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Dick Cheney in Twilight

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« on: March 09, 2007, 02:45:29 am »

Dick Cheney in Twilight
Thursday, Mar. 08, 2007 By MICHAEL DUFFY

Vice President Dick Cheney (L) with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

George Bush's sense of humor has always run more to frat-house gag than art-house irony, so he may not have appreciated the poetic justice any more than the legal justice on display in the Libby verdict.

Or, to be more precise, the Cheney verdict.
Bush stumped just about everyone seven years ago when he tapped the safe and solid Dick Cheney to be his running mate. But Bush didn't want any trouble. He didn't want a Vice President who preened before the cameras. He didn't want a policy sparring partner. And he didn't want someone who would check out after five years and run for President himself. And because Bush got exactly the kind of partner he wanted, he now faces the very problem he tried to avoid. Cheney has become the Administration's enemy within, the man whose single-minded pursuit of ideological goals, creaking political instincts and love of secrecy produced an independent operation inside the White House that has done more harm than good.

On an imaginary political balance sheet, Cheney is the Democrats' most valuable asset. And reversing that situation is getting close to impossible. Cheney recently made his weekly pilgrimage to the Senate, where he had lunch on March 6 with Republicans. He took his usual seat on one side of the stately Mike Mansfield Room and watched the proceedings quietly. Various Senators came by to ask him about his health after a blood-clot scare the day before. Others quietly lent support in the wake of that morning's four-count guilty verdict of Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. But for all the personal shows of support, more Republicans with each passing week have acknowledged privately what is felt across Washington when it comes to the Vice President: his time has passed.

And what a time it was. Back in the days of Bush's first term, aides to Cheney loved to regale journalists with tidbits about the scope of the Vice President's influence and the intensity of his commitment to protecting the U.S. from a terrorist attack. He was so driven and hands-on, the aides would say, that he and Libby would routinely ask to see raw intelligence rather than the processed analysis put together by the cia and other agencies. "He's a voracious consumer of intelligence," said an admiring aide to the Vice President. "Sometimes he asks for raw intelligence to make his own judgment. He wants it all."

He may have come across as deferential to the President in public, but friends and advisers in the fall of 2002 described Cheney as nothing less than the engine of the Administration. "There's no way in which he is not driving the train on this," said one, referring to Cheney's role in pushing Bush and the Administration inexorably toward an invasion of Iraq. "Analysis, advocacy-it's all done by Cheney or his protŮźs or his former mentor [Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld]. It's about context. It's reflective not so much of Cheney's direct influence on the President as it is of his influence on-his dominance of-the decision-making process. It's about providing the facts and analysis to the decision maker that the decision maker needs. Bush is making the decision, but the Veep is directing the process toward the decision that he thinks is the right one." In other words, Cheney had so rigged the process that important decisions were foregone conclusions, ones that had been reached by the Vice President well in advance.,8599,1597226,00.html?cnn=yes
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, listens to President George W Bush on the death of Iraq's terrorist leader al-Zarqawi at the White House, June 8, 2006. The Vice President's former chief of staff Lewis Libby was found guilty on four charges on Tuesday, March 6, 2007.

So when the verdict against Libby came down, it was also a rebuke to that hermetic power-sharing arrangement at the top of the White House. The legal outcome was never in doubt. Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had been massing evidence of perjury for months and then unveiled it piece by piece until even the defendant chose not to testify in his own defense. Libby's highly touted defense lawyers, meanwhile, seemed weak and scattered. Their promise to reveal how the White House had left Libby to be the fall guy for higher-ups was introduced and then abandoned. And it would have taken them down a road Libby steadfastly refused to travel-the one that led to the Vice President's door.

From the start, the case was only marginally about Libby. What was really on trial was the whole culture of an Administration that treated the truth as a relative virtue, as something it could take or leave as it needed. Everyone knows now that Bush and Cheney took the country into a deadly, costly and open-ended war on flimsy evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Yes, Congress went along. And yes, the public on balance supported it. But no one was more responsible than the Vice President for pushing the limits of the prewar intelligence that did all the convincing. And when former ambassador Joseph Wilson questioned the credibility of that intelligence-and the motives that helped polish it-it was Cheney who led the fight to bring him down.

None of that was illegal. So four years later, the Libby trial still prompts the question, Why did Libby get into legal trouble in the first place? Why did the Vice President's top aide not simply admit to what everyone knew was true-that he discussed the identity of Wilson's wife Valerie Plame, a CIA officer, with at least one reporter? Since most experts agree that Libby was unlikely to be prosecuted on a charge of revealing her identity, it is hard not to conclude that Libby cooked up his stories to protect Cheney. If Libby had gone a different route and admitted in his grand jury testimony that he had told a reporter about the identity of Wilson's wife, Fitzgerald's next question would have been, Were you acting on Cheney's orders? And it would not have been long before Cheney was giving testimony under oath. There was, said Fitzgerald in his summation, "a cloud over what the Vice President did."

