Did you think Bush is President?


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

The Cheney presidency
By Robert Kuttner  |  August 26, 2006

GEORGE W. BUSH has been faulted in some quarters for taking an extended vacation
while the Middle East festers. It doesn't much matter; the man running the 
country is Vice President Dick Cheney.

When historians look back on the multiple assaults on our constitutional system 
of government in this era, Cheney's unprecedented role will come in for overdue 
notice. Cheney's shotgun mishap, when he accidentally sprayed his host with 
birdshot, has gotten more media attention than has his control of the 

Historically, the vice president's job was to ceremonially preside over the 
Senate, attend second-tier foreign funerals, and be prepared for the president 
to die. Students are taught that John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt's first 
vice president, compared the job to a bucket of warm spit (and historians say 
spit was not the word the pungent Texan actually used).

Recent vice presidents Walter Mondale and Al Gore were given more authority than
most, but there was no doubt that the president was in charge.

Cheney is in a class by himself. The administration's grand strategy and its 
implementation are the work of Cheney-- sometimes Cheney and Defense Secretary 
Donald Rumsfeld, sometimes Cheney and political director Karl Rove.

Cheney has planted aides in major Cabinet departments, often over the objection 
of a Cabinet secretary, to make sure his policies are carried out. He sits in on
the Senate Republican caucus, to stamp out any rebellions. Cheney loyalists from
the Office of the Vice President dominate interagency planning meetings.

The Iraq war is the work of Cheney and Rumsfeld. The capture of the career civil
service is pure Cheney. The disciplining of Congress is the work of Cheney and 
Rove. The turning over of energy policy to the oil companies is Cheney. The 
extreme secrecy is Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

If Cheney were the president, more of this would be smoked out because the press
would be paying attention. The New York Times' acerbic columnist Maureen Dowd 
regularly makes sport of Cheney's dominance, and there are plenty of jokes (Bush
is a heartbeat away from the presidency). But you can count serious newspaper or
magazine articles on Cheney's operation on the fingers of one hand. One 
exceptional example is Jane Mayer's piece in the July 3 New Yorker on Cheney 
operative David Addington .

Cheney's power is matched only by his penchant for secrecy. When my colleague at
the American Prospect, Robert Dreyfuss, requested the names of people who serve 
on the vice president's staff, he was told this was classified information. 
Former staffers for other departments provided Dreyfuss with names.

So secretive is Cheney (and so incurious the media) that when his chief of 
staff, Irving Lewis Libby, was implicated in the leaked identity of CIA agent 
Valerie Plame Wilson, reporters who rushed to look Libby up on Nexis and Google 
found that Libby had barely rated previous press attention.

Why does this matter? Because if the man actually running the government is out 
of the spotlight, the administration and its policies are far less accountable.

When George W. Bush narrowly defeated John Kerry in 2004, many commentators 
observed that Bush was the fellow with whom you would rather have a beer. It's 
an accurate and unflattering comment on the American electorate -- but then who 
wants to have a beer with Cheney? The public may not know the details of his 
operation, but voters intuitively recoil from him.

Bush's popularity ratings are now under 40 percent, beer or no, reflecting 
dwindling confidence in where he is taking the country. But Cheney's ratings are
stuck around 20 percent, far below that of any president.

If Cheney were the actual president, not just the de facto one, he simply could 
not govern with the same set of policies and approval ratings of 20 percent. The
media focuses relentless attention on the president, on the premise that he is 
actually the chief executive. But for all intents and purposes, Cheney is chief,
and Bush is more in the ceremonial role of the queen of England.

Yet the press buys the pretense of Bush being ``the decider," and relentlessly 
covers Bush -- meeting with world leaders, cutting brush, holding press 
conferences, while Cheney works in secret, largely undisturbed. So let's take 
half the members of the overblown White House press corps, which has almost 
nothing to do anyway, and send them over to Cheney Boot Camp for Reporters. They
might learn how to be journalists again, and we might learn who is running the 

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears 
regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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