In 2001 I served on President George W. Bush’s senior White House staff. As a student of American government, it struck me as odd that several “assistants to the president” reported directly to Vice-President Dick Cheney, and odder still that no matter what the issue, lower-level Cheney staff weighed in on West Wing policymaking.
Odd, but what the Gettysburg College political scientist Shirley Anne Warshaw describes as the first-ever “White House staff fully integrated between the president’s office and the vice president’s office” did not strike me at the time as improper or nefarious.
But if Warshaw is even half-right, what I witnessed should have made me wince: a constitutionally suspect “co-presidency,” with Bush as “the public face of the administration” and Cheney driving “economic, energy, and national security policy” and working “to expand the power of the presidency.”
“Must read” is a book-seller’s bark, but Warshaw’s new book, The Co-Presidency of Bush and Cheney (Stanford Univ. Press), is a must-read for all, including morally self-aware, civic-minded Catholics of whatever partisan or ideological leanings. For it was, she argues, Cheney’s “failed policy after failed policy” that “destroyed the presidency of George W. Bush.”
Here is a sample of the evidence Warshaw musters for her co-presidency thesis:
• Cheney belittled Bush’s qualifications except as (in Cheney’s own words) “the guy who went out and put his name on the ballot.”
• Cheney suffered Bush’s religiously-rooted “compassionate conservatism” so long as it did not result in more federal support for the urban poor.
• Cheney deep-sixed “support for legislative action on faith-based initiatives, for fear that they would jeopardize political capital” for tax cuts. (Warshaw footnotes this example not to me but to her interview with Bush’s first chief legislative liaison, Nick Calio.)
• Cheney let Rove, no fan of Cheney’s, handle “compassion” and party politicking, uniting their two camps after 9/11 when the “war on terror” suddenly became both Cheney’s number one policy issue and Rove’s number one campaign issue.
• Cheney used his loyalists to control the “Bush” personnel selection process, which Bush “rubber-stamped” on cabinet secretaries, thousands of agency political appointments, senior and junior White House aides, and judicial appointments.
• On 9/11, Cheney, not Bush, ran the federal response from his East Wing bunker, giving the order to shoot down planes that might be cruising for population centers—a prelude to the “Cheney-dominated Department of Homeland Security” and Cheney’s firm grip, into 2006, on Iraq war decision-making.
• Cheney drove “Bush’s” broad claims of executive authority, using the White House Office of Legislative Affairs to decide which bills “were ready for the president to sign or veto.”
Warshaw characterizes Cheney’s co-presidency as a “shadow government”: Cheney filled Bush’s pervasive “policy vacuums” and “had the staff, the connections, and the institutional resources to move forward on his own policy agenda.”
The one gaping hole in Warshaw’s account is the Hurricane Katrina saga. The White House fiddled as New Orleans flooded, never fully activating nearby military bases or rushing other federal resources to the scene. The infamous Federal Emer-gency Management Agency, then led by Michael (“You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie!”) Brown, reported to the ostensibly “Cheney-dominated” Homeland Security Department’s Cheney-picked chiefs.
Yet Warshaw devotes only three pages to the Katrina saga and places Cheney nowhere near the criminally slow, morally callous Katrina decision-making action. Maybe other scholars, journalists or West Wing staff will learn that Cheney did weigh in here as usual, but the co-presidency thesis will have a huge question mark over its head unless and until they do.
Regardless, Warshaw is clear that the co-presidency is no permanent institutional fixture: “The Obama administration in particular will check the role of the vice president.” It has; and, whatever one’s feelings toward Joe Biden, he is surely no Dick Cheney.