America and Darkness

I went to see Vice the other night. My daughter urged me to see it. Generally speaking, I don’t like going to movies about people who are still alive. They always feel unfair to me. Not enough time has passed to give us the kind of perspective we need.

Vice is a snarky postmodern biopic about former Vice President Richard Cheney of Wyoming. Cheney, born in 1941, is somehow still alive after five heart attacks spanning his entire adulthood and a full-on heart transplant successfully performed in 2012.

Cheney is portrayed in the film by actor Christian Bale who won the Golden Globe Award for his excellent portrayal—under an amazing and almost unbelievable Hollywood makeover. But Bale weakened his triumph at the Golden Globes by thanking Satan for inspiring his award-winning performance. The film is 132 minutes long but it felt like three hours in the theater.

I saw the film four days ago and I am still trying to claw my way out of a deep citizen’s depression. I’m not being cute here. I cannot remember ever feeling so perfectly disheartened and disillusioned and disturbed by a depiction of America’s role in the world.

All I can say is this. I do not want to live in that America.

I do not want to live in a nation that wages war by way of no-bid contracts, awarded to companies closely associated with the very politicians who make decisions about raining down destruction on real and perceived or even made up enemies around the world. The Cheney-Halliburton connection exemplifies what I dislike most about modern America—the revolving door of politicians who leave office and walk immediately into obscenely lucrative careers with corporations specializing in the dark arts.

I do not want to live in a nation where the military-industrial-petroleum complex has more power than all three branches of our government combined, where politicians are willing agents of secret power clusters that operate without any significant oversight.

I do not want to live in a nation where men like Cheney direct men like Scooter Libby to destroy the career of CIA operative Valerie Plame, the wife of Richard Wilson, merely because her husband, who went to Africa to determine whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was obtaining uranium ore from the nation of Niger, came back with a report that Dick Cheney and the warmongers of the George W. Bush administration did not want to hear.

I do not want to live in a nation where our leaders behave like ruthless and indifferent autocrats—operating without any serious legal, moral, or constitutional restraints—and then mask their naked Machiavellian and Hobbesian actions under a thin smear of civics frosting that allows the rest of us to believe somehow that we still live in something that can be called a democracy.

I do not want to live in a nation that hypes, or fakes, or even invents justifications for waging war against real or perceived enemies. Colin Powell has said that his performance at the United Nations on February 4, 2003, making the best of the very weak case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was the single most shameful moment of his life.

And yet I do live in that country. And you do. If you want to understand the way the world really works, read Stephen Hayes’ Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President, or Peter Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.

When I came out of the film, I drove to a tavern and ordered a beer. But I could not finish my beer. I know the film is a caricature and a hatchet job, but I know too that it provides a largely correct window on the way the world really works, particularly the post 9-11 world.

I have long thought that Dick Cheney was the Dark Star of American political life in my time. I try never to over-simplify complex questions, and I hate the tendency we all have now to demonize people and institutions we don’t agree with. Dick Cheney was elected five times to the US House of Representatives. He served as White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford. He was for eight years the elected Vice President of the United States. He was in the situation room on 9-11, one of the most terrifying and confusing days in American history. He has had access to intelligence reports that are denied to mere citizens like me.

Mr. Cheney’s essential message, during the dark Bush years, with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, with extraordinary renditions, water boarding, enhanced interrogation, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, and much more, was: “If you knew what I know you would understand why we do what we do.” I have felt, through much of that time, that he’s probably right, that you and I are blessed to live with the illusion of participatory democracy, with the illusion that America is a benign and reluctant hegemon, with the illusion that we can usually behave like a due process republic in a troubled world.

Cheney may be right. I dare say he is probably right—that the world is a dramatically more dangerous and dark place than is dreamt of in your and my philosophy, Horatio. Radical Islam has reason to be angry with America the Great Satan, but a radical movement that beheads American journalists on television, that uses DeWalt power equipment to drill holes into the brains of its enemies, on television, that bombs a pizza parlor in Israel on a Tuesday night or a Paris nightclub filled with mere civilians who have little or no linkage to the geopolitics of NATO and the West, is not likely to respond to the Jeffersonian-Wilsonian mantras of the United Nations or the terms of the Geneva Conventions. But I thought we did. And I was wrong. Dick Cheney is not asking us to wake up and smell the Improvised Explosive Device (the IED). Just the opposite. He is asking us to go on about our business without thinking too much about the way the world really works or asking any inconvenient questions, because, like his brother Col. Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men, Cheney’s reply is: “you can’t handle the truth.”

Maybe Dick Cheney is right, but I still don’t want to live in that world. I want to be Canada. I want to be Sweden. I want to be Scotland. I want us to be a quiet rational enlightened nation that edges away from darkness.

I continue to be a Jeffersonian, though perhaps a chastened and disillusioned one. The great Jefferson believed we can, if we educate ourselves continuously and work hard at it, be our best selves much of the time. That is my mission statement for me and for all of you. If I have here described the world behind our illusions correctly, the proper response is not to move to Canada or shrug our shoulders as we walk into Walmart and Costco, but to take back our Jeffersonian republic, one vote at a time.