Being the liberal political junkie that I am, I went to see the movie Vice earlier this afternoon. The movie was written and directed by Adam McKay, who also brought us The Big Short, and stared people like Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Amy Adams as it followed the political career of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
It quickly became clear the movie wouldn’t be some whitewashed biography designed to make Cheney look good as early scenes showed him being a drunken fool who flunked out of Yale and had multiple DUI arrests before having a come to Jesus moment when his fiance threatened to leave him if he didn’t straighten up. After he had turned things around and was starting a Congressional internship, it showed him as more interested in power than promoting good policy by declaring himself a Republican because he liked the attitude Donald Rumsfeld displayed during a speech welcoming the interns and wanted to work in his office (Rumsfeld was a member of the House of Representatives at the time).
The theme of taking whatever policy stance necessary to gain more power didn’t end there. In a scene showing a discussion about policy and how to best use it to gain a political advantage, Cheney asked Rumsfeld what they actually believed in. Rumsfeld responded by laughing uncontrollably and slamming the door in his face.
As the movie moved into Cheney’s time in the executive branch (first as a White House staffer, then Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense, and later Vice President), the quest for political power appeared to intensify. He would eventually become obsessed with promoting an extremely controversial interpretation of the unified executive theory. Cheney’s use of the theory suggested the president could essentially do anything he wanted and be legally protected — especially when it came to foreign policy and national security issues — even if it went against policy outlined by the legislative and judicial branch of the federal government. This would later help form the basis for how the Bush Administration justified things like invading Iraq, supporting torture, and other moves that tried to give the White House unchecked power.
Further driving home the point that Cheney would do whatever it took to give himself more influence, there was a scene where George W. Bush offered Cheney the vice presidency. While having Bush portrayed as a bumbling idiot who clearly shouldn’t be running the country, Cheney said he’d only accept if he was given unprecedented power over critical government programs. He would later use this agreement to justify actions such as him giving Rumsfeld the authority to shoot down any unresponsive airplane on 9/11 (an order that would normally only be given by the president).
At another point, Cheney is having a discussion with Rumsfeld in the White House about how they needed to suppress certain intelligence reports and avoid having Bush see them because they’d make the vice president look bad. The reports discussed the rise of ISIS and showed the organization largely gained power only after Cheney forced Colin Powell to talk about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi during a speech making the case to invade Iraq before the United Nations.
Mentioning al-Zarqawi on such a major platform gave him extraordinary power among extremist groups and allowed him to grow ISIS into a powerful organization that terrorized the Middle East and threatened the United States. If those intelligence reports had been acted upon quickly instead of being suppressed for PR reasons, the growth of ISIS could have been blunted and we wouldn’t be still fighting the terrorist organization today in parts of Iraq and Syria.
One of the few times Cheney came across as a normal, almost compassionate, human with feelings was during some interactions with his daughter Mary. In one scene, the teenage Mary got into a car accident after breaking up with her girlfriend and ended up coming out to her parents while sitting in a hospital room afterwards. While Lynne Cheney was portrayed as being hesitant to accept her daughter’s sexual orientation, the former vice president immediately embraced her and told her he loved her.
In a movie that clearly didn’t portray Cheney in a favorable light, however, even this story-line ended up in disappointment. Towards the end of the movie we see that the older Cheney child, Liz, was running in the 2014 Republican primary for US Senate from Wyoming. Her opponent, incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi, and conservative groups were attacking her for having previously said gay marriage. With her parents’ blessing, Liz went on Fox News Sunday to combat the attacks and told Chris Wallace she believed in traditional marriage. This series of events was obviously highlighted to show Cheney throwing Mary under the bus to help Liz’s political career and keep the family in a powerful position.
I had to look into this when I got home because I thought I remembered Cheney being one of the first Republican leaders to publicly support gay marriage. My memory wasn’t failing me as Cheney did distance himself from George W. Bush and the rest of the GOP leadership when they were pushing for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. During a campaign rally in Mississippi during the 2004 campaign, for instance, Cheney said “freedom means freedom for everyone” and that “people ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.”
Despite those comments, Cheney and his wife Lynne did indeed cause friction between them and Mary by supporting Liz when she came out against gay marriage. After Mary and her long time partner Heather Poe expressed disappointment with Liz’s remarks on TV, Cheney released a statement saying it’s an issue they’ve “dealt with privately for many years, and we are pained to see it become public” before claiming “Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage.” In other words, they clearly didn’t support Mary being so publicly out and supportive of gay rights if it meant her sister’s political career might be damaged.
While the movie reminds us of the damaging policies Cheney promoted over the course of his career, it also showed him as a brilliant politician who’s focus on getting his way allowed him to become the most powerful vice president in American history. In other words, it almost spoke highly of his tenacity while placing the blame for much of the country’s current problems at his feet.