NPR logo

Cheney: A VP With Unprecedented Power

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Cheney: A VP With Unprecedented Power

Cheney: A VP With Unprecedented Power

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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


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."

Mr. JOEL GOLDSTEIN (Author, "The Modern American Vice Presidency"): Vice President Cheney has been the most powerful vice president that we've ever had.

TOTENBERG: In the first term, Cheney reshaped national security law, expanded the prerogatives of the executive branch, orchestrated secret warrantless domestic surveillance, circumventing a court set up by Congress specifically to oversee such surveillance. He presented the president with options that led to a shutdown of negotiations with North Korea, played a major role in persuading President Bush to go to war against Iraq. On the domestic front, he screened potential Supreme Court nominees, presided over the budget, led the selection of personnel from Cabinet officers to key lower-level positions.

Without the president's knowledge, he engineered the rewriting of the president's tax bill so it included a capital gains tax break the president had initially rejected. With the president's knowledge, he led an industry-friendly revamping of energy and environmental regulations. From the beginning, Cheney had what former Vice President Dan Quayle called a "different understanding with Mr. Bush." When the presidential election landed in the courts in 2000, Cheney didn't wait for a high court decision. Working out of his house, he organized the transition. And once the team was installed in office, Cheney assumed the role of chief operating officer for a president who disdained details. Bush was the decider, but Cheney, by limiting options and sometimes suppressing information, often framed the decision.

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...

Mr. WALTER MONDALE (Former Vice President and Senator): 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.

Mr. BART GELLMAN (Reporter, Washington Post; Author, "Angler"): 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: To do any of the things he wanted, Cheney needed legal authority, and so he established a back channel to John Yoo, the number two man in the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel. Little known to the public, that office tells the president and his subordinates what they can and cannot do under existing law. And with guidance from Cheney and his chief counsel, David Addington, Yoo wrote legal opinions that authorized everything from waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics previously considered torture, to domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency without first getting permission from the court set up to approve such surveillance.

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.

Mr. 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: Indeed, so pervasive was Cheney's control that when lawyers from the National Security Agency, which was conducting the domestic surveillance, went to the Justice Department to look at the legal opinion authorizing the warrantless surveillance, Cheney's lawyer, David Addington, showed up and angrily told them they had no right to see it. Later, the secret domestic surveillance program would become the subject of a threatened massive resignation from the top ranks of the Justice Department. By then, there was a new chief at the Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, who examined many of John Yoo's opinions and found them, in his words, "deeply flawed."

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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

TOTENBURG: 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. DAN QUAYLE: (Former Vice President): 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.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.