Across the great divide, Part Three

At TPMCafe, I have explained what is probably my main criticism of Angler, Barton Gellman’s book about the Cheney vice presidency. There’s plenty to like about the book, but here I focus on what I see as a flaw:

One of my main complaints has to do with the portrayal of official Washington. That, of course, is the setting of the events Bart describes. It seems to me, then, that one cannot fully understand the Cheney vice presidency without a fair account of Washington and its bureaucracy.

I don’t think Bart provides one. In the Washington of Angler, the only pairs of sharp elbows appear to belong to the vice president and his counsel, David Addington. Everyone else plays “fair,” never seeking an edge for the purpose of advancing an agenda.

There are no snakes outside of the vice president’s office, not even Richard Armitage. Indeed, no one outside of that very small circle would even think of cutting an adversary out of the loop, or of letting their stated expert or scientific views be influenced by an agenda. It is inconceivable, for example, that CIA officials would, for the purpose of limiting the administration’s policy options, conclude that Iran halted its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons (a position that, to my knowledge, even the leading Democratic presidential candidates took no heed of during the campaign). Nor would anyone adopt one view of the prerogatives of an office when he holds it and another view when he holds a competing job. There may not even be such a thing as a “competing job” in this harmonious village.

In such a Washington, it becomes more than plausible to say, as Jacob Heilbrunn does, that Cheney operates on a different planet.

Bart does not assert the existence of the “Potemkin Washington” I’ve just described. If he did, his book would lack credibility and thus would not work as a “brief.” Instead, like a good lawyer, he simply ignores, by and large, the existence of what I take to be the real Washington. I may be overlooking something, but I don’t recall anyone in Angler, other than Cheney or Addington, playing “hardball” until somewhere around page 300. At that point Jack Goldsmith and James Comey finally do, but purely as a last resort in response to several years of vice presidential skullduggery.

Bart did not invent the Washington of Angler. That town will be familiar to readers of the Washington Post, at least during Republican administrations, although the Post extends the circle of the “long knives” beyond the vice president’s shop.

But I’ve lived in Washington for more than 50 years, including six spent working for the federal government at three agencies, and I do not recognize the Washington that Angler, by omission, depicts. In the summer of 1972, my job at the old Department of HEW (now HHS) was to develop data showing that a program favored by the president wouldn’t work. As a government civil rights lawyer later in that decade, nearly everyone I worked with viewed his or her role as pushing laws protecting women and minorities as far as they could be pushed, not as attempting to determine the correct interpretation of the law and pushing for that position.

I doubt that the Cheney vice presidency can fully be understood outside the context of this Washington.

Some, including Bart perhaps, will consider “paranoid” the view that career bureaucrats and presidential appointees and staffers sometimes act in bad faith or with excessive caution. But it seems clear that some of what Cheney did was informed by this view (I know this is true of certain Cheney’s allies in the administration). Thus, in my opinion, any account of his vice presidency should address this view far more comprehensively than Bart does.

Bart responded to this criticism here. And this is what he said about my prior critique. Jacob Heilbrunn offers some thoughtful comments about the argument (he calls it a “fight”) I’m having with Bart.

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