What’s it like to wear Dick Cheney’s glasses? Well, they might be transition lenses because everything looks a little darker. In case you missed it, Showtime has released a new documentary called The World According to Dick Cheney, in which the former vice president opened his cold, transplanted heart for the Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, R. J. Cutler. Cheney talked about his life in the political sphere, from his early days of drunk-driving in Casper, Wyoming, to twice failing out of Yale University, to eventually going to work for a young Donald Rumsfeld in the Nixon administration. Cheney has held a high-ranking position in nearly every republican administration since Tricky Dick, culminating in his nomination for vice president in 2000. It’s about time someone made a documentary about the “most powerful vice president in history.”
The movie begins with Cheney responding to a Proust Questionnaire—favorite virtue: integrity; favorite food: spaghetti. Cheney is asked to name his main fault: “Well, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults, I guess would be the answer.” There’s your thesis statement.
Surprisingly, for the majority of the film, Dick Cheney does not come off as a power-hungry crypto-fascist. Instead of Darth Vader, we get grandpa’s reflections of an extraordinary life from humble beginnings. Born in Nebraska to life-long democrats, Cheney’s formidable years were spent playing football and drinking Coors beer, a brand he loved so dearly that for a spell he was a Coors employee. Coors was instrumental in his failing out of Yale, after which he returned to Casper and dabbled in manual labor. Cheney then had the sobering experience of getting two DUIs in a matter of months. Threatened with separation from his high school sweetheart, Lynne Vincent, he went back to school to study politics. It was in reaction to the lively anti-Vietnam War protests at the University of Wisconsin that Cheney found himself moving more to the political right.
Cheney got his start in politics working for Donald Rumsfeld, who would act as a sort of mentor until Cheney was elected to serve Wyoming in the House of Representatives in 1978. He then served as Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush from 1989 until Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992. He left the political sphere for a quiet life as CEO of Halliburton, a multi-billion dollar oil corporation.
In 2000, George Bush Jr. asked Cheney to head his search for a vice-presidential candidate. Cheney set up a grueling vetting process, in which, after exhausting all possibilities, Bush eventually asked Cheney to join the ticket. Cheney agreed on the condition that he would have an influential position in the administration, not just to act as a slot filler. Also, he would not be subjected to the taxing vetting process of background checks and medical records demanded of earlier candidates.
Whilst the hands were busy sorting through dimpled chads in Florida, Cheney was already at work selecting Bush’s council of ministers, filling the cabinet with friends and like-minded individuals such as Rumsfeld.
Cheney said, “Watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.” September 11, 2001 was a turning point for Dick Cheney, one that set the tone for his duties. The general feeling in the Bush Administration was that the worst attacks were still on the way. Preventing further attacks took precedence over consulting with congress or the constitution. On the issue of “enhanced interrogation” of “enemy combatants,” including water-boarding and other forms of torture, Cheney defended himself by posing the question, “Are you going to trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your honor?” Suddenly Cheney appears as a man of respectfully disagreeable ethical positions; Dick Cheney with a human face. He gives a similar apologia for provisions like the PATRIOT Act, which is criticized as a gross infringement on basic civil liberties. “It was a war time situation and it was more important to be successful than it was to be loved,” Cheney says (later adding, “If you want to be loved, go be a movie star”).
Up to this point, Cheney doesn’t fare all that badly. We may strongly disagree with him, but at least we have a better understanding of what besides his pacemaker makes him tick. For the rest of the film, Cheney appears in an increasingly unflattering light. His political skill turns to trickery and deception, such as sharing fabricated facts with congressional leaders about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability in hopes of a “yay” vote for war. He offers no apologies, not even regrets. Still, that’s another thing that makes this documentary so fascinating. Bluntly, he says, “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it again in a minute.”
The World According to Dick Cheney is a must-see for anyone who remembers eight years of Bush/Cheney, no matter what your nostalgic campaign bumper sticker says. (For a more in-depth analysis of Cheney, check out Barton Gellman’s best-selling book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.)