The World According To Dick Cheney debuts tonight on Showtime at 9 p.m. Eastern.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults.”—Dick Cheney
To those who stand on the opposite side of the political divide from President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, one hugely maddening thing about their whole administration was that they seemed to lack any sense of humility, or even the remotest notion that they might be wrong. That intractability made them seem unreasoning. Anyone who can’t seriously entertain self-doubt, or a contrary opinion, can’t be debated with or negotiated with in anything like good faith. So for most of the ’00s a huge chunk of the politically engaged electorate felt disenfranchised.
R.J. Cutler’s documentary The World According To Dick Cheney begins with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, using photos from inside The White House and interviews with Cheney to relate what was going through his head on that day. That’s head, not heart. In Cheney’s words, he’s spent no time at all considering how he felt about the events of 9/11. “Under those circumstances, you’ve got to act,” he says. And over and over in The World According To Dick Cheney, that’s roughly the extent of Cheney’s explanations for the choices he’s made. Self-reflection was never a major part of the Bush administration’s daily routine. They had plans to execute. And they knew they were the right plans, because they were executing them.
The problem that this attitude poses for Cutler is that it makes his subject hard to penetrate. Cheney answers all of Cutler’s questions, many of which are direct challenges from the former vice president’s critics. But Cheney is curt, and unmoved by the arguments against him. And at least on-camera, Cutler doesn’t push back. This film is called The World According To Dick Cheney, and so Cutler lets Cheney get across his version of what happened.
By no means is this film a hagiography, though. Cheney himself may not see much of a need for second-guessing, but Cutler has plenty of interviews with colleagues and journalists who are willing to say what they believe the vice president got wrong.
The World According To Dick Cheney is positioned as fair-minded. Cutler begins and ends with poignant shots of the old man taking his first fishing excursion since his heart transplant, and throughout, Dennis Haysbert’s narration is both reverent and largely un-slanted. The documentary describes Cheney’s upbringing in Wyoming, his early struggles in college, his emergence as a political player during the Ford administration, and so on—all in a “just the facts” way. And by letting Cheney have the final word on all the “whys” of his life, Cutler allows Cheney supporters the option to see this film as a tribute.
But it’s unlikely that many actually will see it that way, because Cutler lays out these facts in such a way that it makes even Cheney’s successes seem like precursors to what many consider his biggest mistakes. Some of the most pertinent material in The World According To Dick Cheney involves Cheney’s first arrival in Washington, where he quickly became the protege of the dynamic young Nixon advisor Donald Rumsfeld. When Richard Nixon resigned, Rumsfeld became President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Defense, and Cheney became the White House Chief of Staff, and the two of them took pride in their reputation for holding firm against any kind of compromise, politically or diplomatically. They warred with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and argued against Ford appearing before Congress to defend his pardon of President Nixon. Even in the mid-’70s, Cheney was already fighting to protect and extend the power of the executive branch.
What’s illuminating about The World According To Dick Cheney is that the same clipped tone the vice president takes with Cutler—the kind that has him uttering a non-committal “mm-hmm” when Cutler praises his political acumen, and has him describing his wastrel university years as, “I found a bunch of friends who consumed a lot of beer,” as though he were reading from someone else’s police report—is also what relegated him to a different career path than most powerful politicians. Cheney couldn’t drum up much support as a presidential candidate, because he didn’t project warmth well. But as Bush’s running mate, Cheney set a tone even before their first inauguration day, by picking Bush’s transition team before the Florida recount was over, and acting as though Al Gore’s team was trying to steal what Bush/Cheney had already won. He couldn’t get elected as the top man on the ticket, but he could certainly behave like he was always meant to be in charge.
All of this is background to the material that takes up the bulk of The World According To Dick Cheney: the post-9/11 run-up to the Iraq War, and the years spent trying to ignore those who said that the case for invasion was intentionally exaggerated, and that the administration had no legal basis for its more extreme terror-fighting tactics (like torture, and domestic surveillance programs). In the view of this documentary, all of this goes back to Cheney’s disdain for getting permission, and for suffering the input of naysayers. If everyone had just acquiesced to what Cheney really wanted—which was to seize Iraq and use it as a base of operations against terror cells in the Middle East—without asking questions, then the administration wouldn’t have had to fudge so much, and wouldn’t have gotten into trouble with special prosecutors and the voting public. It’s gripping to watch all over again how the Bush/Cheney Iraq mission began with cabinet members saying that it was ridiculous (and perhaps even unpatriotic) to question whether or not Saddam Hussein had mass stockpiles of WMDs, and ended with them arguing over what they really meant by their initial statements on the matter. They went from to fighting the Axis of Evil to bickering over semantics with Sunday panel-show anchors.
The World According To Dick Cheney isn’t as thorough as it could be. Even beyond the follow-up questions that Cutler fails to ask (or, again, that he chooses not to show on-camera because they didn’t lead anywhere), there are some important subjects missing: like Cheney’s years in private business as the CEO of Halliburton, and how that affected both economic and foreign policy decisions. There are key voices missing from the film, too. Rumsfeld is interviewed, and talks a bit about the Nixon/Ford years and the early days of the Bush years, but he disappears from the film when the subject turns to his own missteps in Iraq, and his not-that-voluntary resignation from the Bush administration. Also absent: Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Scooter Libby, or either of the Presidents Bush.
Cheney himself doesn’t say much about George W. Bush, except to dispassionately note some of the many times that they disagreed on a course of action during Bush’s second term. Bush, who was more or less required to be the “man of the people” that Cheney never was, was reportedly appalled when he learned all that Cheney had been keeping from him about the legality of some of their programs, and in his second term Bush strove more to be the kind of executive that Cheney dismissed: the kind who looked to Congress, world leaders, and American citizens for validation.
So perhaps in that sense, The World According To Dick Cheney will offer some belated relief to the frustrations of those who felt voiceless in the ’00s. This film stresses that even before the elections of ’06 and ’08, there were people in The White House privately wondering if they’d overstepped. It’s just that Cheney was never one of those people. To the end of his term and even now, Cheney has continued to assert that every one of his moves was right, and that if anything, the hue and cry over his time in power was proof that he was onto something. “It’s more important to be successful than to be loved,” he says. And in The World According To Dick Cheney, it’s seems impossible that anyone could ever be both.