“The World According to Dick Cheney: Documentary" 9 p.m. Friday, Showtime
Showtime will broadcast “The World According to Dick Cheney" on the Ides of March, but that’s probably just a coincidence, right? Then again, Cheney’s old boss is bloodied in R.J. Cutler and Greg Finton’s film about as much as Julius Caesar was in the Roman Forum.
Although he’s been out of office for several years, Dick Cheney remains a polarizing figure in American public life. Some love him for his decisive role in a variety of jobs, including that of George W. Bush’s vice president for eight years, while others see him as a Machiavellian incarnation of political evil.
The film probably won’t change anyone’s opinion of the man, but that doesn’t make Cheney any less of a fascinating figure. Like him or hate him, no other vice president in American history was as “consequential" as Cheney himself correctly puts it. Where other modern-day vice presidents outlined certain policy areas to oversee, Cheney’s vice presidency wasn’t about policy agendas. Instead, he had “walk-in" rights to anything going on in the White House.
That was in part because after Bush was elected, Cheney essentially assembled the entire administration, based on his insider’s knowledge of Washington. And by placing various people in key positions, he built his own power base, one that perhaps exceeded that of the president himself.
From the start of the film, we see Cheney in charge. When President Ronald Reagan was shot, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously declared himself in control at the White House, and was pummeled for his presumptiveness. When 9/11 happened, and Bush was off in Florida reading to a classroom of children, Cheney knew better than to make any such declarations. He wasted no time making decisions without waiting for Bush to get back to Washington. Observers comment in the film about how cool and calm he was in the midst of that singular terrorist attack. But in his view, there is no room for emotion in dealing with a crisis.
The film traces Cheney’s life from his Wyoming boyhood, through flunking out of Yale, through a talking to from his future wife, Lynn, which, although Cheney won’t say what she told him, marked a turning point in his life in 1963: Twelve years later, he was the White House chief of staff.
By the mid-’90s after roles in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and a notable midlife career in Congress, Cheney had determined the next logical step was to run for president. But after lackluster polling results, he moved in another direction and became CEO of Halliburton for five years.
When Bush put him in charge of finding a running mate, Cheney created an exhaustive vetting system requiring complete medical records and financial records going back a decade. Candidate after candidate was deemed not quite right for the job.
Bush kept asking him to take the job himself, but, as Barton Gellman (“Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency") puts it, “the more he ran away, the more Bush pursued him."
Gellman says that, traditionally, “Vice presidents don’t run things," but Cheney did through much of Bush’s eight years in the White House. Some say he virtually ran the country as the éminence grise behind the president.
The attack on the World Trade center represents “the hinge of history" for Cheney, according to journalist Bob Woodward.
Cheney opposed Bush seeking congressional approval to wage war against Saddam Hussein, but Bush went ahead anyway. The congressional resolution was in doubt because House Majority Leader Dick Armey opposed it until Cheney pulled him over to the administration’s side by feeding him inaccurate information about Iraq’s weaponry and readiness. Cheney sticks by his belief that the Iraq War was justifiable.
The strength of the documentary is that although it is grounded in an extensive interview with its subject, it is not hagiography. Writers like Woodward and Gellman weigh in with considered and not always flattering opinions about Cheney. That said, noticeable by their absence as interview subjects in the film are Rice and, in particular, Bush. Rice would have offered a different point of view, of course, on foreign policy. But without Bush, we can only guess how the relationship between Bush and Cheney evolved over the years.
The film makes Bush out to be a fool, which may be one reason why he wouldn’t sit down for an interview. At one point, we hear Cheney saying that there is clear evidence that Iraq has the “capability and intent" of developing nuclear arms. A minute later, Bush says the same thing in a press conference — the suggestion being that Cheney said it first, and Bush parroted it as instructed.
At the start of the film, we see Cheney clearly in charge when 9/11 occurs. Next sequence: Bush looking dumbfounded while holding “The Pet Goat" with Florida second-graders sitting at his feet.
The placement of the two film clips is more than coincidental.