The Real Dick Cheney: Vice’s Mistaken Portrayal of the Former Vice President

Nick Becker

No other film this year has been as polarizing as Vice — a mess of comedy and political thrill about former Vice President Dick Cheney written and directed by Adam McKay. Everyone from movie critics to political commentators has been debating the film’s veracity (or lack thereof), its straddling of satire and seriousness, or its neglect of other important figures in the George W. Bush administration. But the most important aspect of the film, and where it whiffs the worst, is the political story arc McKay constructs that begins with Cheney’s humble beginnings in Wyoming and ends with the presidency of Donald Trump.

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By Nick Becker

No other film this year has been as polarizing as Vice — a mess of comedy and political thrill about former Vice President Dick Cheney written and directed by Adam McKay. Everyone from movie critics to political commentators has been debating the film’s veracity (or lack thereof), its straddling of satire and seriousness, or its neglect of other important figures in the George W. Bush administration. But the most important aspect of the film, and where it whiffs the worst, is the political story arc McKay constructs that begins with Cheney’s humble beginnings in Wyoming and ends with the presidency of Donald Trump.

The closest that McKay can get to a unifying narrative for Vice is that Cheney, whom McKay views as a non-ideological Shakespearan anti-hero, can somehow be linked to the calamities the country faces today under Trump. Yet James Mann — author of the Rise of the Vulcans, a noted book on the major players in the Bush administration — has questioned whether one can connect Cheney’s politics to Trump’s at all. Indeed, beyond differences in style, Trump has done more to question the post-Cold War foreign policy consensus, a consensus Cheney played a major role in crafting, than any other president in modern history. Cheney favored immigration and free trade; Trump is vehemently against both.

However, even if there is a line you can draw from Cheney to Trump (and I think you can), there is a flaw in the way McKay portrays Cheney. McKay cannot credibly connect the Bush years to the Trump era unless he recognizes how wedded Cheney was to an extreme right-wing ideology that has led America into the crises it faces today.

McKay starts Cheney’s political journey on the couch in his mother-in-law’s living room with his wife, Lynne, threatening to leave him if he doesn’t get his act together. Cheney, a two-time Yale drop-out, eventually finds himself in a Congressional internship program in 1969. McKay paints Cheney’s decision to be a Republican largely as a product of him being impressed by a young Donald Rumsfeld’s speech to the room of fresh-faced interns. Under Rumsfeld’s tutelage, Cheney familiarizes himself with how to shape the contours of power in Washington. In one critical scene, Cheney asks Rumsfeld, “what do we believe in?” highlighting McKay’s point about Cheney’s naivete. The director has Rumsfeld respond only with laughter and a slammed door.

Mann, the Bush-era biographer, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that the scene with Rumsfeld was “a disastrous misreading of the former vice president.” From the beginning of the movie, McKay drains any ideology from Cheney and those who shaped his political career. But that view could not be further from the truth. As Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker notes, Cheney did not happen upon conservatism by accident. While his activities at Yale did not extend much beyond binge drinking and partying, Cheney did take enough classes to study under the conservative diplomatic historian H. Bradford Westerfield. Westerfield, a self-described hawk, warned of “infectious defeatism” growing in America during the Cold War. Although Westerfield’s views moderated, Cheney credits him for shaping a neoconservative worldview — an ideology that combines disdain for the domestic New Left with a hegemonic American foreign policy — that he later put into practice in the highest offices in government.

Cheney’s conservatism was not limited to foreign policy. His first job under Rumsfeld had him working in the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Although McKay portrays Cheney’s work as mostly a throwaway assignment, the OEO actually served as the nexus for many of the anti-poverty programs started under President Johnson’s Great Society. According to Lemann, Cheney would have viewed his position as an opportunity to start dismantling the welfare state established by both Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt — a project he continued throughout his political career.

Early in his career, it was clear that Cheney was a man of the Right out of genuine ideological agreement — not just political convenience. However, McKay — despite allegedly reading multiple biographies on Cheney — reduces Cheney’s political choices to a non-ideological pursuit of power. McKay’s mistaken view ends up glossing over the ideological purity of Cheney’s pre-VP politics. When asked in an interview with the Los Angeles Times why he chose Vice as a project, McKay said “my whole idea was to understand how power can twist someone” and continued “there were points in his life when he was Secretary of Defense, when he did a pretty good job.”

A quick look at Cheney as he ascended the conservative political hierarchy will you leave you wondering how McKay sees little to no ideological element in Cheney’s actions.

