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Cheney: A VP With Unprecedented Power

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Cheney: A VP With Unprecedented Power

Cheney: A VP With Unprecedented Power

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. When a president leaves office after eight years, journalists typically write retrospectives about his time in office. The vice president is barely mentioned, if at all. But President Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, is like no other vice president in American history. So, in the first of two parts, we're taking a look back at his role and what it means for the office he leaves behind. Here's NPR's Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Before Cheney, discussion about the vice presidency focused on how to make the office stronger, more effective. Not anymore. Joel Goldstein, author of "The Modern American Vice Presidency."

JOEL GOLDSTEIN: Vice President Cheney has been the most powerful vice president that we've ever had.

TOTENBERG: Washington Post reporter Bart Gellman, author of "Angler," an extraordinary book on the Cheney vice presidency, reports that Cheney was a sponge for details, a skilled bureaucratic in-fighter, and at least in the first term, drove policy on the issues he cared about. In the second term, with a more experienced and wary President Bush, Cheney's influence waned but hardly ceased. Throughout the Bush years, on Capitol Hill, for the first time, the vice president sat in on the Republican caucus meetings. Former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson tried to do that when he became vice president in 1961, but as former Vice President and Senator Walter Mondale reports, Johnson was quickly rebuffed. Having the vice president attend, Mondale contends, undermines the notion of a separate and co-equal branch of government. It inhibits free discussion among senators and he adds...

WALTER MONDALE: It's a tip-off to the executive branch about what the Senate's going to do.

TOTENBERG: Nothing better defines Cheney's influence than his domination of policy on the war on terror - setting up Guantanamo, getting waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized, and circumventing established laws on domestic surveillance. Author Bart Gellman.

BART GELLMAN: It all boiled down to two things, fundamentally. It was, how do you spy on people who you think may be terrorists and what can you do to them once you catch them?

TOTENBERG: In establishing these programs, Cheney made sure to limit input from others who might disagree, including top legal officers in the military, top intelligence officials at the National Security Council and the State Department, even the national security adviser herself, Condoleezza Rice. Again, author Bart Gellman.

GELLMAN: Cheney created a new doctrine in which the president was accountable to no one for his decisions as commander in chief. What was new and innovative here, and quite radical, was the notion that the president's interpretation could not be challenged, that because the executive is a separate branch, courts and Congress could not tell the president, in any way, how to exercise his powers as commander in chief.

TOTENBERG: The torture authorization was finally revoked, and the domestic surveillance authorization had big problems. The Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Deputy Attorney General James Comey, and others agreed that the president was exceeding his constitutional authority. And with Ashcroft critically ill in the hospital, Acting Attorney General Comey refused to reauthorize the program. That led to the now-famous hospital scene with top White House officials pressuring a resistant Ashcroft to overrule Comey. In his book, Bart Gellman describes how, prior to this face-off, Cheney kept President Bush in the dark for three months so that the president was unaware his Justice Department believed the program was illegal. When Comey finally went to the White House after the hospital scene, both he and Bush were in for a rude shock. Bart Gellman.

GELLMAN: The president says to the acting attorney general, "I just wish you weren't bringing up this objection at the last minute."

TOTENBERG: And then Comey told the president it wasn't just he who was objecting, but the top ranks at Justice, even the FBI director, Robert Mueller, was about to resign. When Mueller confirmed that in a meeting with the president, Mr. Bush reversed course. Again, Bart Gellman.

GELLMAN: You had the FBI director, the attorney general, the next five levels of officials - which is a couple of dozen people - in the Justice Department, the general counsel of the CIA and of the FBI, were all going to resign, in principle, because they believed this program was unlawful. And George Bush didn't know it until about an hour before it was going to happen.

TOTENBERG: Faced with a wholesale resignation that would have made the Watergate "Saturday Night Massacre" look like a picnic, the president relented, withdrew his authorization, and told Comey to fix the program to make it legal. Had he not changed course, some of Bush's top aides believe he very likely would have been impeached. Again, Bart Gellman.

GELLMAN: I think from that moment, Bush understood more clearly than before that he had to take Cheney's advice at arm's length. That was the beginning of a gradual loss of influence by the vice president over George Bush, because Bush realized Cheney could lead him off a cliff.

TOTENBERG: Instead of promoting policies, Cheney now worked to prevent the undoing of policies already in place. He managed to stop the closure of Guantanamo, for instance, but the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners there had the right to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts. Whereas, in the first term he managed to prevent negotiations with North Korea, in the second term, President Bush went ahead with them and negotiated at least a partial deal on nuclear weapons. And this fall, when the president refused to give bunker-busting bombs to the Israelis for use against Iran's nuclear sites, the president's decision was made over Cheney's objection, according to a high-ranking former administration official. In the last analysis, says former Vice President Dan Quayle, it is the president who decides how powerful the vice president is going to be.

DAN QUAYLE: Well, look, the job of vice president is what the president wants it to be, pure and simple.

TOTENBERG: And by the end of the Bush presidency, Mr. Bush had come to trust his instincts more than his vice president's. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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