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What Vice Gets Wrong About Dick Cheney’s Politics
Vice, the lively Dick Cheney biopic that racked up eight Oscar nominations this week, certainly has its virtues. In this era of ill-advised Bush nostalgia, writer-director Adam McKay’s ambition to chronicle the misdeeds of the most powerful and villainous vice president that the nation has ever seen provides a much needed dose of historical perspective. Building upon the infotainment model that he pioneered with The Big Short, McKay uses extensive voiceovers, playful editing, and fourth wall-breaking sketches to shine a light on Cheney’s covert role in the horrors of the War on Terror and the Iraq War—and remind the public that great darkness can lie beneath the appearance of civility.
But Vice’s research-packed portrait has one big, gaping hole in it. Despite Christian Bale’s spellbinding impression of Cheney (in which he captures his crooked smile and his growling diction with eerie precision), there is simply no insight into the man’s mind or heart. The viewer is given little to work with in understanding what fueled the rise and the work of Bush’s ventriloquist—and the little that is offered is deeply misleading.
Vice portrays Cheney’s long ascent—from congressional fellow to Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff to Wyoming congressman to George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense to W.’s veep—through the prism of what could be called the House of Cards theory of politics. Cheney and his inner crew are power-obsessed, profit-hungry climbers with no values other than a commitment to advancing their self-interest. McKay has said as much in discussion of his film, describing Cheney as bereft of an “operating belief system.” One of Vice’s few attempts to probe at his inner life is its overt suggestion that his lifelong struggle with heart disease is a metaphor for his heartlessness. Put it all together, and Cheney’s story is apparently that of a cold man whose calling was simply to endlessly accumulate personal power.
But in reality, Cheney was deeply conservative, and driven throughout his career by an ideological mission to protect traditional American life and empire from its challengers. He despised ’60s counterculture, toiled to dismantle the welfare state, always played the hawk, and commissioned a strategy document in the 1990s that plainly predicted the Iraq War. This ideology underpinned Cheney’s quiet crusade for state-backed Islamophobia and endless war under Bush.
This isn’t pedantry. A deeper reckoning with Cheney’s ideology would’ve not only made for better history, it also would have improved the political and artistic sophistication of the film. It would have imposed coherence and purpose on Vice’s tedious and sometimes-confusing catalogue of Cheney hijinks and allowed viewers to absorb and critique the true meaning of the Bush era. It wasn’t Cheney’s dexterity as a tactician, but rather his draconian vision for what the world should look like, that should linger for the viewer. Ironically, in its failure to get that, Vice reproduces the kind of misdirection that Cheney pulled on the American public.
Vice reproduces the kind of misdirection that Cheney pulled on the American public.
The first major point at which Vice leaders the viewer astray on Cheney’s worldview is in its depiction of when he first sees Donald Rumsfeld (played by Steve Carell), then a Congressman from Illinois, give a speech to the new cohort of congressional fellows of which Cheney is a part. Cheney is charmed by Rumsfeld’s rousing, misogynistic, and profanity-laced talk, and he decides on the spot that he’s a Republican simply because he’s so taken by Rumsfeld’s largely substance-free charisma.
But in his late 20s, Cheney was already a serious conservative. He developed an interest in studying war as a teenager, and when he attended Yale—which he flunked out of because he partied too hard—there was only one professor who stood out to him: H. Bradford Westerfield, an uber hawk who taught students in his Cold War class that the U.S. should assault communism wherever it emerged across the world. Cheney had also already worked in politics before arriving in Washington—and it was with Republicans. His first political internship at the Wyoming state legislature was paid for in part by the GOP (the party that dominated the state’s politics), and he went on to work for a Republican governor in Wisconsin. And as a grad student at the University of Wisconsin, he was dismayed by and opposed the actions of anti-Vietnam War protesters (an admission he made in his 2011 memoir, In My Time).