Let’s start with Cheney’s tenure as U.S. Representative from Wyoming where he became Chairman of the House Republican Conference. In ten years, Cheney helped turn American politics to the hard-right as the shepherd of Ronald Reagan’s legislative agenda. He oversaw a massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the ultra wealthy (and exploded the deficit along the way) by voting for both of Reagan’s tax cuts. He backed Reagan’s hawkish foreign policy including funding death squads in Latin America, illegally invading and overthrowing Grenada’s government in 1983, and bypassing Congressional sanctions on apartheid South Africa. He was a reliable shill for the oil and gas industry and opposed the creation of the Department of Education.  

As Secretary of Defense, Cheney was in the front seat for shaping American foreign policy in a world without the Soviet Union. James Mann, again, observes that Cheney’s authorship of the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992 demonstrates that he was “far more interested in increasing America’s power in the world…than in simply augmenting his own bureaucratic influence.” With a newly emboldened view of American power, Cheney orchestrated the 1990 invasion of Panama, which was illegal under international and U.S. law. He also was the architect of the deal allowing U.S. troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia, which put foreign forces in the same country as revered Muslim holy sites, igniting a fierce reaction from radical Islamists that has been the motivation behind countless terror attacks and has animated the propaganda of groups like al-Qaeda ever since.

According to McKay, Cheney could have left politics after serving as Secretary of Defense “with a full family and a good public record. In the end, he just gave it away.” McKay’s comments here are illuminating. He believes Cheney’s story can be told as a “grand tragedy”, not unlike Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And like Macbeth killing King Duncan, McKay believes Cheney took the job of VP to satisfy his insatiable thirst for power at the detriment of an otherwise “good public record” as a respectable Republican.

But Cheney’s political history even before he became Vice President reveal a consistent theme: he loyally followed an extreme right-wing ideology to the detriment of the rest of the country. With this history in mind, his actions as VP should be viewed as a culmination of his politics; not — as McKay sees it — an aberration. His support for the Bush-era tax cuts mirrored his vote for the Reagan tax cuts two decades earlier. As the mastermind of the invasion of Iraq and the broader War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks, Cheney was merely building on his view of unilateral and unquestioned American hegemony that he developed as Secretary of Defense and as a vocal defender of Reagan administration’s executive privilege during the Iran-Contra scandal (which, as Mann notes, curiously gets no attention from McKay in Vice). For much of the movie, McKay paints Cheney’s obsession with unitary executive theory — an obscure conservative legal philosophy pioneered by a young Antonin Scalia — as a personal power grab when it really was just a tool to advance his imperial conception of the American presidency.

McKay’s gross mischaracterization of Cheney’s politics sets up his messy attempt to connect them to Donald Trump. In a sequence near the end of the movie, McKay parses earlier scenes of Cheney’s erratic driving with a confusing series of footage from the Trump presidency — immigrants being tear gassed at the Mexican border and people overdosing on heroin. What exactly does Cheney have to do with immigrants being tear gassed by Trump’s border patrol agents? Or a couple in a car overdosed on opiates? There might be nuanced answers to these questions, but McKay’s non-ideological portrait of Cheney doesn’t offer a path to them.

There is in fact a connection between Cheney and Trump, although McKay misses it for the most part. The policies that Cheney relentlessly and ideologically pursued throughout his life — endless costly wars abroad coupled with a top-down class war at home — left America spiritually drained, economically unequal, and ripe for a demagogue like Trump to exploit the divisions first sowed by Cheney and his ilk.

That story may be much harder to capture in a film like Vice. However, relying on a simpler tale of Machiavellian power politics instead of unmasking this right-wing ideology in Cheney is dangerous because the ideology it ignores hasn’t gone away. Conservatives in Cheney’s mold — such as Max Boot, David Frum, and Bret Stephens — might be temporarily exiled from Trump’s Republican Party, but they have found refuge on MSNBC and CNN panels or as guests on liberal talk shows like Real Time with Bill Maher. Those conservatives might be “Never Trump” today, but Democrats shouldn’t mistake them for allies. They are just waiting for an opportunity to put to use the unchecked executive power Cheney cultivated with someone more faithful to their movement — and, frankly, more competent — than Trump.

As a country, we must understand the ideology behind the disaster of the Bush years that Trump used to his advantage in 2016 to prevent it from happening again. McKay’s Vice, entertaining as it might be, is little help in that endeavor.

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