Rush Limbaugh was on the phone. Ten days before Christmas, Dick Cheney was at his desk in the West Wing, talking about the past and the future with the dean of conservative radio hosts. After asking the vice president what he was most proud of, Limbaugh wondered whether Cheney thought Barack Obama would give back the powers asserted during the Bush-Cheney era. "Well, my guess is, once they get here and they're faced with the same problems we deal with every day, that they will appreciate some of the things we've put in place," Cheney replied. "We did not exceed our constitutional authority, as some have suggested, but we—the president believes, I believe very deeply, in a strong executive, and I think that's essential in this day and age. And I think the Obama administration is not likely to cede that authority back to the Congress. I think they'll find that given [the] challenge they face, they'll need all the authority they can muster."
To his fans (a small but devoted bunch) Dick Cheney is a bulwark against the forces of darkness. To his foes (and they are legion), he is darkness. Assessing Cheney's role in expanding executive power sheds light on perennial issues in American life. How much liberty should we surrender in the service of security? How powerful should the executive branch be? Where is the line between proper secrecy in the pursuit of the national interest and the creation of an unaccountable shadow government?
Inarguably, the years of George W. Bush were shaped by the vice president's vision of unilateral executive power, a vision that by many accounts discouraged debate and dissent within the administration. Most significant, Cheney's absolutist sense that what was being done, particularly in Iraq, was in the best interest of the country was linked to a habit of mind that did not take on contrary facts. The Bush-Cheney administration was defending America. If America did not get it—or if America thought that perhaps, just perhaps, things were not going so well on the ground in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam—then that was America's problem, and stronger men, men like Cheney and Bush, would see it through, brushing aside the doubters as defeatists.
That said, to rehash the case against Cheney at this late hour in the life of the Bush administration would be the rough equivalent of pornography—briefly engaging, perhaps, but utterly predictable and finally repetitive. As Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas explore in this week's cover, the urgent question now is whether President Obama will hew to that dogma or whether, confronted with the realities of office, he will begin to see virtue in the antiterror apparatus Cheney helped Bush create. Obama need look only to his hero Abraham Lincoln to find justification for doing things he might have once thought undoable. There are moments, Lincoln argued during the Civil War, when "measures otherwise unconstitutional might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation."
The world looks different from the president's chair in the Oval Office. I asked a wise former diplomatic official what he made of the likelihood that Obama might find himself taking positions on executive power he would have resisted on the campaign trail. "There won't be a complete rollback from what they inherit," said the former official, who asked to remain anonymous in order to be candid. "When people get in and get read into the intelligence, I suspect they will find that the Bush administration was extreme, but not entirely wrong."