West Wing Dick Cheney's Dollhouse

Only one American politician is less popular than US President George W. Bush: Vice President Dick Cheney. A luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington was meant to highlight the real Cheney. If it was meant to be an exercise in self-incrimination, then it could only be described as a success.

By Gabor Steingart in Washington

United States Vice President Dick Cheney, the only man less popular than George W. Bush

United States Vice President Dick Cheney, the only man less popular than George W. Bush

If you want to come across as a good person in Washington these days, it doesn't hurt to pepper your conversations with a derogatory remark or two about Dick Cheney. It's a tactic that works well both on a small scale (among friends) and in the bigger picture (like the US election campaign). Indeed, the mere mention of the name "Dick Cheney" by Democratic presidential hopefuls lately has been enough to send audience emotions into a fast boil.

When I received an invitation from the National Press Club in Washington to attend a luncheon with the vice president of the United States, I was determined to at least give him the benefit of the doubt -- if only out of a sense of compassion. He has enough problems as it is.

The man is waging a deeply unpopular war in Iraq, one that has already claimed the lives of more than 4,000 US soldiers and injured close to 30,000. And his name is associated with words like villain, warmonger and liar.

His daughter is in a relationship with another woman, certainly no music to the ears of staunch conservatives. And who could forget that horrible tragedy when Cheney accidentally shot a friend, attorney Harry Whittington, in the face with buckshot while hunting for quail.

Given his many mishaps, I was in a charitable mood when I went to hear the man speak on Monday. He looked positively rosy, well-fed and had virtually no wrinkles on his face, even at close range. The cares that someone like him ought to have were not reflected in Dick Cheney's face.

Anyone who came within less than two meters of Cheney was discreetly asked to hand over all items. "Everything!" the security man repeated. Reluctantly, I relinquished my Washington Post.

I thought it was excessive at first, but then I gathered together all of the goodwill I had brought along and concluded that it was, in fact, consistent. After all, the Washington Post and other media are like shotguns for a man like Cheney, who is at the receiving end of their volleys of journalistic buckshot almost daily.

Two things took me by surprise during the course of the luncheon. First, Cheney is soft-spoken and even seems slightly self-conscious at times. He often looked at the floor while speaking, and his body language suggested that he was using his body as a protective wall.

A Man Who Has Trouble Controlling Himself

His language was monotone, with little verbal excitement. I soon understood why Henry Kissinger, who had accompanied Cheney to the event, closed his eyes early on in the speech and took a little nap.

The second thing that surprised me about Cheney was that he managed very quickly to exhaust my supply of sympathy for him. In fact, he promptly obliterated it.

Cheney said that he had not read and had no plans to read the book by former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, which recently attracted attention in Washington because it tells a story of lies and deception in the Bush administration. And if he had his way, this sort of literature written by traitors wouldn't even exist. Although Cheney didn't in fact utter the last sentence, his facial expression made it clear that the thought had probably crossed his mind.

After all, this is a man who has trouble controlling himself. Years ago, he muttered "go fuck yourself" to Senator Patrick Leahy during a photo session in the US Senate. He felt better afterwards, he says, not without satisfaction. Cheney lives in a world of his own making. It is a small world, and a world that he brought along with him to the National Press Club.

It resembles a dollhouse -- one in which only one room is reserved for the good guys and many rooms for the bad guys. The room for the good guys looks like the Oval Office in the White House. The rooms for the bad guys are very crowded. There is no room for doubts in this dollhouse world.

A Refusal to Acknowledge Mistakes

The policies of George W. Bush have made America safer and the world a better place, he said, laughing. To prove his point, he presented the audience with his personal statistics on terrorist attacks that never happened. Since the government began waging its "war on terror," Cheney said, there have been no significant attacks in the United States. Thousands are still alive, he said, because the government took a proactive approach.

Cheney said that, in his view, the Bush administration hadn't made any mistakes, and that in 15 years everyone will have recognized that the approach taken in Iraq was the right one. One cannot base policy on the public sentiment and on opinion polls, he said. When the president of the Press Club asked a simple, but vitriolic question about why, if this were the case, the government would order so many opinion polls, Cheney frowned. It wasn't his kind of question.

He made no secret of his contempt for the media, which has occupied too many rooms in this little dollhouse for Cheney's comfort. In his mind, members of the media live in the sections reserved for the bad guys.

He said that he found it deeply offensive that the New York Times received the Pulitzer Prize for an exposé of the government's wiretapping practices. According to Cheney, the paper revealed secrets to the enemy, which he called "less than honorable." He said that he regretted having to say this, especially at an event sponsored by the National Press Club. But his expression said it all: It is an honor and a pleasure for me to be able to say this to you today.

According to Cheney, there are too few reports in the media about the president's more recent Iraq strategy, which, he said, is more effective than the old one. "The surge has been a great success," he told his audience, adding, with a touch of indignation, that it just so happens that good news is not news. "That's just the way our system works." By "our system" Cheney meant democracy.

He insisted that his importance as vice-president is widely overestimated, and that he is essentially responsible for nothing. "I don't run anything," he said, adding that he is merely an advisor to the president.

When I left the Press Club, I felt more light-hearted than when I had arrived. Cheney made it easy for me to dislike him. My room is not on the same floor as his.

Outside, I encountered a small group of demonstrators, about 20 women protesting against "Cheney, war criminal." "How is he?" one of them asked. "Good," I said.

To reach the author and join the discussion, please visit GaborSteingart.com.

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