Friday, August 26, 2011

Cheney's Legacy

Yesterday morning (while sitting at LAX waiting for a flight) I posted in Politico's Arena on the question: Will memoir improve Dick Cheney's image?

I haven't seen the memoir yet, just the excerpts discussed in The New York Times, but that doesn't stop a pundit for punditing...

Seriously, as a student of the vice presidency, I had to jump on this one. But, rather then comment on the specifics, I tried to place the memoir in historical perspective and relate it to the evolution of the office. My response was:
It is difficult to imagine Cheney's memoirs changing many minds in the short-term. He is a polarizing figure who is loved (occasionally) and hated (quite often.) In the long-run it is difficult to say what his legacy will be. Hopefully, the seeds of a new Middle East are emerging - but the region has an infinite ability to disappoint.

A fascinating aspect to this is the relevance of the vice presidential memoir. Long considered historical footnotes, vice presidential memoirs were minor niche publications. Calvin Coolidge's VP Charles Dawes kept a diary which is available online. Dawes was, prior to the vice presidency, an enormously accomplished man (Nobel laureate, best-selling song-writer, WWI general, and founder of the Budget Office). His memoirs only confirm the office as a constitutional appendix (Arthur Schlesinger's term.)

Nixon's memoir of his vice presidency, Six Crises, kept him in the public eye and helped propel him to the presidency. Still, the attention paid to Cheney's memoirs shows how the office has emerged as a major power center within administrations.

Additionally, since obtaining influence (in the Carter-Mondale administration) vice presidents have been very cautious about getting involved in the public aspects of policy fights. Cheney broke from this tradition as well and his writing a score-settling memoir - while understandable - indicates the vice presidency is evolving into just another presidential advisor.
Some additional notes, the figure of Charles Dawes is fascinating. His accomplishments were legion and his public service continued after the vice presidency. His diary of that period, perhaps the least accomplished in his incredible life emphasizes what a backwater the vice presidency was.

Part of this was self-inflicted, Dawes feuded with Coolidge. He refused to attend cabinet meetings and mismanaged the Presidents affairs at the Senate). He also attempted to actually run the Senate, and lectured Senators on the need to reform antiquated procedures. Students of Senate history will not be surprised to learn that this went poorly.

Still, Dawes was one of the most active, well-known, and popular vice presidents until recently. He was an active campaigner for Coolidge in 1924.

Dawes had some similarities to Cheney. He made a fortune in business (although Dawes did this before his public service) and like Cheney had held several key executive positions. Unlike Cheney, Dawes' first elected office was the vice presidency, whereas Cheney served in the House. But, unlike Cheney, Dawes eschewed any executive responsibility as VP. His refusal to attend cabinet meetings is particularly interesting. Coolidge had attended Harding cabinet meetings as VP and this was considered an enormous advancement in the vice president's status. But Dawes told Coolidge that he was happy to give the president advice and would personally like to attend the meetings, but felt it was a dangerous precedent. The cabinet consisted of the President's confidants, and it was possible that a future vice president who was not loyal to the president would betray this confidence.

It was also Dawes who, as Budget chief called the cabinet the president's natural enemy, because each department head was effectively a vice president of spending.

Much to think about there.

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