Libby's conviction comes at the end of a dreadful year for Cheney: last February he accidentally sprayed a friend with bird shot while hunting in Texas. A week before the midterms, in a gift to Democrats, he all but endorsed waterboarding on a North Dakota radio talk show as an interrogation technique. Mary Cheney, his openly gay daughter, ran afoul of conservative activists in December when it was revealed that she and her partner were expecting a baby. Late last month, while he was touring Bagram air base in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked the camp's perimeter and killed at least 23 people in what the Taliban called an assassination attempt. Then on March 5, doctors found a blood clot in Cheney's leg, for which he will be treated with blood-thinning medication for several months.

But the personal setbacks have merely been the counterpoint to the larger policy reversals Cheney has suffered in internal debates in the past year. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is executing an unmistakable course correction in U.S. foreign policy, quietly stepping away from the strident and unilateral positions of the neoconservatives and cutting deals with °™ or opening lines to °™ the remaining members of the axis of evil. Backed by a strong new team of career diplomats, Rice prevailed on Iraq to invite Iran to a regional conference on security and then swiftly agreed to attend-unwinding Washington's vow just a few weeks ago that it would have no direct contact with Tehran until it stopped enriching uranium.

A few weeks earlier, after working for months with the Chinese, President Bush signed off on a deal with North Korea to freeze its primary nuclear reactor in exchange for economic aid and closer diplomatic ties. That deal was strikingly reminiscent of a controversial pact that Bill Clinton inked with North Korea in 1994 °™ and that the Bush team criticized in the first term. When hard-liners inside the government complained to reporters that the White House was selling out to a dictator, Bush backed Rice in public. Even in intelligence matters, the area in which Cheney was once most dominant and in which he invited the most trouble in the Libby case, his hand has been weakened. For example, in public testimony before Congress lately, intelligence officials have emphasized more ambiguities and uncertainties in their conclusions about threats overseas than was commonplace at the height of Cheney's power. Democratic Senators report that a refreshing new degree of candor has returned in classified sessions as well. "Cheney's influence on intelligence has declined markedly," said Democratic Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Cheney is hardly unaware of Rice's new dominance. A senior Administration official told Time last week that Cheney has been part of all the arguments and has simply begun to lose some. But that alone means ideas that would have been unthinkable just a year or two ago °™ early engagement, muscular multilateralism, even patient negotiation °™ are becoming more acceptable in Bushland. American diplomats have asked the Jordanians for their notes on the Clinton-era negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, seeking to restart the Middle East peace talks that fell apart abruptly at the end of 2000. That's yet another turnabout for an Administration that lampooned those very talks in 2002.

Of course, some of the repositioning was inevitable, and most of it was long overdue. Even if Bush and Cheney didn't want to listen to the polls on the home front, they couldn't ignore the few allies they had left overseas. Britain's Tony Blair announced a partial pullout from Iraq last month, and then moderate Arab neighbors in the region began to clamor for Bush to pull up before he crashed. On Wednesday, King Abdullah II of Jordan made an impassioned public appeal in a joint meeting of Congress for Washington to take the lead on Middle East peace talks.

While Rice rewires foreign policy, White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten is showing signs that he can match Cheney on domestic matters. The Bush Administration has said it will retreat on the issue of domestic surveillance and abide by laws regulating wiretaps passed years ago by Congress. And the Democrats in Congress are finding Administration officials far more forthcoming with facts and figures about the conduct of the war in Iraq, in part because the White House knows that the next step-subpoenas-won't help their dwindling poll ratings. "There has been an ebb and flow," said Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, "and the President has come to realize that the broader assertions of Executive power had to be tempered."

But there is another force driving the Bush team to pivot: the ticking of the clock. "It's very hard to do things at the very, very end," said Wendy Sherman, who coordinated North Korean policy in the Clinton State Department. "If the President wants to end eight years and have people say, 'You lost Iraq, you lost Iran, you lost North Korea, and you made the Middle East worse,' it's not a good moment in history. And so the pragmatists are predominant at the moment. This is their window."

How did cheney, a man once considered by members of both parties to have a feel for the golden mean, create a culture in which his top aide perjures himself? Some of it is his solitary roots: Cheney has never been a natural politician. He's more of a High Plains drifter who hailed from one of the least populated states in the nation, who took up the lonely job of utility lineman when he dropped out of college. Although he won a seat in Congress six times, he didn't have to work at it the way some lawmakers did. He easily rolled up huge margins in his Republican-tilted Wyoming district that literally covered the whole state. Personal charm wasn't so much Cheney's secret °™ the census was. In those days, everyone in Wyoming pretty much knew everyone else. Most years Cheney outpolled his rivals by more than 2 to 1.

