Television review

Showtime’s documentary on Cheney: portrait of a soldier still at war

 

ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

Early in his 20 hours of interviews with filmmaker R.J. Cutler, former Vice President Dick Cheney sniffs dismissively that politicians who “spend all their times trying to be loved by everybody probably aren’t doing much. … If you want to be loved, go be a movie star.”

The irony is that, after collaborating with Cutler, Cheney is a movie star, and a remarkable one. Cutler’s documentary The World According to Dick Cheney, airing Friday on Showtime, is a rousing piece of work.

Viewers who think Cheney was the Darth Vader of George W. Bush’s presidency, the avatar of torture, perfidy and imperialism, will watch The World and cheer. So will those who think Cheney saved America from an implacable horde of theocratic assassins.

Cutler’s previous documentaries about politics, The War Room and A Perfect Candidate, dissected the work of spin doctors. The World is their polar opposite, the chronicle of a fiercely focused national-security warrior who cares nothing for the way others see him.

Even politicians congenitally tone-deaf about their public image, when asked in an interview what their biggest fault was, would know to offer something — I’m stubborn, I’m too frank, I sometimes forget to feed the puppy — in reply. Cheney simply shrugs and says, “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my faults.”

His story would be fascinating even without his eight years as Bush’s vice president. The World dexterously traces Cheney’s unlikely journey from the Wyoming mountains to party-boy flunk-out at Yale to child-prodigy chief of staff (at age 33) during the accidental presidency of Gerald Ford. Well before his 40th birthday, Cheney had sidestepped one runaway locomotive of history (the Watergate scandal) and derailed another (he helped engineer the ouster of Henry Kissinger as national security advisor).

But inevitably it is Cheney’s role in what he himself called “the dark side” of Bush’s administration that is the axis on which The World spins. Selected as Bush’s running mate mainly to give the ticket some foreign-policy heft (Cheney served Bush’s father as secretary of defense), he quickly took over the administration’s dirty work after the Sept. 11 attacks. “We’re going to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world,” he warned the nation. “A lot of what needs to be done will have to be done quietly without any discussion.”

Wiretapping, waterboarding, warrantless detention at Guantanamo Bay: Cheney championed them all. He has neither regrets nor apologies today. “Are you going to trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your honor? Or are you going to do your job, do what’s required?” he retorts to Cutlet’s questions about civil liberties. “First and foremost, you’re responsible to safeguard the United States of America and its citizens. That’s not a close call for me.”

Cheney’s belief that the worst-case scenario justifies the means evolved (or, depending on your perspective, devolved) into what became known as the One Percent Doctrine, which held that if there were even a 1 percent chance that terrorists or rogue states were developing weapons of mass destruction for use against the United States, the White House had to treat it as a certainty.

The ultimate expression of the One Percent Doctrine was the invasion of Iraq, though in the run-up to the war, Cheney insisted that the probability of an existential threat to America was about 100 times that great. “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction” and planned to use them to corner the world oil market and blackmail the United States, he said at the time.

And though the supposed Iraqi WMDs were infamously never found, Cheney says in The World that he still counts the war as a win: “We didn’t find stockpiles. We did find that he had the capability. And we believed he had the intent.”

The World has plenty of dissenting interviews with journalists and lefty policy wonks who say that the measures Cheney employed were neither necessary nor productive. Cheney shrugs off their arguments — “you don’t get do-overs, so I don’t spent a lot of time thinking about it” — and even trashes some of his old allies, from Bush’s secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (soft on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions) to the president himself (for refusing a pardon to Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby, convicted of perjury in a leak investigation).

“I felt that we were leaving a good man on the battlefield,” Cheney says of the failure to pardon Libby. The metaphor is anything but casual: Cheney regards his vice-presidency as a war on two fronts, one against Islamic jihadists in the Middle East, the other against fifth columnists in Washington. And watching The World, it’s clear that he hasn’t left his foxhole.

Read more Glenn Garvin: On TV stories from the Miami Herald

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