer and pimp turned radical, who once met with Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden and who moved to Iraq after the U. S. invaded Afghanistan. Without establishing what that meeting was about, Secretary of State Colin Powell was dispatched to the United Nations to deliver a speech where he said, “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi an associate and collaborator of Osama Bin Laden.” And the link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda was “complete” to justify a pre-emptive war.
Al-Zarqawi, meanwhile, now famous, went into hiding long before the U. S. landed in Iraq. He went on to build ISIS. According to Vice, Rumsfeld found out a report about it and told Cheney who ordered the report buried.
The rest is history
The U. S. forces in Iraq found no weapons of mass destruction and the war proved to be based on bad intel. Heads rolled in Bush Jr.’s administration. Not Cheney’s, of course. Neither was Bush Jr. held liable.
Meanwhile, ISIS grew in power.