So when he decided to give running for President a try in 1994, he soon realized he was unsuited for the big game. He raised a million dollars and built a good organization, but he found that the little things got to him. His fund-raising dinners, Cheney told aides, "weren't substantive enough." He didn't care to pal around with donors. He therefore called it off and never ran on his own again. This removal from people, from politics, from the sensors that make leaders responsive to people, turned into Cheney's Achilles' heel. And it actually deepened when he became Vice President. Bush picked Cheney because Cheney would never run again, but that also meant the newly minted Veep never had to put his ear to the ground.

Then came the war, which changed all of us but affected Cheney more than most. He was still wired in on everything, but that didn't mean he was in touch. He was convinced he was right about grave matters °™ that Saddam Hussein was a threat that had to be removed, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was intent on using them, that critics of Administration policy were at best misguided and at worst traitorous. "It's always been a joke in his office that his staff is extraneous," said a staff member. "The only thing you can do is provide him with information he doesn't possess yet. He doesn't need your analytical skill and judgment. He has that already."

Even in his own family, Cheney has a reputation for simply not being there. At times he simply departs the room, not physically but mentally, says a family friend who has also worked for him. He loses himself in thought or a book or whatever he's doing and can't be raised or roused. When that happens, his daughters have a nickname for him: the Bull Walrus. And so they will wave their hands and affectionately call out their pet name for their dad °™ "Hey! Bull Walrus!" °™ as if he were sleeping on a big rock near the Arctic Sea. And then he'll come to.

(5 of 5)
So long as Bush remains Commander in Chief, however, and Cheney his faithful lieutenant, the Vice President's power will flow through the Oval Office. Cheney remains the Administration's point man in its war of words with Iran and helped persuade the President to send an extra carrier group to the Persian Gulf last month. He remains a force in White House debates about the conduct of the war, and though he has been forced to retreat in some areas, he has not walked away from the fight. He remains Bush's best messenger when delivering the tough love that Washington spoons out from time to time, as it did two weeks ago when the Administration pushed Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf to take the war on al-Qaeda up a couple of notches.

Libby's four-count conviction guarantees that Cheney's White House role will remain in the news for most of the year. At the moment, Libby faces 18 months to three years in prison, though Judge Reggie Walton has discretion over the sentence he will hand down on June 5. In Libby's favor is the Columbia Law School grad's otherwise clean criminal record. Meanwhile, Libby's lawyers will try to argue for a new trial-something few observers expect Walton will permit-and then will ask the judge to allow Libby to postpone his jail sentence until an appeal can be heard. Retired Federal Judge Stanley Sporkin maintains that an appeal could be considered-and ruled on-in as little as six months, but it could stretch into 2008 if the appeal briefs are extensive. Given the way his lawyers tried to slow down the process with pretrial motions last year, they are likely to be.

And that's part of the plan. If his appeal fails, Libby's only recourse is a presidential pardon, and the chances of that go up as Bush's days in office dwindle. That means the longer Libby can keep the wheels of justice turning, the more likely he is to avoid spending any time in jail. Already the betting on a pardon is running at 65% by the end of Bush's term, and the Washington Post has announced a pool to predict the date. Democrats have called on Bush to swear off a pardon, but that outcome is not likely. If Bush ruled one out now, he might encourage Libby to seek leniency from Fitzgerald in his sentencing phase in return for cooperating with the prosecutor. In his first comments after the verdict was announced, Fitzgerald left the door open to such negotiations: "Mr. Libby is like any other defendant. If his counsel or he wish to pursue any options, they can contact us."

Then there is the argument that Bush should boot his Vice President before he strikes again. It's an often forgotten fact that three of the past six Presidents either dumped or tried to dump their Vice Presidents: Richard Nixon tossed Spiro Agnew for Gerald Ford in 1973, Ford tossed Nelson Rockefeller and tapped Bob Dole as a running mate in the 1976 campaign, and Bush's father George Herbert Walker Bush let his top aides try to give the heave-ho to Vice President Dan Quayle when he was dragging down the G.O.P. ticket by three or four points in 1992.

The father's instincts have never been the son's. Replacing the Veep now would create exactly the unpleasant succession scenario Bush had hoped to avoid when he chose Cheney in the first place. He didn't want someone soaking up all the attention and energy as he headed into his last 18 months in office. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

? With reporting by Brian Bennett, Massimo Calabresi, James Carney and Elaine Shannon/Washington
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"In a monarchy, the king is law, in a democracy, the law is king."
-Thomas Paine

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