Another telling moment in Vice happens when Cheney asks Rumsfeld—at this point as Rumsfeld’s assistant at the Nixon White House—“What do we believe in?” Rumsfeld responds by laughing maniacally and then continuing to laugh even after he closes his office door in Cheney’s face. Not only is the implication that they believed in nothing incorrect—both men were devoted conservatives—it’s also also less interesting than reality. At that point, they were based in the Office of Economic Opportunity, an agency which was originally established as part of LBJ’s War on Poverty. Nixon had tasked them with undermining its programs, like free lawyers for the indigent, which were designed to help the most vulnerable members of society. Cheney wasn’t twiddling his thumbs waiting for the next rung on the ladder to free up; he was fully immersed in a war on the poor.
Time and time again, Vice presents Cheney as a technocratic careerist whose real beliefs were inscrutable or nonexistent. His bid for Congress in Wyoming is depicted as uninspired, a campaign born of his agenda to find some way to remain a Washington insider. While it’s true that Cheney was not winning elections based on charisma, his congressional record is evidence of dogged conservatism. His first ever campaign speech was an imperialistic war cry: he denounced the idea of giving Panama control of the Panama Canal—outflanking Gerald Ford, the former Republican president he had previously worked for, from the right. Over the course of his six terms in Congress, he received a 100% rating from the American Conservative Union, voting against federal funding for abortions in all cases (including rape and incest), against a resolution calling for South Africa to free Nelson Mandela, against the Equal Rights Amendment for women, against creating the Department of Education, and against gun bans so rudimentary that even the NRA didn’t oppose them.
In Vice’s telling, Cheney’s decision to go to war in Iraq seems to be motivated by his past as CEO of oil field service firm Halliburton and focus group polling that suggested that the War on Terror would be more politically palatable if the Bush administration were fighting a country instead of a shadowy terrorist network. But most evidence suggests that it was something else entirely: Cheney’s obsessive commitment to ensuring the U.S.’s global hegemony.
There were plenty of signs in the ’90s. As defense secretary under George H. W. Bush, Cheney was widely lauded for overseeing a smooth and swift operation in the Gulf War. But what slipped under the radar was that he aggressively counseled the president to go to war immediately when other options—such as delaying combat while using punitive sanctions—were available.
The most revealing moments, however, are tied to Cheney’s response to the collapse of the Soviet Union, a geopolitical development that immediately reshaped the global order by leaving the US as its sole superpower. Despite the U.S.’s newfound unrivaled supremacy, Cheney was extremely reluctant to cut back defense spending from Cold War levels. In the final year of the George H.W. Bush administration, he oversaw the creation of a Defense Planning Guidance which called for the US to “prevent the re-emergence of a new rival.” The word “prevent” is key; Cheney’s view was not just that the U.S. should protect itself from an imminent attack, but that it had a right to reshape the world to ensure no such threat could even come into being. In the late ’90s, Cheney joined a group of powerful neoconservatives in openly advocating for removing Saddam Hussein from power as part of this policy vision.
The 9/11 attacks did not radicalize Cheney; they simply gave him cover for institutionalizing his radical worldview. As acclaimed journalist Ron Suskind reported in The One Percent Doctrine—a book whose title derives from Cheney’s remarkable claim that a one-percent chance of terrorists getting their hands on WMDs should be treated as certainty—Iraq was invaded to “make an example” of Hussein as the U.S. attempted to re-establish its aura of invincibility. Cheney’s involvement in creating new regimes of torture, surveillance, and indefinite imprisonment were all justified to achieve that end as well.
It is not until the absolute final scene of the film that Cheney turns to the camera and offers a brief rationale for all the havoc he wrought. “I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done so that your loved ones could sleep peacefully at night,” he coldly states. The scene is far too little and far too late. By this point, Vice’s Cheney has dazzled the viewer with the spectacle of competence, and eclipsed the nightmares he brought to life.
Cheney’s darkest legacy is not his ability to manipulate people—it’s what he manipulated people for. For a short while, he convinced America to adopt his paranoia and rage, his obsession with safety at all costs, his neocolonial audacity to enter countries for no good reason and destroy them without apology. Vice was too busy admiring how he did it to remember what really matters.