Our Three Presidents and Who Does What

Back in the dim, dark days of 2000 when Dick Cheney chose himself to be Bush’s running mate out of a field of thousands, you may remember that there was some relief expressed in both the press and the blogosphere that the inexperienced lout would have a Vice President with experience and “gravitas” (remember that word?). Those of us aware of Cheney’s past and Halliburton’s present were appalled. Our counter was – “Who are we electing, exactly? Who’s going to run the show, Bush or Cheney?” We suspected that the inept Texas Gov would get run over top of by the hard-right machine of a man who’d cut his teeth in the Nixon White House and learned where the ropes-and-pulleys of power were under Reagan.

We sort of forgot that question over the next few years as Bush became the public face of every decision and Cheney hid out in his bunker, emerging only occasionally to make the rounds of the propaganda networks, Fox and CNN, to insist, in that flat, gray, voice that brooked no questions let alone dissension or argument, on the certainty of WMD’s in Iraq before retreating behind a wall of secrecy and rumors of ill health that bubbled into the public sphere through layers of leaks in a process eerily reminiscent of the last few Soviet Premiers before Gorbachev.

It seems we were right to be concerned and wrong to let Cheney escape the spotlight for so long. More than that, we underestimated the extent to which an inexperienced, not very bright president who, like a lazy middle manager in a branch bank, saw his role primarily as one of delegating responsibility to other people, was willing to turn power over to others with stronger presences and less malleable opinions.

As a result, we wound up, it seems, not with one president but with three co-presidents: Bush, Cheney, and Karl Rove.


Bush bestirred himself only twice in his entire presidency that I’m aware of, making calls to Congressional leaders, twisting arms and holding meetings (with Republicans only, of course), and neither of them had anything whatever to do with Iraq or the war – that was Cheney’s bailiwick.

The first time was early in his first term when he was determined to pass tax cuts benefiting his rich friends and party contributors and screwing everybody else. Once that was accomplished, he went on vacation, memorably refusing to interrupt his golfing and brush-clearing to talk about the Middle East problem with the Israeli prime minister and Arafat, both of whom were begging him to take their calls. He eventually spoke – to no particular purpose – with the Israeli but steadfastly refused any contact with the Palestinian.

The second was recently when he visited the Congress (talking, once again, only to Republicans) to try to convince them to pass his immigration reform bill. All told, he spent a week on that one – a long-term commitment for him.

The third area over which he exerts control on a regular basis is the moving of government toward theocracy. He has funneled money and power to fundamentalist Xtian groups (though not enough, according to them), and struck down barriers between his administration and the activities of those activist fundie groups. While he hasn’t actually installed, say, James Dobson or Don Wildmon in his Cabinet, he has given them WH access to an unprecedented degree and translated many of their demands into govt actions and policies. It’s unlikely, for instance, that Rove – who by all accounts is not a particularly religious individual – would on his own have spent as much force setting up a vetting process at the DOJ that favored right-wing evangelist lawyers as he did. That directive almost certainly came from Bush.

In fact, you can see this initiative most clearly by looking at the Federal judges Bush has insisted on trying to appoint despite almost universal opposition, even among other Republicans. Whatever their other persuasions, they all have two things in common: they’re racists and fundamentalist Xtians who believe in theocracy – that govts should be ruled by Biblical rather than secular (Constitutional) law.

The fourth area is the one which has taken up the vast bulk of his time and what energy he’s been willing to expend: salesman.

He has spent as good deal of time stumping for the Iraq invasion, privatizing SocSec, the “ownership society”, and an economic “vision” skewed heavily toward the corporate and investor classes at the expense of everyone else. He has spent almost as much time trying to convince us that the economy was good because Wall Street was doing well, ignoring the decline in everyone else’s income and employment stability, as he has trying to convince us that the two wars he started are proceeding swimmingly but we don’t know it because the media won’t report “Good News”.

The fifth and final area of responsibility he’s taken on is the selling off of the govt to the corporatocracy, appointing and deploying ex-corporate lobbyists, lawyers, and upper-level managers to head the agencies that are supposed to protect us from the deceit and depredations of those very same corporations. The intention was to remove them as a force restricting the ability of the corporatocracy to make easy money by the use of short-cuts and accounting scams, and it has been extremely successful – budgets have been cut to the bone, inspectors fired, initiatives and lawsuits against corporate theft and illegal activities have been dropped, regulations have been ignored, and policies openly favoring corporate interests have been universally adopted. Corporations have been allowed to write laws the puppet Pub Congress would then pass and Bush would sign, sometimes complaining that the corporate lobbyists who wrote the bills hadn’t gone far enough for their clients.


Briefly put: foreign policy. The war and everything attached to it has been the VP’s responsibility. His neocon sidekicks – Rumsfeld, Wolofowitz, Richard Perle, Scooter Libby, Doug Feith, Paul Bremer, et al – have dominated the decision-making on foreign policy, from the invasion of Iraq to trade with China. In every case, the lines reach back to Cheney. Rice – and Powell before her – have been little more than figureheads. Powell was there to lend his credibility (which he used to have a lot of until he ran into the Bushies) and Rice is there because she’s hopelessly in love with Bush and will do whatever Cheney tells Bush to tell her to do.

