Eleanor Clift on Dick Cheney's Dangerous Influence

Dick Cheney is like "Zelig," the Woody Allen character with the uncanny ability to turn up everywhere. We always suspected his dark influence throughout the government, and now it's been documented chapter and verse in an exhaustive series in The Washington Post. Cheney operates largely in secret, and because he is such a skilled bureaucratic infighter, he's able to do end runs around everybody, including President Bush, who does nothing to rein in his evil twin.

Under the guise of national security, Cheney has gotten away with curbing civil liberties, condoning torture and launching an unnecessary war. He's also chipped away at environmental regulations and done myriad favors for his friends in the business world. His stealthy intervention undermined former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman and led to her resignation. He shapes tax policy and energy policy and whatever else strikes his fancy, installing himself as president of Corporate America.

Cheney's above-the-law arrogance finally met its match this week, when he declined to give national archivists who oversee the handling of classified data in the executive branch access to his papers. Cheney's argument: that he's not part of the executive branch because he also serves as president of the Senate. The claim was ludicrous on its face and opened up Cheney to ridicule. Democrats can't muster the votes to cut off funding for the war, but when House leader Rahm Emanuel threatened to cut off funds for the vice president's operation, Cheney backed down.

I had lunch with Vic Gold, an old friend of the Cheneys's, on the third day of the Post series. I asked him how he felt reading about Dick's dark adventures. "A tremendous feeling of validation," he said. In a recent book, Gold described Cheney as a "mega-maniacal paranoid" whose secret empire within the government had captured the Bush presidency and helped bring the Republican Party to the brink of ruin. Gold's book, published in April, is titled: "Invasion of the Party Snatchers: How the Holy-Rollers and the Neo-Cons Destroyed the GOP." (It was originally titled "How the Neo-Cons Took Over the GOP," but midway through the process, Gold got so angry he changed the verb to "Destroyed." )

This is a huge turnabout for Gold, 78, a veteran Republican operative. Close to the Bushes and the Cheneys, he once shared office space with Lynne Cheney and in 1996 was prepared to support Dick Cheney for president. When he decided not to run, Cheney told Gold, "I don't want to spend three quarters of my time running around raising money." That sounded rational to Gold, who'd been kicking around politics for a long time, having worked for a string of Republicans from Barry Goldwater, his hero, to the disgraced Spiro Agnew and finally "the old man," George H.W. Bush. Unlike others who've known Cheney for 30 years, Gold doesn't think his erstwhile friend has changed. "Men do not change, they unmask themselves," he says, quoting a Swiss writer. What happened to Cheney is "opportunity," says Gold. Pushed forward by George and Barbara Bush, who had no confidence in their eldest son, Cheney was supposed to serve as the ghost of Bush Senior hovering around the White House.

Cheney took on the job and with, George W.'s acquiescence, made himself the locus of power. What nobody anticipated is the extent to which the quiet man with the lopsided mouth would insinuate himself into everything--and the devastating consequences of his influence, particularly the Iraq War. Gold, a slight man with wispy white hair and a hair-trigger temperament calls Bush "President Dodo." He's known Bush since the '80 campaign, and while he doesn't really think he's dumb, he knows he can be manipulated. "He's playing the role of president, strutting around," says Gold. "He's the weakest president in my memory."

The Bushes prize loyalty, but about a year ago, Gold had reached a point where his respect for the elder Bush, whose autobiography he had helped write, was not enough for him to keep quiet. The administration in his view had become a danger to the Constitution and what America stands for in the world. He wrote to tell 41 about the book he was writing, and he got a letter back saying, "We've been friends a long time and we'll continue to be friends. I am sure I will not like what you say about our son." And then in a grace note typical of the old man, "but I don't think too much of the neocons myself."

Cheney's great selling point was that he did not plan to run for president, setting him apart from most vice presidents who harbor personal ambition. He didn't have to worry about being popular. But the idea was flawed. In the end, Cheney's lack of viability as a political figure became his license to do whatever he wants, an outcome nobody foresaw, least of all his unsuspecting patron, George H.W. Bush.