Angler by Barton Gellman

419HsoKY0AL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Nonfiction — audiobook. Read by Brian Keith Lewis. Penguin Audio, 2008. 13 hours, 42 minutes. Library copy.

My first reaction upon finishing Gellman’s book on the Cheney vice presidency was to speculate on how embarrassed those who served in the Bush Administration would be at the description of events presented in this book. Memos, emails, and memorandums were forwarded onto the Office of the Vice President (OVP) for years without the knowledge of staffers, policy makers, and even cabinet secretaries, and Cheney served as the gatekeeper to the president selecting (or suggesting) options before the presentation to the president thus limiting the choices or throwing his weight behind one so the others were never fully considered.

He blocked access to the president insisting President Bush’s time not be wasted or, in one very egregious case, told the president the Justice Department was refusing to sign off on his secret domestic surveillance program as constitutional at the last minute after they had been fighting with Cheney and President Bush’s counsel over the matter for almost a year. Nearly the entire top echelon of the staff at the Justice Department had written resignation letters preparing to leave, which multiple interviewees in the book said would have cost President Bush his re-election in 2004, and would have if one of them had not discovered the president had no idea what was going on.

It is chilling to read about how cold and calculating Cheney was about amassing power, particularly after he was so critical of Vice President Dan Qualyle for using executive power held by the president during the First Gulf War. The juxtaposition between this and Cheney giving the order to shoot down any non-communicative commercial airliner on September 11, 2001 is especially alarming. However, as Gellman explains, some of Cheney’s ability to amass power was due to the rules set forth by previous presidents and much of it was due to his own view of the Constitution and executive power.

On the former point, President Clinton had rewritten the role of the OVP to give the Vice President the power to set and regulate environmental policy due to Al Gore’s commitment to climate change. Cheney used this rewrite to change environmental policy for the benefit of the oil and gas industry from which he once worked in: Yellowstone National Park was delisted so a coal plant could be built near the park’s borders which, thankfully, never occurred; the administration’s policy on climate change became that science was too complicated and not in agreement on the cause; and the listing of a species of fish on the Endangered Species List was muddled by special interest science in order to secure the votes of farmers at the detriment of the fish, the California salmon industry, and Native American tribes who have rights to water that supersede anyone else.

On the later point, Cheney believes the executive branch (the Office of the President and OVP) supersedes the power of both the legislature and the executive branch meaning the president is not beholden to either branch, and he understands the president to be the sole interpreter of the law. If the president finds his actions to be legal, then neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has the right to tell him otherwise. Bush’s illegal domestic spying program continued for nearly three years after the events of September 11, 2001 before certain members of Congress were notified and that only occurred because the Justice Department was threatening to walk and whistleblower on the whole program.

Because Cheney and, therefore, Bush saw the president as the sole interpreter of the law, terrorism suspects were denied habeas corpus and tortured at Guantanamo, Cheney refused to submit to inquiries from Congress or the Justice Department, and neither believed they had to ask Congress for the right to go to war in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Needless to say, this is not in line with the checks and balance of power between the three branches of federal government I have been taught in every single U.S. history, government, or civics course I have taken in my eighteen years of formal education in this country.

I did listen to Gellman’s book on audio, and I was apprehensive about doing so because with nonfiction books on particularly controversial topics I like to see and, occasionally, check extensive footnotes. But I could not get my hands on a print version before my book club meeting. This might be one of the few nonfiction books where an audiobook is effective because Gellman relies upon extensive interviews rather than printed materials to constructive his narrative and, therefore, I did not miss referencing footnotes or a bibliography. The narrator, Brian Keith Lewis, also does a great job of differentiating between the voices of the different interviewees; he had President Bush’s slight twang and slower speech pattern down pat.

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