Victor Davis Hanson Reviews Cheney Memoirs
I believe I’ve now read most of the leading reviews of Cheney’s memoirs, though I am only partway through In My Time. (Lawfare’s Rafaella Wakeman provides a helpful roundup of the reviews.) Of the reviews, though appearing after Rafaella’s roundup (so not included there), Victor Davis Hanson’s is the most interesting and worth reading (it is posted over at the Hoover Institution’s always interesting Defining Ideas website).
This is in large part, I think, because the mostly critical reviewers knew in advance they were preaching to a friendly audience, and don’t seem to have felt much obligation other than simply to repeat opinions from past years, rather than actually engage with the memoir on its own terms (call me cynical, but as a long-time book reviewer, let’s say I’m not persuaded that all the reviewers have read more than a few of the most controversial chapters of the book — lightly). Hanson, by contrast, is defending Cheney, and reads the memoir more sympathetically but also far more closely. In the end, agree or disagree either with Hanson or with Cheney, as reviews go, it is much more astute in comparing the Dick Cheney pre-9/11 with Dick Cheney post-9/11 than the rest I have read. Whether you think it’s right or not, of the pundit commentary on Cheney’s memoir, this is the one to reckon with.
Cheney, as is the habit of nearly all prominent statesmen, has written an apologia pro vita sua covering some forty years of public service. Most of his narrative is a workmanlike account of working for Presidents Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, and serving in Congress for a decade. A few oddities arise—there is far less detail about George W. Bush or the background politics surrounding the Wall Street crisis of September 2008 than one might expect given Cheney’s tumultuous eight years of service following 9/11. More importantly, anyone who completes this 565-page memoir would have liked to have fathomed the inexplicable mystery of Cheney’s life: How exactly had a once beloved public servant—a soft-spoken conservative who worked with Gerald Ford to defeat rival Ronald Reagan—been reduced to demonic status during the furor that erupted after 9/11?
Cheney, remember, before 2001 was praised for his sobriety, his close congressional friends of both parties, his intimate ties to the centrist Bush family, and his unease with partisan rancor. By 2000 he had achieved “Wise Man” status even in the liberal media. As a presidential chief of staff, defense secretary, and influential congressman, Cheney was the Odyssean fixer, a multi-talented consigliore who said little, but was usually relied upon to solve crises and calm the waters. No doubt the Bush I circle wanted Cheney as vice president on the ticket in 2000 to curb the natural exuberances of the then-youthful and supposedly impulsive George W. Bush. Yet by 2008, Cheney was routinely defamed in the major papers as a ‘war criminal’ and ‘traitor,’ and his own approval ratings sunk below even those of George W. Bush.
(Tangential: Someone asked by email whether I have read all the books I’ve reviewed in my career (per my snooty comment above). Fair question – to which I can answer, yes! Which is one reason I never reviewed the Customary Law Study – I insisted on reading the entire thing, which took me two years, and by then I was too exhausted to write a word about it. I probably should have a different rule for approaching dictionaries and encyclopedias, and were I to do it again, I would “lightly skim” parts. The sections that really merited a serious debate over method and conclusions did not benefit from reading the whole thing.)