WASHINGTON — It must be the voice.
It is the basso pretendo profundo voice of the dean of boys in a strict private school. At the tables of power, he speaks so sparsely and softly in that low hypnotic monotone, with that lower jaw tilting to the side in a self-assured "I only talk out of one side of my mouth" kind of way, that others at the table have no choice but to listen up. He is the one who must be obeyed.
Dick Cheney's dry Wyoming voice has the same effect on some male Republicans, starting at the very top, and even some journalists, that a high-pitched whistle has on a dog. How else to explain the vice president's success in creating a parallel universe inside the White House that is shaping the real universe?
Congressman Charles Rangel of New York introduced a resolution this week urging President Bush to fire Donald Rumsfeld for misleading the American public about how well the war and the occupation are going, and for sending American forces into battle "without adequate planning" and showing "a lack of sensitivity" about U.S. casualties.
Certainly, Rummy is a worthy target. But maybe Mr. Rangel should aim higher. If the Pentagon is responsible for mismanaging the occupation in Iraq, it is the vice president's office that is responsible for the paranoid vision — the "with us or against us" biceps flex against the world — that got us into this long, hard slog.
This week's Newsweek cover story on the vice president characterized a recent article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker as raising the question of whether "Cheney had, in effect, become the dupe of a cabal of neoconservative full-mooners, the Pentagon's mysteriously named Office of Special Plans, and the patsy of an alleged bank swindler and would-be ruler of Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi."
Mr. Cheney's parallel universe is a Bizarro world where no doubts exist. He indulges in extremes of judgment, overpessimistic about our ability to contain Saddam and overoptimistic about the gratitude we would encounter as "liberators" in Iraq.
In Cheneyworld, the invasion of Iraq has made the world a safer place (tell it to the Italians), W.M.D. are still concealed in all those Iraqi basements, every Iraqi insurgent is a card-carrying member of Al Qaeda, and the increase in attacks on Americans reflects the guerrillas' desperation, not their strengths. Guerrilla attacks on American soldiers are labeled acts of terrorism rather than acts of war, even though the official U.S. definition describes terrorism as attacks on civilians.
As Eric Schmitt reported in The Times this week, Mr. Cheney has implied in recent speeches that Al Qaeda is responsible for the major attacks in Iraq this past summer, even though senior military and intelligence officials say there is no conclusive evidence for that. Clearly, Mr. Cheney remains oblivious to the fact that the president has already had to correct the vice president's previous assertion that the government did not know whether Saddam Hussein had a connection to the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Bush conceded that "no, we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th."
But while some have suggested that the president feels let down by Mr. Rumsfeld, he still seems seduced by the siren call of that deep Cheney voice and lugubrious Cheney world view. As Newsweek suggested, quoting those who know him: "Cheney has always had a Hobbesian view of life. The world is a dangerous place; war is the natural state of mankind; enemies lurk."
Mr. Cheney's darkness ends up dominating Mr. Bush's lightness.
As Newsweek noted, the vice president cherry-picks the intelligence, then feeds his version of reality to Mr. Bush. The president leaves himself open to manipulation because, by his own admission, he doesn't read the papers and relies on his inner circle to filter information to him.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported yesterday that the C.I.A. had issued a top-secret report from Iraq, endorsed by Paul Bremer, warning that growing numbers of Iraqis are concluding that the U.S. can be defeated and are supporting the insurgents.
The question is whether other voices can ever break through that sonorous ominous murmuring in the president's ear.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company