WHEN GEORGE W Bush began looking for a running mate for his Republican Party ticket before the 2000 election, he chose Dick Cheney to head the selection committee. Cheney, a former Secretary of Defense in George HW Bush’s administration, and at that stage chair and chief executive of the Halliburton oil services company, approached half a dozen senior Republicans in May 2000 and persuaded them to nominate.
He then subjected them to a questionnaire that even by the standards of post-Watergate, character-obsessed American politics was extraordinarily intrusive. For a Top Secret clearance in the United States government, applicants must answer thirty questions; the Cheney form had six times as many. Security-clearance questionnaires allow people to withhold information about marital or grief counselling, but Cheney’s form sought details of any visit, for any reason, to a psychiatrist, therapist or counsellor. It sought details of any event or habit that might leave the applicant ‘vulnerable to blackmail or coercion’.
More than that, the vetting forms required applicants to authorise Cheney ‘or any person designated by him’to obtain their medical, legal, insurance, credit and taxation records, and, where it existed, FBI file. They were required to give Cheney and his three-person team, one of whom was his daughter Liz, a blanket waiver of ‘any liability with regard to seeking, furnishing or use of’ the confidential information - with no end date.
None was ever interviewed formally by Bush about the role of Vice President, which was taken by Cheney himself. Reading Barton Gellman’s investigative biography shows that in all likelihood Cheney imagined himself as Vice President even when he accepted Bush’s request to head the selection committee.
I say in all likelihood because Cheney declined to be interviewed by Gellman, a journalist with theWashington Post whose work Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (Penguin, 2008) was published in the final months of the Bush administration. What Cheney told his authorised biographer, Stephen Hayes, was that it was only on 3 July 2000 that he agreed to Bush’s request to be his running mate.
Even if we take Cheney at his word, what do we make of his refusal to subject himself to the same vetting process as the other applicants? The form may have been intrusive but a candidate’s general health is certainly relevant, as became clear even before Bush was inaugurated in early 2001, when Cheney suffered his fourth heart attack since the age of thirty-seven.
What do we make, also, of the leaking of damaging information from the file of one of the other prospective Vice Presidents, Frank Keating, who’d had the temerity to joke publicly about the chair of the selection committee getting the job? The file had been seen by a small number of people; if it was not Cheney who leaked the information, it was one of his team.
This had a doubly chilling effect. Not only did Cheney possess highly personal information about half a dozen people who would go on to hold senior posts in the Bush administration but, Gellman wrote, the response to Keating’s remark ‘propagated the message, educational and just deniable enough: Don’t cross Cheney’.
I was gobsmacked reading this biography, not least by Gellman’s account of how Cheney became Vice President, which forms its opening chapter. I was familiar with the picture of Cheney as either the stone-faced puppet master of a doltish president or the steely-eyed deputy commander-in-chief of the ‘war on terror’, depending on the media outlet.
I had read detailed accounts by Jane Mayer (in The Dark Side), Mark Danner (in Stripping Bare the Body)and Philip Gourevitch (in Standard Operating Procedure), among others, outlining Cheney’s role in laying the groundwork for the declaration of the war in Iraq, his defence of waterboarding torture as an ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ and his support for the rendition program. But I was astonished by the depth of insight into the dark arts of politics within the US government complex that enabled Cheney to become the most powerful Vice President in American history, and why, as the book’s reviewer in The Independent put it, ‘this must never happen again.’
ANGLER IS AN extreme example of the value of biography. An autobiography, by definition, is a person’s perspective on their own life; a biography is written by someone else and necessarily presents a range of perspectives. Autobiography has a long history, beginning with Saint Augustine’s Confessions, from 397 AD. Its power lies in giving readers access to the subject’s innermost thoughts and feelings. If the person is famous, the reader can feel privy to important events from the centre. Anyone writing an autobiography can choose what to include, who to praise, denigrate or ignore; the author has the first and the last word, the power to shape the story of their life as they like.
This may seem elementary, but it helps explain the generally higher sales of autobiographies, even though few are as artfully written as Augustine’s Confessions or as open to examining missteps, foibles and flaws. Nielsen BookScan’s top fifty bestselling non-fiction books published in Australia in 2009 included twelve autobiographies and just two biographies.
