The vice presidential memoir is not a celebrated literary genre. Not a soul alive remembers Spiro Agnew’s crackpot assertions in “Go Quietly ... or Else” or even one passage from Dan Quayle’s “Standing Firm.” And despite all the hoopla around Dick Cheney’s memoir, including Condoleezza Rice’s assertion to Reuters that Cheney mounted an “attack on my integrity,” “In My Time” is a dud.
Some Washington memoirs are dull yet important. This book is merely dull.
Cheney has great material, of course. It goes to waste. He trots out an old-hat recitation about how Team Bush thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, only to discover later that there weren’t. The man who seemed to revel in being compared to Darth Vader and who was the most forceful advocate for what he euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques” doesn’t even try to make a thoughtful, developed case for torture.
Most of this volume follows Cheney’s passage, well known, through the corridors of power, providing a serviceable history of the Nixon-Ford years and the Reagan-Bush ascendancy. But who today cares about how or why James Schlesinger was fired as secretary of defense or how a hoarse Gerald Ford asked Cheney to deliver his concession remarks to Jimmy Carter?
Indeed, the reader has the inescapable feeling that this memoir is crammed with the p’s (platitudes) and q’s (quotidian episodes of Washington life) not so much to add ballast to the book as to fill it out so Cheney doesn’t have to linger on his vice presidency. His observations about Abscam? Spare me.
Running With Bush
Yet George W. Bush’s selection of Cheney as his running mate was one of the true hinges of history. Cheney soon realized he was the only person in the White House “the president couldn’t fire” -- a fateful epiphany.
The book is studded with stultifying vice-presidential boilerplate about the pre-eminence of the president; in Cheney’s telling, he stood in the president’s shadow rather than casting his own shadow or prowling the capital as a shadowy figure. Yet he did tell NBC News’s Tim Russert, “We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world” -- one of the understatements of the decade.
True, we are confirmed in the notion that it was on Cheney’s initiative that the order went out to shoot down hijacked airliners on Sept. 11, 2001.
“If it looks threatening, take it out,” he said, after discussions with the president. The 9/11 commission later learned the order wasn’t passed along to all the fighter pilots.
He discloses that sometimes the “undisclosed location” where he was hidden was actually his home. Plus we learn that his too-bumptious dog Dave was banned from the main lodge at Camp David.
This book has a few elements of second guessing (directed at President Barack Obama) and very few second thoughts (the Bush administration underestimated the changes going on in Turkey and didn’t grasp the sense of betrayal among the Shia in Iraq after the U.S. abandoned them following the Gulf War).
Cheney does assert that Rice “made a major mistake” in the inscrutable Niger yellowcake episode; says the same about Bush when he failed to pardon Scooter Libby; and criticizes Colin Powell for dining out on an opposition to the Iraq war that he never shared when it mattered.
The abuses at Abu Ghraib? He calls them the acts of a “relatively small group,” which is true but not the point.
The most revealing part of “In My Time” is the part that’s usually the least interesting in political memoirs, the de rigueur, once-over-lightly treatment of the early years.
Child of Democrats
Here Cheney brings a sense of reflection, irony and humanity that are missing in what might otherwise be the juicy stuff. We learn that this child of Democrats was born in a hospital named for the prairie radical William Jennings Bryan, delivered the local paper, played ball and fell in love with a pretty girl named Lynne who was a champion baton twirler.
But he was Dick Cheney, not the Ragged Dick of the hard-luck-and-pluck Horatio Alger stories. We see him being thrown out of Yale twice because the dean didn’t think much of his taste for beer and then arrested twice because the police didn’t approve of his driving under the influence of bourbon. Interesting stuff; this is perhaps the only memoir in political history that actually goes downhill after college.
Dick, we hardly knew ye, and this book doesn’t much help.
“In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir,” written with Liz Cheney, is published by Threshold Editions (565 pages, $35). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)