Watching Dick Cheney on US TV, I tried to remember a quote from George Washington's farewell address in which he outlined all the dangers which might encircle the new republic. So I looked up the speech and found myself captivated by the beauty of the language and by Washington's wisdom and knowledge of human nature. It is right to call it one of the great works of civilisation.
Language is the man. Washington's virtue, his learning, courage and experience shine in every phrase of that address, just as President Bush's inadequacy is laid bare whenever he tries to explain his policies. If a politician cannot write or speak fluently, you can bet he or she is not thinking fluently, perhaps not even thinking at all.
I would guess Bush falls into the latter category. He has plenty of reflexes, of the loony patriotic and religious kind, but no reflection. When you listen to him stumbling at the microphone, there is no sense of anything but the most average of intellects. It is not that he is lacking Washington's powers of expression; it is that he has nothing to say, for, in truth, the interior dialogue of George W Bush is little more than random flares of static.
Vice President Dick Cheney doesn't speak much but when he does, he is clear-headed to a point of chilliness. He knows where he's going and how to get there. He is one of the more terrifying figures ever to ascend to a position of power in America.
The quotation I was trying to remember comes when Washington warns of the dangers of parties and factionalism. 'They are likely to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.'
No one can yet claim that Washington's grim prediction has been realised, but controversies surrounding the Vice President should alert us to the danger of at least the perception of conflicts of interest.
Cheney represents an administration that stands accused of barbaric capitalism, unflinching greed for oil, the exploitation of nature, the violation of the American wilderness, the torture of untried prisoners, the bombing of innocent civilians and the lies that preceded the war in Iraq. He is seen as the heartless embodiment of the military-industrial complex, a phrase, incidentally, invented by President Eisenhower in his valedictory address in 1961, at just about the time a young Cheney flunked Yale and went to work as a power lineman.
It is worth remembering what Eisenhower said, because he also saw the dangers of potential conflicts of interest, but more specifically than Washington. 'This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience... in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.'
Cheney has been around a long time. He embedded early, serving under Donald Rumsfeld in the Nixon and Ford administrations, as a congressman for Wyoming, Secretary of Defence under the first Bush and finally Vice President to the second Bush. This relentless political and technocratic career was interrupted once when he went off in the Nineties to head Halliburton, the products and service provider to the oil industry and military, and made himself $60-$70 million, in what could be perceived as an advance payment for the billions Halliburton has earned during George W's presidency.
Eisenhower was right. The weight of the power of the combination does endanger liberty. In its focus on profit and military might, it could be seen as careless of all humane considerations. To know this, you only have to look at last week's statements from the White House after the Washington Post revealed the existence of a secret network of facilities in eastern Europe in which terror suspects were being interrogated. After a week almost as bad as Tony Blair's, the President assured the US public that his government had not authorised the use of the torture in this re-purposed gulag.
The Vice President has laid himself open to criticism. Lewis Libby, his chief of staff, stands indicted for leaking Valerie Plame's name to the New York Times and then lying about it.
Cheney cannot rid himself of claims that contracts have been steered Halliburton's way. And it is widely assumed that his membership of the National Petroleum Council, an oil- man's club, is responsible for the administration's resistance to energy conservation and the general hostility to climate scientists.
But it is Cheney's campaign to go to war against America's former ally and armaments customer, Saddam Hussein, which might be the undoing of him. There is a new, rigorous standard being applied in Congress, almost totally absent in the last four years. Senator Harry Reid, the Democrat minority leader, ambushed the Republicans with a demand to go into closed session, having made a speech about the Republican's prevarication on the investigation of the intelligence which led to war.
How did the Bush administration set out its case for war? he demanded in the name of the American people. Who did it listen to and who did it ignore? How did senior administration officials manipulate and manufacture intelligence presented to Congress? How did the administration co-ordinate its efforts to attack individuals who dared to challenge its assertions? Did this come from Cheney's office?
Blair survived similar probes, but here the anger is more intense because most Americans trusted and believed Bush when he said Iraq harboured al-Qaeda terrorists. They could barely credit his brass neck when, wearing his goofiest expression, he admitted: 'We have no evidence Saddam was involved in 9/11.' He looked like a juvenile offender unable to comprehend his crime or the pain it had caused.
The mood has swung since I was last here in May. The mainstream media then were so in awe of the White House's vindictiveness and Teutonic discipline that few dared step out of line. But journalists have taken heart from the polls which are registering a deep concern in the American people, even among some Republicans, who have finally grasped the unwholesome nature of their government: 57 per cent of Americans believe Bush deliberately misled the public before the war; 70 per cent believe Cheney was responsible. And 79 per cent believe the indictment of 'Scooter' Libby is a serious matter. At the height of Lewinsky affair, only 65 per cent thought it was serious matter.
There is a long way to go. It is impossible to predict the outcome of the multiple crises and scandals gripping the administration. But the fact remains that there is almost no greater crime for a President than taking the country to war on falsified evidence. That penny has dropped with the American people and they want answers to Senator Reid's questions.
George Washington's ideals can still be heard in the speeches of men like Reid and his fellow Democrat, Robert Byrd, who made the most moving appeal in the Senate before the invasion. 'To contemplate war,' he said, 'is to think about the most horrible of human experiences. Yet, this chamber is, for the most part, silent - ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing.'
At least that is no longer true.
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