The post-career autobiography seems to have become an essential tool in enhancing, or restoring, the reputation of former political leaders - an authorised guide for future historians. George W Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard all released their autobiographies in 2010, and each sold well: Bush’s Decision Points raced to two million sales, Blair’s A Journey sold 92,000 copies in the United Kingdom in under a week - the best opening week for an autobiography since Nielsen BookScan began keeping records there, in 1998 - and Howard’s Lazarus Rising was the year’s sixth bestselling non-fiction book in Australia, with close to 70,000 copies sold.
Bush, as the leader of the world’s then sole superpower; Blair, as England’s first Labour prime minister in nearly two decades; and Howard, as Australia’s second-longest serving prime minister, were all important political figures with more supporters than detractors for many years. The records of all three were at best tarnished and at worst fatally damaged in their response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, declaring the war on terror and, in March 2003, invading Iraq. In their books all three defended their actions, but failed to address in any substantive way the documentary evidence critical of the reasoning behind the Iraq invasion, the war’s execution and its aftermath.
And yet the three leaders’ autobiographies have reached large audiences and were accompanied by extensive publicity tours that gave pride of place to their perspective and allowed them to restate as facts things that have been contradicted, with evidence, by others. This is not to suggest that the war in Iraq and its aftermath is closed for debate: political issues can be keenly contested by people of good faith holding differing ideological positions, as well as by people not of good faith who peddle propaganda rather than engage in debate.
Whether you think the books are propaganda or a defence of the three leaders’ records, there is a need to read other viewpoints and examine other evidence to make judgements about the decisions these men took. The stakes could hardly be higher: more than 100,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and many more American troops have died there than died on 9/11.
THE VALUE OF an autobiography is leavened by understanding that even the most insightful, self-aware people struggle to see themselves as others do. Most shy away from exposing their mistakes, cruelties or the things they are ashamed of. I am not thinking here of the so-called misery memoirs, the point of which seems to be a pleasing arc from abused childhood and drug-hazed adolescence to spiritual awakening and redemption by publication. These, too, are prone to propaganda, as the revelations in 2006 by the Smoking Gun website about the many fabrications in James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces amply demonstrate.
Rather, I am thinking about the rich, complex and, potentially, more truthful portrait of a person that emerges in biography. Historically, biographies were mostly written about people already or long dead; biographies of living people began to be written by journalists in the 1970s, according to Steve Weinberg in his 1992 book Telling the Untold Story: How Investigative Reporters Are Changing the Craft of Biography.Today they are commonplace.
What readers get with biographies of living people - when they are done well - is a work humming with the urgency of the journalistic engagement, a willingness to ask difficult questions, forage far and wide for answers, and a commitment to telling a life story that appeals to the broadest possible audience. Biographies of living people are unavoidably shaped by the dynamic between author and subject, which may be co-operative or hostile, or both. Gellman’s Angler and Michael Crick’s 1995 biography Stranger than Fiction - which revealed that Jeffrey Archer’s best work of fiction may be his own life story - were written without their subjects’ co-operation. More often, biographers of living people dance between their desire for access and their demand for independence.
They rarely co-exist comfortably, so we should be cautious of blithe claims on the publicity circuit. And be thankful when the biographical stars align, as they did for David Marr, whose subject, Patrick White, gave him extraordinary access and letters of introduction, and did not attempt to censor the resulting manuscript even though after reading it he said, ‘I think this book should be called The Monster of All Time.’
Marr’s 1991 biography is a sympathetic but not uncritical portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning author. Michael Wolff gained similarly rare access to the global media mogul Rupert Murdoch, his family and associates but his 2008 biography, The Man Who Owns the News, is sharp and critical, quite different to William Shawcross’s earlier biography, with which Murdoch also co-operated.
There have been several biographies of Bush, Blair and Howard, but it is worth highlighting that Gellman’sAngler was not reviewed in Australia, which is particularly interesting because Cheney was a notoriously secretive politician. His vice-presidential selection team refused to share information with anyone other than Bush. When Cheney was announced as Bush’s running mate, the campaign team had difficulty extracting even information on the public record such as his public speeches or voting record. This left the Republicans vulnerable to Democrat attacks about his previous opposition to, for instance, school lunch programs. Throughout the Bush administration’s two terms, the number of people working in Cheney’s office remained a mystery. When William Kristol boasted in 2003 that each Monday Cheney sent over a staffer to pick up thirty copies of his publication, the Weekly Standard, this became ‘the best clue we have to the number of persons who work for the Vice President’, according to David Bromwich in the New York Review of Books.
