Victor Davis Hanson Reviews Cheney Memoirs

by Kenneth Anderson

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.)

7 Responses

  1. Only Victor David Hansen could describe calling Cheney a war criminal as “defamation.”  Cheney admitted to being involved in the waterboarding program.  Waterboarding is torture.  Torture is a war crime.  Cheney, therefore, is a war criminal.  QED.

  2. Torturing people will do that to your reputation. 

    Ali Soufan’s recent interview are absolutely devastating to Cheney and many others.

    Here is a commentary I wrote over at SALT on Ali Soufan’s 9/11 interview on 60 minutes.

    Here is a commentary I wrote over at SALT on Ali Soufan’s 9/13 interview on PBS Frontlines.

    I declined to read Cheney’s book. The interviews on television of him were quite enough.


  3. The link to the 60 minute interview of Ali Soufan is now up and it is riveting.  It is here –;storyMediaBox

    Cheney in his interviews was so chummy with Rumsfeld.  Two civil suits are going forward against Rumsfeld by American citizens.  Here is a piece about State Criminal Prosecution of Rumsfeld that might apply as well to Cheney if his fingers are in the torture in those cases. 

  4. Anyone who knew anything about Cheney knew he was not some soft-spoken moderate Republican before 9/11.  He was always a hard-nosed conservative — most memorably when he was the sole vote in the House against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.  When he selected himself to be Bush’s running mate, it was evident what direction a Bush administration would take, as it did.

  5. I’ll reckon with the excerpt posted here. First, it characterizes the book in fairly lackluster terms: a common apologia, workmanlike, missing expected details… Not off to a good start. Second, the excerpt and the review are primarily profiles of the author, not accounts of the book, which must be read between the lines and for its subtext, so claims Hanson in the full review. Third, the “wise man” comment was Ari Fleischer’s, not the liberal media’s. Prior to his selection as Bush’s running mate, Cheney was typically recognized in plain terms by, e.g., the New York Times, for his experience in politics. In July of 2000, while Bush was making up his mind, Richard Berke wrote for the Times, “[A]dvisers to Gov. George W. Bush of Texas say he seems to be steering clear of the glamour and gloss–and more toward the safe and solid…. [A] leading choice, his advisers say, is Richard B. Cheney. Mr. Cheney is a respected but hardly electrifying former defense secretary and former congressman who is orchestrating the search for a running mate.”
    Safe, solid, respected, hardly electrifying. These may be admirable qualities, along the lines of the sobriety Hanson praises, and they were given due respect by the so-called liberal media, but they don’t rise to the level of wisdom.
    The upshot of Hanson’s piece, which purports at the outset to demonstrate that early reviews of the book have gotten it wrong, is anti-climactic and a non-sequitur.  He concludes merely that Vice President Cheney was “more interesting” than his earlier, safer, and more solid persona. I doubt anybody would dispute that.

  6. Response…
    Yes, Ben, and don’t forget my Jurist oped

  7. I love it how Davidson attempts to treat what are thoughtful critical reviews, with institutionally and normatively grounded context (excluding Dowd), as some kind of phoned in, limp-wristed effort only made possible by the undemanding nature of liberal audiences. Yet Hanson’s self-evidently disingenuous piece is treated as serious because it pushes the true accounting of Cheney’s self-serving claims on a number of serious issues into a far off safe place in the future. Incidentally, that’s exactly the same tired temporally displaced apologia they use for the whole Iraq war and GWB’s presidency lacking any means of fighting the exact judgement.

    Hanson makes much of Cheney’s right to wrap knuckles according to tribal mores of the conservative movement. For example, the article can’t resist highlighting Colin Powell’s ostensible betrayal of his party and his ‘friend’ McCain to a *OMG* Liberal as if that had anything to do with his judgement or the substance of his dissent from the administration.
    Also, for the record, Cheney has never been known as a centrist by anyone with half a brain. In addition to what others have said above, he was famous for his aggressive views on presidential power well before the GWB administration, and that god-awful minority report whitewashing Iran Contra. Moderate? Please.
    Hanson also uses a smoke and mirrors argument around Congressional authorisation to deflect from the gaping legitimacy hole created by the absence of an al Qaeda connection or WMD with Iraq under the Baath Party. The pithy claim that these bases have never been refuted sounds superficially triumphant but in reality it rings entirely hollow. Even under the incredibly permissive standard of the delegated model of UN Security Council Chapter VII authority – which is not widely supported — it was ONLY the claims of hundred of tonnes of chemical agents, precursors, aluminium tubes for centrifuge, yellowcake uranium from Niger, mobile labs and links to al Qaeda that provided sufficient grounds under international law to constitute a threat to international peace and security that could be cured only through regime change. The suggestion otherwise that WMD were simply an optional argument, in addition to being dishonest about the pivotal role they played in securing public and media support for the war, are simply an incoherent form of revisionism ignorant of public international law. The US Congress can authorise a war for whatever reason it likes, but it can’t make that law legal under international law, still-less-so an enforcement action under UNSC resolutions.

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