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What 'Vice' gets wrong about Cheney

"Vice," the new Dick Cheney biopic, earned Christian Bale a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the former vic...

Posted: Jan 12, 2019 2:41 PM
Updated: Jan 12, 2019 2:41 PM

"Vice," the new Dick Cheney biopic, earned Christian Bale a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the former vice president. The filmmakers' decision to portray Cheney as a one-dimensional character devoid of values, however, obscures the complexities of a wide range of issues -- such as the limits of executive authority, the propriety of military intervention, the role of the United States in the world and the ethics of power.

Cheney, in fact, personifies strong beliefs on all these issues -- beliefs that deserve serious and vigorous debate. Take the "unitary executive," a constitutional theory of such sweeping effect that it receives something resembling (by "Vice's" standards) an academic symposium. Under this theory, a president can do almost anything he wants because he's the executive, and no one can stop him.

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The movie depicts Cheney's embrace of it simply as an excuse for a personal power grab. If that's all it were, its impact would be rather limited. That it proves ideologically attractive to others is what makes it important -- and dangerous. What "Vice" could have explored, but doesn't, is how a political party that professes, as House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy put it last Thursday, to "always choose personal freedom over government control" repeatedly embraces a constitutional interpretation justifying almost limitless, one-man rule.

One problem with untrammeled power is that unitary executives make mistakes. The one with which Cheney will always be most identified is the US invasion of Iraq. Here again, Cheney had a strong belief: that forcible imposition of a US-style regime would transform the entire Middle East into a stable, democratic oasis conducive to global peace and profit.

Although "Vice" hints briefly that Cheney wanted to reinvade Iraq even before taking office, the movie's caricature of him as a man with no beliefs but the pursuit of power requires some other reason for Cheney to invade Iraq. So "Vice" invents the notion that Cheney decided on the invasion based on focus group tests showing that Americans could not understand the concept of fighting a nebulous terrorist organization -- only wars against "countries." In doing so, the film blames the public for pushing their leaders into a mistaken war, rather than -- as was the case -- the other way around.

This has important implications, not just for assigning past blame, but also for deciding America's future role. The film's fabrication of an American public believing that the 21st-century world looks like the 1950s board game Risk is a projection of liberal anxiety over the election of Donald Trump and the rising tide of nationalism. But portraying the root problem as the outdated misconceptions of an ill-informed rabble, rather than the decisions of the policy elite, is actually the vice that produced that problem.

In fact, the anti-globalism of many Trump supporters -- and the President himself -- includes an aversion to military intervention born of failed adventures in the Middle East. This is one of many ways in which today's left and right intersect -- often to the chagrin of both party establishments -- and shows how complex these questions of America's global role are today.

This is even more true of moral issues. In the movie's concluding scene, Bale turns directly to the audience and, riffing off real Cheney interviews, lays out a serious challenge: If you disapprove of his methods, which terrorist attack would you allow?

The film means us to be repelled by Cheney's ends-justify-means morality, but Cheney's position merits deeper reflection: If you insist on limits to what governments can do, are you really prepared to pay the price? Or, are you just a hypocrite who expects that price to be borne by others?

Would you approve of torture if it saved your own family's lives? Cheney bets you would -- and he believes that gives leaders moral sanction, even the moral responsibility, to commit actions the rest of us might lack the "courage" to take. As I have discussed elsewhere, this position is neither moral nor courageous, but the question is far more nuanced than presented either by the film's Cheney or the real one.

Which brings us to the ultimate question the film, and our current moment, poses: What kind of leaders do we really want? In perhaps the film's cleverest moment, Cheney's meteoric career path reaches a fork: He considers running for president in 1996, but bows out because it would expose his daughter, a lesbian, to potentially vicious attacks. Over a scene of bucolic family life, the narrator tells us that Dick and Lynne Cheney retired from the pursuit of power to write books for the public betterment and live humbly (if wealthily), as the credits begin to roll.

Of course, it's all a joke: Cheney's rise, and the rest of the movie, is yet to come. Yet, for a fleeting moment, one admires Cheney for making the choice. It's enough to make one feel that that's the kind of leader -- one who puts the interests of others before his own -- that America deserves.

Alas, that happens only in movies.

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