Too often, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush are reduced to straw men in the national imagination: the former a Lucifer sent to Washington to subvert the government, the latter the second coming of Mr. Bean. Neither caricature, of course, tells the whole story.
As Bart Gellman demonstrates in Angler, the expansion of his Pulitzer-winning Washington Post expose, Dick Cheney doesn't care if he's seen as Satan or Siddhartha. The VP single-mindedly envisions himself as a public servant in the mold of Jack Nicholson's repulsive Marine colonel in A Few Good Men. If Cheney's a devil, in other words, he's the devil the public needs — and secretly wants. And the President Bush of The War Within — the latest in Bob Woodward's series of peeks inside the Bush White House — is no idiot. He's simply an oft-distracted (and disinterested) CEO with a penchant for self-comparison to Churchill and Lincoln.
In Angler, Cheney is, well, a pit bull — without lipstick. In addition to seizing the initiative to staff much of Bush's presidential Cabinet during the Florida recount (a task hitherto unheard of for vice presidents, even in normal electoral circumstances), Cheney built the pipes through which power and paper of the new Bush government would flow.
He did so by carefully staffing key positions with loyalists, bureaucrats who risked permanent career derailment if they didn't do the vice president's (or his proxy's) bidding. Ever the man who understood the levers, valves and, in Gellman's phrasing, the "pivot points" of government, Angler could just as easily have been called Plumber. If Cheney detected a clot in one part of the system he'd call an ally in another and create a (typically secret) backchannel to bypass the problem. That he was able to do this, Gellman shows, was not the result of an extended commune with the ghost of Nixon. Rather, Cheney simply knew the system better than everyone else.
The War Within focuses on an extended bout of inaction in the White House which, while interesting as a talking point, makes for a sometimes sluggish story. In Iraq, Bush and his advisers dithered, plagued by a decision-making process riddled alternately by gluts and shortages of information: "From the start," Woodward writes, "no one in the administration had control over the Iraq policy." It took a remarkably un-Cheney-like two years for Bush to diagnose failure and to choose another tack.
Woodward is skilled at drawing compelling statements from A-list sources, and these provide much of the enjoyment of The War Within. Former CentCom commander, Admiral William J. "Fox" Fallon, oversaw all U.S. forces in the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of Africa. In 2007, essentially summarizing the book's first 300 pages, Fallon told Woodward, "Nobody's doing strategic thinking. They're all tying their shoes. Now I understand where we are. We ought to be shot for this."
Washington-centric books both, The War Within and Angler revel in portraying political intricacies — with varying degrees of success. Sprawling in scope, Woodward's effort can at times read like an overstuffed Washington thriller that's had its thrill replaced by theory. War Within's version of a Mexican standoff generally involves dueling reports by, say, an National Security Council staffer and a Department of Defense deputy. Still, as the fourth movement of Woodward's George W. Bush suite, The War Within is a satisfying capper. The veteran journalist's closing summation of the 43rd president's term is authoritative, and his understated denunciation of No. 43 feels valid and sober. "A president's shortcomings are visited upon an entire nation," he writes, "and, in a major war, they are visited upon the world."
Angler focuses on its characters, ably using them to tell a complex story simply. Gellman's elegant rendering of acting Attorney General James Comey's "U-turn on Constitution Avenue" and ensuing dash to protect an ailing John Ashcroft (and the American public) from a bullied reauthorization of the Terrorist Surveillance Program is absorbing drama. So is the subsequent standoff that put an unsuspecting Bush face-to-face with the potential election-year resignations of his Justice Department's top five lawyers and FBI director. This is the stuff of a Robert Redford movie.
Woodward and Gellman are prudent writers who keep their judgments to themselves, preferring to let their subjects' actions speak. Bush and Cheney are certain that history will vindicate them. A reading of these two first cracks at historical assessment, however, suggest that that vindication won't be coming anytime soon.