Because despite recent conjecture that there is a power struggle going on in the WH between Rice and Cheney and Rice is winning, there is one deciding factor no one seems to be examining: all Rice has been able to do is stall or disrupt the most flagrantly stoopid of Cheney’s initiatives. To date, every single time the crunch has come and a decision has had to be made as to final disposition, Cheney has won, not Rice. Until she actually wins a significant victory against Cheney, the “battle” may be considered largely a matter of show. (The defusing of the tension over North Korea’s nuclear tests doesn’t count as “significant” because Cheney expressed an opinion but took no real interest in it.)

Cheney’s office cooked the intel before the invasion, his sock-puppet acolytes (Gingrich-followers Feith and David Wormser) cherrypicking from raw, unconfirmed intel and giving enormous weight to the only two sources who consistently told them what they wanted to hear – Chalabi the con artist and “Curveball”, an Iraqi “defector” who turned out to be INC (Iraqi National Congress, Chalabi’s fake “govt-in-exile”). It was Cheney who pushed torture, Cheney who pushed Gitmo and the whole secret prison system, Cheney who pushed illegal wiretaps, Cheney who championed illegal surveillance on American citizens, Cheney who arranged for the “extraodinary rendition” of suspects to foreign countries, and Cheney who was most likely responsible for creating the fraudulent “yellowcake” letter. If it had anything to do with the GWOT, no matter how tangentially, Cheney was behind it.

Take, for instance, the one and only time Cheney has stepped into the domestic arena – his secret energy task force. It’s generally assumed – probably correctly – that his interest lay in protecting the industry that made him rich and using govt as a sort of subsidiary enforcement arm that would act to enable oil companies to enlarge their scope – and profits – without interference.

But even if that was the main focus, it’s significant that one of the few leaks from those meetings was a series of maps – of Iraq, detailing where exactly the Iraqi oil fields were, section-by-section, and what output could be expected from each. And this was some six months before the invasion while Bush continued to insist he “hadn’t decided” whether or not to invade.

Even if the primary purpose of the secret meetings was to set up the strategy and logistics of the Bush Administration as an extension of the oil industry, there was clearly something else going on as well that was related to foreign policy and may have had a devastating impact on it.


In a nutshell: domestic policy. In retrospect, using what we know now, Rove’s portfolio was twofold:

First, he was to oversee and manage the turnover of the govt to corporate interests and of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to theocrats.

But his primary responsibility was to use govt to create and maintain a one-party state by politicizing every single dept, agency, and bureau, filling key leadership positions with Bush loyalists and GOP hacks who could be counted on to carry out illegal operations against Democrats and keep their mouths shut about it. It may seem as though Rove’s primary focus was the DOJ, and that may be true, but the known politicization of the GSA suggests very strongly that every govt entity came under some form of political heat from Rove’s office, and that most of it likely turned on making that entity more responsive to political considerations than to its public duties.

As this unravels, it becomes more clear every day that there was no domestic policy – or were very few, chiefly those Cheney had appropriated for their relevance to war-making – that didn’t have to go through and be vetted by Rove’s office, both for the effect they might have on his political strategies and for whatever use might be made of them in his plans to build a permanent Republican majority in a country entirely subservient to corporate interests.

The Decider

Bush’s “leadership style” seems to have been less concerned with leadership than support. In each area, he simply backed up whatever his principals did, often without even knowing what it was. This sort of thing was likely typical:

Just past the Oval Office, in the private dining room overlooking the South Lawn, Vice President Cheney joined President Bush at a round parquet table they shared once a week. Cheney brought a four-page text, written in strict secrecy by his lawyer. He carried it back out with him after lunch.

In less than an hour, the document traversed a West Wing circuit that gave its words the power of command. It changed hands four times, according to witnesses, with emphatic instructions to bypass staff review. When it returned to the Oval Office, in a blue portfolio embossed with the presidential seal, Bush pulled a felt-tip pen from his pocket and signed without sitting down. Almost no one else had seen the text.

Including the Sec of State, Colin Powell. Did Bush even read what he signed? Or did he, as he has often stated, rely on Cheney to tell him what was in it? And what was in it?

Cheney’s proposal had become a military order from the commander in chief. Foreign terrorism suspects held by the United States were stripped of access to any court — civilian or military, domestic or foreign. They could be confined indefinitely without charges and would be tried, if at all, in closed “military commissions.”

Nothing less than the suspension of habeus corpus and the legal rationale for a secret prison system. And note that Cheney took it away, presumably to make changes, and when it was brought back, Bush proceeded to sign it without looking at it.

It seems doubtful looking at his response last week that he knew Cheney had stopped obeying the president’s own directive about scrutiny of classified documents. It’s also unlikely that he knew Rove had been sending operatives around to various govt agencies giving them lectures on how to help Republican candidates. In both cases, his knee-jerk response was to back up the decisions of his supposed employees, leaving it to others – like Tony Snow and Dana Perino – to come up with rationales.

That’s not a “leader”, that’s a middle manager being led around by the nose by subordinates playing him like a violin. In theory they may have been under his jurisdiction but in practice Cheney and Rove simply did what they wanted to do, assuming correctly that he would support whatever they did. They were, in other words, de facto presidents, each in complete control of his own sphere of interest.

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