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Issue Date:  June 30, 2006

The three faces of Dick Cheney


In British playwright David Hare’s “Stuff Happens,” his drama at the New York Public Theater about the Bush administration’s forcing America and Great Britain into the Iraq war, the most intriguing -- and malevolent -- presence is that of Vice President Dick Cheney.

The play takes its title from Donald Rumsfeld’s news conference excuse for the looting in Baghdad at the “end” of the war: “Stuff happens.” In a script based on the public record and some imagined conversations, the play dramatizes the internal conflicts that led to today’s moral mess. For a while, the character of Colin Powell (Peter Francis James) flickers as an ethical center as, frozen out of deliberations, he tentatively protests, but the flame of integrity is snuffed as he mouths the misleading case for war at the United Nations.

The PBS “Frontline” documentary trilogy -- “Rumsfeld’s War” (2004), “The Torture Question” (2005), and now “The Dark Side” (June 20), on Mr. Cheney as chief architect of the war on terror -- brings the complicated history into focus.

“Stuff Happens” is not about Mr. Cheney directly or even primarily about President Bush. Rather, it focuses on Colin Powell’s moral dilemma and on Condoleezza Rice, who as national security advisor was too coldly ambitious to stand by him. “Rumsfeld’s War” maintains that Vice President Cheney feared the moderation of the former secretary of state and installed Rumsfeld at the Department of Defense to offset him. On the stage, Vice President Cheney (Zach Grenier) looms silently on the edge, his bald, egg-shaped head tilted and chin scrunched down into his shoulder and mouth twisted into a snarly grin. At the climax, Mr. Cheney blurts out his raw principles in a fight with Mr. Powell over whether to heed British Prime Minster Tony Blair’s request for another U.N. resolution. He mocks Mr. Blair’s religion. Mr. Blair “wants to … bring relief from suffering and pain wherever he finds it. And I don’t. What I want is to follow this country’s legitimate security concerns.”

That’s the Dick Cheney we know. Todd Purdum, in “A Face Only A President Could Love” in the June issue of Vanity Fair, offers the theory that Vice President Cheney’s sneer was once a “lopsided smile” when he was President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, and that the “new” Cheney is the product of four heart attacks, a $4.4 million salary at Halliburton, and his relentless scramble for power. But Mr. Purdum concludes that no matter how we look at it, Mr. Cheney is a failure, the architect of a foreign policy that has killed more than 2,500 Americans and upward of 30,000 Iraqi civilians. All the while, even in his “darkest night,” he has “little doubt” he “did the right thing.”

Though in the documentary on Rumsfeld Mr. Cheney used Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to sideline Secretary of State Powell, “The Dark Side” shows that the Cheney-Rumsfeld task was to neuter CIA Director George Tenet, who has George Bush’s ear and does not favor war with Iraq. First Mr. Cheney placed his acolytes strategically throughout the administration: Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle in the Department of Defense and John Bolton in the State Department. Then he created his own intelligence committee of analysts to offset the influence of the CIA.

They came up with the story that al-Qaeda’s Mohammed Atta, a leader of the 9/11 attacks, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague. Both the CIA and the FBI knew it was not true because they had Mr. Atta in Florida at the time. Yet Mr. Cheney, knowing it was not true, repeated the story on television for the next two years.

The day the planes hit the World Trade Center, Mr. Cheney vowed to use “any means at our disposal” to “work the dark side.” This included rendition. Captured in Afghanistan, Sheikh al-Libby was shipped to Egypt, where he was tortured until he said Saddam had provided training in chemical weapons to al-Qaeda.

Mr. Tenet knew that an invasion of Iraq would ruin the counterterrorism program he had in place. It slowly became clear to him that he could fight Cheney, join the cabal, or retire. But he felt he had become Bush’s “friend.”

Meanwhile the White House planted a story -- later proven false -- with Judith Miller of The New York Times that Iraq had ordered aluminum tubes for centrifuges to enrich uranium, and National Security Advisor Condi Rice appeared on the Sunday CNN news show to say “aluminum tubes.” Cheney said “aluminum tubes,” and Rice said “mushroom cloud.”

The moral tragedy is that the CIA director’s main obligation was to speak the truth to power and Mr. Tenet didn’t have the gumption to do it. When he gave President Bush a report on weapons of mass destruction, the president looked at it and said, “Is this all we got?” Rather than say, “That’s all,” Mr. Tenet called it a “slam dunk.” Condi Rice knew too that the case was weak, but said nothing. Colin Powell gave a talk to the United Nations riddled with falsehoods.

Weapons inspector David Kay gives Mr. Tenet’s epitaph. “He wanted to be a player. He traded integrity for access.” When President Bush’s story of the alleged Niger uranium sale to Iraq in his State of the Union address proved false, President Bush blamed the CIA -- his signal to his pal Tenet to fall on his sword. Mr. Tenet’s reward: the Medal of Freedom. One wonders if he will ever display it with pride in his home.

The motto for good leaders is Edmund Burke’s dictum on what is necessary for evil to triumph. “Frontline” sharpens Burke’s focus to: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for men and women, who might under other circumstances be good, to compromise their integrity in order to bask briefly in the glow of power.”

What stands out after watching “Stuff Happens” and three shows of “Frontline”? Gratitude for writers who do the lonely work of telling the hard truth about our country’s leaders; anger that this ruling cabal could make its decisions as if the world was their chessboard, without a blink of a concern for the impact of their acts on real human beings; and a heart heavy with sadness for the countless dead.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

Related Web sites
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National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006

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