When the president does it that means that it is not illegal ““ Richard M. Nixon
It made few headlines when Dick Cheney, in the last days of his vice-presidency, dismissed as a caricature the idea that he was “a Darth Vader type-personality”. He told a radio interviewer: “I think all of that’s been pretty dramatically overdone. I’m actually a warm, lovable sort.” The correction, however sincerely intended, is unlikely to take. Americans, not often accused of subtlety, prefer their villains with black moustaches and black stovepipe hats and over the last eight years Cheney – gruff, taciturn, with that distinctively downward curving lip – has been the perfect public image of an administration fighting a “war on terror” by operating, in Cheney’s imperishable words, “on the dark side”.
Warrantless wiretaps, extraordinary renditions, waterboarding and other techniques of “enhanced interrogation” otherwise known as torture: all these the vice-president has championed – continues to champion – zealously and unrepentantly. He has embodied, indeed insisted upon, moral clarity in a dark time.
Americans have known about torture for four years or more, and about warrantless wiretapping for at least three, but have done almost nothing to stop it. Indeed, Darth Vader, Vice, and all the other monikers pinned on the vice-president by popular culture signal a rather tawdry public moral compromise: Americans agreed to make Cheney their villain while largely accepting his policies.
He embodies a debate over presidential power that has been going on for four decades. In the 1970s, Cheney was already occupying senior positions in the Nixon and Ford White Houses – including, at the age of 34, White House chief of staff. As war destroyed one president and hobbled a second it was Cheney who stood among the ruins of presidential power, and it is no accident that when in late 2005 the Bush administration’s wiretapping programme was revealed, the vice-president pointed immediately back to that dark time: “Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area.”
What were those “things around Watergate”? Every American of a certain age would recall the Church and Pike committees, which revealed to public scrutiny the CIA’s assassinations and other covert programmes, as well as the laws drafted to make such acts illegal, including the foreign intelligence surveillance act (FISA) requiring a warrant for wiretapping American citizens. It is likely, in the heady days after 9/11, that Congress would have supported revision of FISA, had the administration only asked. But Cheney and his colleagues chose not to. “I believe in a strong, robust executive authority,” he said in 2005, “and I think that the world we live in demands it.” He didn’t want the law revised. He wanted to establish the principle that the president had the power to ignore it.
It is a sad fact of our time that the American people, by their actions if not their words, have pretty much agreed with him. With Darth Vader’s departure from the scene, those words are bound to grow more heated and censorious. In place of corrective action, which takes courage, we draw pleasure from pleasure in outrage and the moral certainty it expresses. Still, we might pause from time to time and recall what an earlier president said of a particularly loathsome dictator and American ally: “He may be a son of a bitch. But he’s our son of a bitch.”