Dick Cheney’s been all over the mass media lately, defending the past administration’s record on torture in interviews on Sunday talk shows like “Face the Nation” and on Fox News, and in speeches at friendly venues like the American Enterprise Institute. When media outlets aren’t talking to him they’re talking about him, in numerous “think pieces” in the written press and today on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

From the point of view of the Democratic party, of course, you could hardly ask for a better spokesperson for the opposition. He’s even less lovable than Rush Limbaugh. Short of enlisting Darth Vader, the GOP couldn’t find a better way to push its public approval numbers down toward the single digits.

But much of the public discussion seems to be focused around the question of whether it’s “appropriate” for a former Vice President to be so outspoken in criticizing the current administration. And that question fundamentally misunderstands what’s actually going on here.

Tom Toles, ©2009 Universal Press Syndicate

Tom Toles, ©2009 Universal Press Syndicate

Cheney’s not an elected official any more, nor is he running for anything. As such he’s accountable to absolutely nobody, neither voters nor party officials. It may well be unseemly and self-serving to speak out against the Obama administration as he’s doing, but nobody should be questioning his First Amendment right to do so.

For all the questions about Cheney’s propriety and his motives, however, the important question not being asked is why the corporate media is giving him a forum to speak, and paying such attention to what he says. After all, as just noted, he’s a private citizen now, with no influence over policy and no accountability to anyone. The First Amendment lets him talk, but doesn’t require anyone to listen, much less hand him a megaphone.

Cheney’s motives here are actually fairly clear. The emerging consensus in the Village seems to be that he’s a “true believer” defending his historical “legacy,” but we shouldn’t buy that too-charitable interpretation. I don’t believe for a moment that he actually cares at all about public safety, in America or elsewhere; the Valerie Plame incident should have been proof enough of that. Nor do I think he actually believes torture is particularly effective for gaining accurate information (as opposed to politically useful “information,” like the “evidence” validating the Iraq invasion gained under torture from one Ibn Al-Libi, who conveniently just “committed suicide” in a Libyan prison only two weeks after his location there was finally discovered). I don’t even buy that Cheney’s concerned about his legacy, much less Bush’s.

What Cheney’s really concerned with here is threefold. One, he’s muddying the waters in advance of investigations and possible prosecutions over torture policies. He’s getting people talking not about why torture is illegal but about whether it “works”; not about why the DOJ wrote memos excusing illegal policies but about “loyalty” to the “little people” who wrote those memos. This discussion lays the foundation for his defensive posture if and when anyone actually tries to hold him accountable for those illegal policies (and not incidentally, by also defending those “little people,” makes it less likely that any of them will turn on him).

Two, and this complements the above, he’s defending the one principle he actually seems to believe in:  that political power—at least when he holds it—should be exercised without limit or constraint. If one thing genuinely offends Cheney’s sensibilities, it’s the notion that anyone or anything (voters, history, the law) should hold him accountable for anything he did while in office. (And sadly that’s a perspective much of the Beltway establishment seems to share, press corps included:  immunity to the rule of law is a prerogative of being an Insider.)

Three, and this may be the most important factor, it lines his pockets. This drumbeat of attention can only have positive effects on his booking fees. For people to pay to hear his opinions, he has to at least pretend to have something relevant to say. And if he says it with an angry growl and conservative “defiance,” that just plays into the character he’s established.

So Cheney’s motivations are, as noted, transparently self-serving. It is therefore a shameful dereliction of journalistic professionalism for the press to continue to pretend he has anything relevant to contribute to public discourse. I believe that democracy benefits from a robust debate:  dominance by one party (Democratic or otherwise) is not in our country’s long-term best interest, and it’s a shame that right now there’s such a shortage of intellectually credible spokespersons for conservative (or other) perspectives. But what Cheney offers is no substitute for that. What he says may spark controversy, but not in any constructive or meaningful way. And giving him the spotlight only leaves less opportunity for worthier voices to emerge.

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2 Responses to “Attack dog Cheney”
  1. phil from new york says:

    Well said, Chris, especially your point about the media giving him a microphone. (The same can be said for John McCain’s many appearances on TV since the election. You’d think he won the election, not LOST it badly.) After 2000, Gore went into hiding for about two years, and the media went into a snit of the first order when he emerged in late 2002 to oppose a war with Iraq.

    But one other point. While Democrats are positively giddy to have Cheney out there reminding people of the bad old days of the Cheney-Bush administration, a good number of Republicans aren’t happy at all. On his Washington Monthly blog, Steven Benen reported the results of a National Journal poll of “political insiders.” 57 percent of the Republicans polled weren’t happy about Cheney being so public. One person commented, “With Cheney out there, Obama doesn’t even need to remind the American people about the mess that was the Bush years.”

  2. Here’s my question: since he’s speaking up and taking credit/blame for these policies and actions in front of the whole world…why isn’t he under arrest already?

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