More importantly perhaps, given Cheney’s reinvention of the role of Vice President, he and his office have refused to hand over his records to the National Archives and Records Administration. This denies them to future researchers, as well as to those who argue he should be indicted for his role in war crimes allegedly committed during the Iraq war.
Cheney’s admirers and detractors alike agree his appetite for work, attention to detail and understanding of Washington bureaucracy are prodigious. He liked to ‘reach down’, as he puts it, into the bureaucracy, often phoning mid-level officers to get ‘unfiltered’ information. Gellman displays a similar determination, impelled by a desire to uncover and understand. The seventy pages of endnotes testify to Gellman’s use of the Freedom of Information Act, his willingness to interview and re-interview, his development of other journalists’ incremental news breaks, his trawling of labyrinthine records of congressional sub-committees and his own news breaks for the book, resulting from his willingness to keep digging long after others had moved to the next frisson du jour.
A copy of the vetting form for Vice Presidents was one such news break; another was an interview with the House majority leader Dick Armey, who told Gellman how he was misled by Cheney about the relationship between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein before the invasion of Iraq. Armey, a ‘tax-hating Texas good ol’ boy’Republican, opposed the war and threatened to become a lightning rod for other undecided Republicans until Cheney called him in for a private briefing. Cheney told Armey that Saddam had personal ties to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and that Iraq’s ability to ‘miniaturise weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear’ had been ‘substantially refined since the first Gulf War’. Both claims were fanciful. Armey felt betrayed: ‘Did Dick Cheney, a fellow who had been my trusted friend - did he purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue? ...I seriously feel that may be the case.’
Gellman criticises Cheney, but it would be wrong to deduce that Angler is unrelentingly negative or one-dimensional. Cheney mythology has it, for instance, that he profited from his former company, Halliburton, attaining contracts to provide services in Iraq following the invasion, but Cheney and his wife, Lynne, gave away an estimated US$8 million in stock options from Halliburton and six other companies when he became Vice President, and set up a charitable trust.
Cheney did not publicly discuss this, although such transparency would have helped him. Cheney is secretive, Gellman contends, not because he fears embarrassment but because it yields practical political advantages. If potential opponents within the Washington bureaucracy did not know what Cheney was doing, or where his responsibility began and ended, they could not counter him. Accusations of venality over Halliburton, though, were on a shortlist of charges that could penetrate Cheney’s implacable presence.
The myth also holds that Cheney was the eminence grise behind Bush; Gellman lays out abundant evidence underlining Cheney’s key role but shows Bush was never just Cheney’s puppet. The very elements that made Cheney so powerful in Bush’s first term - his Terminator-like relentlessness in pursuit of a goal, no matter the opposition or public perception - diminished his influence in the second term, as the costs and consequences of the administration’s actions in Iraq and after Hurricane Katrina began to damage Bush.
All these things intrigue for what they suggest about Cheney’s make-up and motivation. For all his tenacious digging, Gellman can only go so far, as Cheney not only declined to be interviewed but, like his former boss, is unreflective by nature.
With someone like Cheney it may be less important to understand their psyche than to fathom the pattern of their actions. It appears that the defining moment in Cheney’s public career was his response to the curtailing of presidential power that followed the forced resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. Reinstating this power drove his political purpose from that moment on.
When Cheney left office his approval rating in the Gallup poll was a low 30 per cent, which bothered him not a whit. His autobiography is scheduled for publication this year, and that infamous ‘never apologise, never explain’ mantra suggests we can expect a steamrolling restatement of long-held beliefs. Bush had ‘gone soft’on the war on terror in his second term, Cheney told his authorised biographer, Stephen Hayes. Freed from the strictures of office, he was able to ‘forthrightly express those views’. No doubt Cheney’s memoir will be compelling.
More important, and the reason why Gellman’s Angler remains required reading, is that the current President is still grappling with the problems bequeathed him by the Bush administration. Whether the former Vice President engages with Gellman’s critique will tell us a great deal about the man.