Press Man: Cheney Reaction
I remember when it was socially acceptable to like and even admire Dick Cheney, whose memoir In My Time was greeted last month with unanimous catcalls from members of the mainstream press. For more than two decades, Washington’s mainstreamers considered Cheney a rare clubbable Republican—genial, brainy (he studied for a Ph.D. in political science), and safe. You could invite him to a dinner party and know he wouldn’t start spouting Bible verses and frighten the caterers.
“Cheney is smart, he is tough, and he is totally trustworthy,” wrote the Washington Post’s David Broder, who served as unofficial spokesman for the mainstreamers back in the day. “Admired by dozens of his Democratic colleagues” and a close friend of the Democratic Speaker of the House, Cheney had a “brain as good as anyone’s in town.”
What happened? During the waning years of the second Bush administration, when the press had cast Cheney as the Snidely Whiplash of the West Wing and old admirers like Brent Scowcroft complained that he had “changed,” Cheney would recall the horrors of September 11, 2001: “I didn’t change, the world changed.”
Yet In My Time makes clear that one of Cheney’s views has at least evolved: his understanding of the news media. If the mainstreamers have noticed this, or if they even are aware that Cheney was once almost one of them, it didn’t show up in reviews. The main complaint among reviewers and reporters, columnists and commentators alike, was that Cheney wasn’t sufficiently sorry for having disagreed with them about how to fight the war on terror.
“Dick Cheney Makes No Apologies in Memoir,” headlined Politico. “Cheney’s Memoir: Few Apologies,” said the Christian Science Monitor. NPR analyzed “Cheney’s Unapologetic Memoirs.” “Leaving Regrets to Others,” said the New York Times, “Cheney Speaks.” A Times reporter summarized the book this way on NPR: “He was right about everything. People who disagreed with him were fools, and people who agreed with him were wise and brave.”
“He acknowledges no serious mistakes about anything,” wrote the Post’s reviewer.
As this theme echoed through the mainstream media, Cheney made a few half-hearted attempts to point out that in fact he expresses more than a few regrets in the book, offering several apologies and admitting many mistakes. He openly laments a dissolute adolescence in which he was kicked out of Yale, twice, was arrested for drunk driving, also twice, and managed to guzzle serial boilermakers in what must have been, by his telling, every roadhouse in the Mountain States.
He faults himself for not insisting that Paul O’Neill, Bush’s first treasury secretary, attend economic policy meetings in the White House, which only hastened O’Neill’s public break with the administration. Cheney acknowledges that his famous comment, in 2005, that Iraqi insurgents were in “their last throes” was simply wrong—and part of a larger failure, he says, to understand “the difficulty of rebuilding a traumatized and shattered society” in Iraq. “We didn’t always get it right in Washington,” he writes.
The list goes on. One last example: He made a mistake, he said, in not releasing a statement to the national press immediately after he accidentally shot a hunting partner in 2007. Instead his office notified a local paper in Texas the next day. The White House press corps reacted by inflating the story into a national scandal. “But again,” he writes, “the last thing on my mind was irritating the New York Times.”
Is there any surer way to irritate the New York Times than making clear that you don’t care if you irritate the New York Times? But by 2007 the mutual irritation had been festering for years. Cheney’s contempt for journalists as a class, and theirs for him, took a long time to develop. As chief of staff to President Ford in 1975, “I got to know and like a lot of the reporters,” he writes, “and to this day I count some of them as friends.”
He learned how to “work the press,” as he puts it, from the masters of the art. He watched with amusement the duel that played out between Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry Kissinger in James Reston’s New York Times column. (The weapon of choice was blind quotes at twenty paces.) He noticed the haplessness of much of the national press—the short attention span imposed by the news cycle, the susceptibility to manipulation, the craving for superficiality, the professional solipsism—but accepted it as an occupational hazard, to be endured or, if possible, deployed to his own advantage.
In campaigns, he discovered, if your side is being hit by a damaging story, “the press will get off one negative story for another one,” so you provide reporters with a new, less damaging, though still negative, diversion. In domestic politics the journalistic appetite, as Cheney describes it, isn’t necessarily ideological: he gives examples of Republican manipulation of the campaign press, too. It’s simply a taste for troublemaking.
But as secretary of defense under the first President Bush, Cheney began to see that the press’s heedlessness was no longer a minor irritant when national security was involved. At several pivotal moments it became actively harmful to American military interests and imperiled the lives of American soldiers. During the 1989 invasion of Panama, to cite one often overlooked event, a group of American journalists who had entered the country on their own were trapped by Panamanian troops in the basement of a hotel. Journalists traveling with the U.S. military turned the plight of their fellow hacks into the invasion’s top story. “There were thirty-five thousand American civilians in Panama,” Cheney writes, “but the journalists at the Marriott became the center of attention.” The reporting made “it seem as if the military operation, which was generally going well, was somehow not succeeding.” Military units were diverted to rescue the trapped journalists—not because the reporters’ lives were in danger but to remove the distraction and put the press’s attention back on the invasion. Three soldiers were wounded in the rescue.
The experience in Panama and later during the Gulf War, Cheney writes, “deepened my conviction that the press ought not to be the final arbiter of whether we have won or lost a war”—or of how to fight it. Yet the final arbiter is precisely what today’s press yearns to be. It is a larger role than the press has traditionally filled, but the conceit is in keeping with a general process of self-aggrandizement. And it explains why Cheney, upon becoming vice president, resolved to speak with reporters as seldom as possible.
Speaking of torture, the last review I read of In My Time was by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. Like Broder, Dowd serves as unofficial spokesman for her generation’s mainstream press. I looked through her piece for a single statement of fact, one traceable line of reasoning.
Cheney “insists he’s always right,” she wrote, as her fellow reviewers did, even though he insists no such thing.
“Cheney takes himself so seriously, flogging his cherished self-image as a rugged outdoorsman from Wyoming (even though he shot his Texas hunting partner in the face)…”
“A person who is always for the use of military force is as doctrinaire and irrelevant as a person who is always opposed to the use of military force.”
“He acts like he is America. But America didn’t like Dick Cheney.”
“He salivates in his book about how Syria and Iran could have been punished.”
Her column might have been written by an upset high schooler, so vast was her rage, so limited was her ability to express it. When I’d finished reading her column, I thought again of Broder, and about the evolution of Cheney’s views of the media, and I thought, Dick Cheney didn’t change. The press changed.