The Imperial Vice-Presidency

Starting yesterday, the Washington Post began running a four-part series on the Vice-Presidency of Dick Cheney, during which we have seen the role of the Vice-President increase in behind-the-scenes power to an extent never before seen in American history. The first two articles have focused on Cheney’s role in the War in Iraq and the War on Terror and they have been, to say the least, revealing:

Yesterday, for example, we learned the extent to which Cheney has created a back channel to the President that allows him to bypass most of the President’s senior advisers and cabinet members when he wants to promote his agenda:

Just past the Oval Office, in the private dining room overlooking the South Lawn, Vice President Cheney joined President Bush at a round parquet table they shared once a week. Cheney brought a four-page text, written in strict secrecy by his lawyer. He carried it back out with him after lunch.

In less than an hour, the document traversed a West Wing circuit that gave its words the power of command. It changed hands four times, according to witnesses, with emphatic instructions to bypass staff review. When it returned to the Oval Office, in a blue portfolio embossed with the presidential seal, Bush pulled a felt-tip pen from his pocket and signed without sitting down. Almost no one else had seen the text.

Cheney’s proposal had become a military order from the commander in chief. Foreign terrorism suspects held by the United States were stripped of access to any court — civilian or military, domestic or foreign. They could be confined indefinitely without charges and would be tried, if at all, in closed “military commissions.”

“What the hell just happened?” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell demanded, a witness said, when CNN announced the order that evening, Nov. 13, 2001. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, incensed, sent an aide to find out. Even witnesses to the Oval Office signing said they did not know the vice president had played any part.

The episode was a defining moment in Cheney’s tenure as the 46th vice president of the United States, a post the Constitution left all but devoid of formal authority. “Angler,” as the Secret Service code-named him, has approached the levers of power obliquely, skirting orderly lines of debate he once enforced as chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford. He has battled a bureaucracy he saw as hostile, using intimate knowledge of its terrain. He has empowered aides to fight above their rank, taking on roles reserved in other times for a White House counsel or national security adviser. And he has found a ready patron in George W. Bush for edge-of-the-envelope views on executive supremacy that previous presidents did not assert.

What is even more interesting is this exchange between former Vice-President Dan Quayle and Cheney shortly after Inauguration Day in 2001:

“I said, ‘Dick, you know, you’re going to be doing a lot of this international traveling, you’re going to be doing all this political fundraising . . . you’ll be going to the funerals,’ ” Quayle said in an interview earlier this year. “I mean, this is what vice presidents do. I said, ‘We’ve all done it.’ ”

Cheney “got that little smile,” Quayle said, and replied, “I have a different understanding with the president.”

“He had the understanding with President Bush that he would be — I’m just going to use the word ‘surrogate chief of staff,’ ” said Quayle, whose membership on the Defense Policy Board gave him regular occasion to see Cheney privately over the following four years.

The obvious implication of that statement, of course, is that Cheney had an agreement with Bush in 2000 when he agreed to stand as the VP running mate. What the details of that agreement are is unclear, but that manner in which Cheney has acted as Vice President give the implication that Cheney asked for, and received, a much greater role in Administration policy making than any Vice-President had ever had. The last time anything resembling that happened was in 1980 when Gerald Ford put similar conditions on becoming Ronald Reagan’s running mate. Reagan, of course, turned down the offer.

The biggest Cheney’s assertion of Vice-Presidential power isn’t so much that it was done —- the Constitution is silent on the powers of the Vice-President and, if the President chooses to grant him authority, that would seem to be his right —- but the fact that much of it was done in secret. Take, for example, the controversial torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay:

Three days after the Ashcroft meeting, Cheney brought the order for military commissions to Bush. No one told Bellinger, Rice or Powell, who continued to think that Prosper’s working group was at the helm.

After leaving Bush’s private dining room, the vice president took no chances on a last-minute objection. He sent the order on a swift path to execution that left no sign of his role. After Addington and Flanigan, the text passed to Berenson, the associate White House counsel. Cheney’s link to the document broke there: Berenson was not told of its provenance.

Berenson rushed the order to deputy staff secretary Stuart W. Bowen Jr., bearing instructions to prepare it for signature immediately – without advance distribution to the president’s top advisers. Bowen objected, he told colleagues later, saying he had handled thousands of presidential documents without ever bypassing strict procedures of coordination and review. He relented, one White House official said, only after “rapid, urgent persuasion” that Bush was standing by to sign and that the order was too sensitive to delay.

After reading something like this, it becomes clear why the rush to John Ashcroft’s hospital bed in early 2004 was such a big deal. When you’re dealing with people who act in secret without impunity, a scene directly out of The Godfather isn’t implausible at all.

One of the most serious problems with the Bush Administration has been the extent to which it acts in secret, and in ways that allow it to evade the technicalities of the law (by, say, using RNC email to discuss government business so it doesn’t get saved on the White House server). Now it’s clear where the inspiration for much of that secrecy comes from.