In My Time A Personal and Political Memoir
By Dick Cheney, with Liz Cheney Threshold Editions.
576 pp. $35
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who recently received a heart pump, makes it clear in his memoir, In My Time, that he has not mellowed since leaving office. Cheney vigorously defends many of the controversial decisions of the Bush presidency such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, waterboarding, wiretapping without warrants, and Guantanamo. He also assails some Bush administration colleagues and rails against the independent counsel who prosecuted his chief of staff, Scooter Libby.
Cheney, who wrote the book with his daughter Liz, offers an up close look at his 40 years of public service. He was White House chief of staff, Secretary of Defense, and congressman from Wyoming before becoming the most powerful vice-president in history. Cheney discusses foreign policy and national security almost exclusively, with domestic issues barely mentioned. There are only fleeting glimpses of former President George W. Bush, although the two had, by Cheney’s account, a good working relationship: “He made some decisions I didn’t agree with, but he had paid me the high honor of listening to my views, which, of course, he did not have to do.”
The book opens with a dramatic account of Cheney’s activities on 9/11. His version of events differs from Bush’s, which the former president detailed in his own memoir, Decision Points. Bush asserts that he was in charge aboard Air Force One, yet Cheney claims that was running the country in the hours after the Twin Towers went down. Cheney writes that he was the one who gave the order for the military to shoot down other planes in the air that day, if necessary:
In those first hours we were living in a fog of war... At about 10:15, a uniformed military aide came into the room to tell me that a plane, believed hijacked, was eighty miles out and headed for D.C. He asked me whether our combat air patrol had authority to engage the aircraft. Did our fighter pilots have authority, in other words, to shoot down an American commercial airliner believed to have been hijacked? “Yes,” I said without hesitation. A moment later he was back. “Mr. Vice President, it’s sixty miles out. Do they have authorization to engage?” Again, yes.
Cheney mostly sidesteps critical analysis of events he was involved with. He makes an eloquent case for the first Gulf War, when he was Secretary of Defense, but does not offer a cogent reason why the U.S. military did not attempt to capture or marginalize Saddam Hussein after his defeat. He fails to explain why the White House did not respond with more urgency to intelligence warnings in August 2001 of a possible terrorist attack on the United States. While angry that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq hurt the popularity of the Bush White House, Cheney nevertheless maintains the U.S. was still justified in fighting a war that has now lasted eight years, cost billions of dollars and resulted in thousands of deaths. He reveals that he lobbied to bomb a nuclear reactor in Syria, but Bush turned him down. Cheney feels a measure of vindication because President Obama has continued some of his controversial policies, such as keeping Guantanamo open.
He disparages those in the Bush administration who disagreed with his views and readily admits dysfunction among Bush’s national security team. Tired of what he viewed as Colin Powell’s reluctant warrior stance and undermining of the White House by leaking to the press and others, Cheney pushed for Powell’s removal as Secretary of State. Powell, for his part, has excoriated Cheney for “taking cheap shots” in the book. Cheney also accuses Powell’s successor as Secretry of State, Condoleeza Rice, of misleading Bush about diplomatic efforts to counter North Korea’s nuclear program, which she vehemently denies. He acknowledges that his influence over the President waned during the second term by admitting that Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld without asking him first.
Cheney does soften his Darth Vader image. His forthright description of his heart troubles will provide support and encouragement to those similarly afflicted. The implantation of a battery-operated pump last year to help his detiorating heart left him reflective: “Like a lot of people who face life threatening illness and walk in the sunshine again, I could not dismiss the possibility that more than the skill of doctors, the luck of the draw, or my own will to live had pulled me through.”
He prepared a signed letter of resignation in 2001 to spare the country a trauma if he became incapacitated.
And there are light moments. In one of the book’s lighter moments, Cheney recalls asking his assistant to arrange a meeting for his granddaughters with the Jonas Brothers during their visit to the White House and telling her, “I’m going to need some bios.”
The few words that Cheney devotes to economic policy show disarray among member of the Bush administration’s economic team. Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neil, who did not support tax cuts, was excluded from economic policy meetings at the White House. One might wonder whether the friendship between Cheney and others in the administration with former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan may have precluded earlier questioning of Greenspan’s failed easy money policy.
The former vice-President is a polarizing figure. This polemic book is not going to sway anyone, but his supporters will be reminded why they believe in his world view.