Dick Cheney at War With His Documentary Filmmakers

National Journal

The World According to Dick Cheney, a documentary about America’s most powerful and polarizing vice president ever, debuts Friday on Showtime. The subject saw it weeks ago--and is none too happy with the product.

Cheney has a point, but only up to a point.

The film goes out of its way to give Cheney’s hard-line, hang-’em-high views full and thoughtful weight. He’s on camera more than all other interviewees combined, repeatedly laying out his conviction that the post-9/11 world remains exceedingly dangerous, requiring extraordinary measures to keep America safe on his watch.

Such controversial practices as waterboarding and domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens that critics allege winked at the Constitution are passionately defended by Cheney at length.

Moreover, longtime associates like mentor-turned-benefactor Donald Rumsfeld and lawyer David Addington rate considerable airtime to buttress Cheney’s views.

So, why is he so annoyed with the way the film turned out?

The former vice president has told friends he’s disappointed the producers showcased the internal politics surrounding Bush administration policies at the expense of the policies themselves. Other Cheney associates say he believes the film gives too much credence to the views of biased journalists and historians offering the other side of Cheney’s controversial, black-and-white beliefs.

(Full disclosure: Having covered Cheney intently since he was Rumsfeld’s deputy chief of staff in the Ford administration, I was interviewed for a couple of hours and appear a handful of times in the film.)

I suspect the real source of Cheney’s angst is the Darth Vader undertone that permeates the undertaking. While the producers are scrupulously careful to give Cheney his due, their narrative, wittingly or not, reinforces the notion of Cheney as a devious and manipulative operator whose policy agenda sometimes diverged from his boss'.

The one area where Cheney comes off especially poorly is the intramural slugfest in 2007 over warrantless domestic wiretaps. While passionately defending the practice of listening in on American citizens in the homeland, Cheney didn’t tell President Bush that his deputy attorney general and several Justice Department colleagues had determined such domestic surveillance was illegal and were preparing to resign in protest.  

When the president was finally looped in at the last minute, he dialed back the policy--and was furious at being blindsided. His irritation with Cheney helped create a breach between the two that has never been mended.  

For his part, Cheney is utterly unrepentant, convinced what even one of his closest friends calls “his damn darkness“ will be viewed more kindly with some distance.

“If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute,” he says, unflinchingly, adding at one point that his job was “to preserve the legitimacy of the government.”

Friends say Cheney did just that. Critics argue he trashed the Constitution in the process.

As always, history will ultimately decide the merits. These interviews--and hopefully the 20 hours of outtakes will be available some day to historians--are Cheney’s latest attempt to offer a more sober context to the ferocity of the ongoing debate.

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