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The Hubris of Dick Cheney

The Hubris of Dick Cheney

By Mark Salter - September 1, 2011

“I am as constant as the northern star,” Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar boasts to the men who conspired to kill him. “Of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.”

From such hubris great tragedies are made. But for cautious and colorless practitioners of 21st century American politics, false modesty is accepted as a necessary attribute, much more so than the authentic virtue. In such a crowd, Dick Cheney was born to stand out.

Cheney’s refusal to disguise his prideful confidence in his own judgment with the merest trace of manufactured humility and his impervious disregard for public opinion, contrary facts, or the arguments of his critics are rare and fascinating qualities in a profession where personality is usually an unholy collaboration between principal, pollster and media consultant -- and in which adversity can shake the resolve of the most ostentatiously steadfast. They made his vice presidency one of the more memorable in the history of the office and ensure that his just published memoir, “In My Time,” is as irresistible and provocative as the author wishes it to be.

But hubris is no less a tragic flaw because its expression is distinctive and undisguised. For all Dick Cheney’s obvious intelligence and imperturbable self-confidence, I think the country would have been better off if George W. Bush had chosen someone else to become the most influential vice president in U.S. history.

In a world as confounding and dangerous as ours, a man without doubts can be a danger, someone who learns too much from success -- and nothing from failure. In a democracy, where leaders are expected to pay attention to public opinion, a leader who regards his policies as too important to be modified or reconsidered to address public concerns will widen their failure. To be enthralled by your own strengths is to be blind to your flaws.

Cheney rightly praises President Bush’s decision in 2007 to change strategies in Iraq, over the objections of most Democrats and more than a few Republicans, as well as a majority of the public. The much-criticized “surge” of American troops there as part of a concerted counterinsurgency strategy ultimately proved successful. But for four years, Cheney went along with the “light footprint” strategy of his closest administration ally, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. The original Rumsfeld-Cheney policy was an under-resourced and poorly planned policy that cost the Bush administration public and congressional support for the war. Rumsfeld had no stronger defender than Cheney, and he resisted the surge until Bush showed him the door.

Cheney reveals open contempt for disagreement within the Justice Department to the administration’s post-9/11 plan to eavesdrop on American citizens, opposition that included the attorney general, deputy attorney general and FBI Director, and implicit contempt for the president (despite his repeated professions of admiration and loyalty) for acquiescing to their opposition. Cheney’s self-regard is unburdened by respect for the contrary opinions of others, even if they are better experienced to make a particular judgment than he is.

Cheney, for all his talents and accomplishments, was never a constitutional scholar. His chief legal counsel, David Addington, a man of similar views and personality, has opinions about the authority of the president that can be charitably be described as expansive. But Cheney would rather have had mass resignations at the Justice Department than defer to the concerns of civil libertarian worrywarts like John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller.

He criticizes my former employer, Sen. John McCain, for “losing his temper” and abruptly ending a meeting with Cheney about his legislation concerning the treatment of detainees. I can say with confidence that McCain neither lost his temper nor abruptly left the meeting. He listened to the vice president’s views, respectfully disagreed with them, and let Cheney know that the legislation would pass anyway. He had a good reason for this confidence: It passed the Senate by a vote of 90-9.

Cheney also criticizes his administration colleagues, chiefly Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, for airing in the press stories about internal disagreements within the administration. Cheney’s code of honor frowns on such indiscretion. Yet he had no compunction about airing them in his book, giving full expression to his disdain for colleagues with whom he, at one time or another, crossed swords. Powell, Condi Rice, Armitage, George Tenant and others are all criticized, even mocked, for failing to defer to the Cheney’s supposedly superior judgment.

Even if they were proved by subsequent events to be right, Cheney pulls no punches in condemning the impertinence of those who disagreed with him or the president, which goes to show that hubris can make even a very intelligent person a fool, and not really much of a hero, no matter how much they stand out among the lesser lights of their profession. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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