Vice presidents didn’t used to be controversial figures. In fact, the job was something of a booby prize, awarded to an also ran, a promising newcomer whose career the party deemed not quite ready for prime time, or as a reward to an elder statesman.
The main role of the vice president was largely to balance the presidential ticket in a campaign, either geographically or ideologically and, once in office, for the president to have somebody to send to those all-important state funerals and political fundraisers.
Al Gore became known as the first modern vice president to break that mold and to actually be influential on public policy matters. He had Clinton’s ear more than most modern vice presidents and was considered an anomaly.
Then came Dick Cheney and his co-presidency with Bush. You could say, with some understatement, that he certainly has pushed the envelope on the vice president’s role.
Here’s how Dan Quayle described his encounter with Cheney, in an article in today’s Washington Post, the first in a four-part series examining the Vice President's role in the Bush administation. Quayle's recollection highlights how very different the traditional vice presidential role used to be:
In his Park Avenue corner suite at Cerberus Global Investments, Dan Quayle recalled the moment he learned how much his old job had changed. Cheney had just taken the oath of office, and Quayle paid a visit to offer advice from one vice president to another.Indeed, since that fateful meeting, Cheney has pushed the boundaries so far that he’s becoming a threat to the Constitution and a danger to democracy.
"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
As today’s WaPo reports, Bush has signed all kinds of clandestine powers to his vice president, literally in the darkest secrecy.
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.And Cheney has resisted even in the most innocuous of subpoenas to testify about his role in anything. He has claimed executive privilege, and most recently even clashed with executive level agencies alternately claiming that even they have no jurisdiction because he is not part of the executive branch of government but is the president pro temp of the Senate. When it suits him, he cites separation of the various branches of government to keep from being accountable to any governmental branch. Basically, he’s putting himself and the office of vice president above the reach of the law.
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.
Stealth is among Cheney's most effective tools. Man-size Mosler safes, used elsewhere in government for classified secrets, store the workaday business of the office of the vice president. Even talking points for reporters are sometimes stamped "Treated As: Top Secret/SCI." Experts in and out of government said Cheney's office appears to have invented that designation, which alludes to "sensitive compartmented information," the most closely guarded category of government secrets. By adding the words "treated as," they said, Cheney seeks to protect unclassified work as though its disclosure would cause "exceptionally grave damage to national securityAnd here:
Across the board, the vice president's office goes to unusual lengths to avoid transparency. Cheney declines to disclose the names or even the size of his staff, generally releases no public calendar and ordered the Secret Service to destroy his visitor logs. His general counsel has asserted that "the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch," and is therefore exempt from rules governing either. Cheney is refusing to observe an executive order on the handling of national security secrets, and he proposed to abolish a federal office that insisted on auditing his compliance.And this:
In the usual business of interagency consultation, proposals and information flow into the vice president's office from around the government, but high-ranking White House officials said in interviews that almost nothing flows out. Close aides to Cheney describe a similar one-way valve inside the office, with information flowing up to the vice president but little or no reaction flowing down.
This cannot stand!
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, was astonished to learn that the draft gave the Justice Department no role in choosing which alleged terrorists would be tried in military commissions. Over Veterans Day weekend, on Nov. 10, he took his objections to the White House.
The attorney general found Cheney, not Bush, at the broad conference table in the Roosevelt Room. According to participants, Ashcroft said that he was the president's senior law enforcement officer, supervised the FBI and oversaw terrorism prosecutions nationwide. The Justice Department, he said, had to have a voice in the tribunal process. He was enraged to discover that Yoo, his subordinate, had recommended otherwise -- as part of a strategy to deny jurisdiction to U.S. courts.
Raising his voice, participants said, Ashcroft talked over Addington and brushed aside interjections from Cheney. "The thing I remember about it is how rude, there's no other word for it, the attorney general was to the vice president," said one of those in the room. Asked recently about the confrontation, Ashcroft replied curtly: "I'm just not prepared to comment on that."
In a republic with a democratically elected representative government, governed under a constitution, this is unacceptable behavior. No man is above the law. And certainly nobody – not the president or his vice president – should be allowed to wipe away, with the stroke of a pen, the most basic of human rights, the right to a trial. We are a nation of laws. That is our greatest legacy to the world. It's what every soldier, not just in Iraq, but in every war we've ever fought to defend democracy has fought for.
This vice president must not be allowed to subvert that legacy. Dick Cheney must be reined in. He must be held accountable to the American people and made to comply with the rule of the law or he must go.