Goldstein Grades “Vice”

When VICE, the new Dick Cheney biopic, was released we couldn’t wait to get Joel Goldstein’s opinion of the film. Goldstein is the preeminent expert on the vice presidency and wrote extensively about how Cheney worked to transform the role and influence of the office in his book The White House Vice Presidency.

“Cheney established an unprecedented level of vice-presidential influence during Bush’s first term,” he wrote in his 2017 book. “Cheney functioned primarily as an adviser who could become involved in any issue and attend any meeting.” His take on the film follows…

VICE by Joel Goldstein

The vice presidency is not usually the subject of December box office movie sensations. Long before Vice President John Nance Garner said that the vice presidency wasn’t worth a bucket of warm whatever-liquid- he-really-said, his predecessor, Thomas Marshall, joked about the parents who had two sons, one who went to sea, one became vice president, neither was ever heard from again.

Dick Cheney, the 46th vice president, thought the nation’s second office was worth giving up a bucket of dollars and incentives as Halliburton’s CEO, and has been heard from since, again and again.  And now, a decade after he left office, his political life is the subject of the smash movie, “Vice.”

Cheney might have preferred that the movie be called “Vice President,” rather than “Vice,” but the choice of title was not inadvertent.  Moviemaker Adam McKay is clearly not a Cheney fan.  Cheney was an architect of the Bush administration’s war against Iraq, authorization of interrogation techniques many considered torture, and the warrantless surveillance program, and the title speaks to the conclusion that these and other initiatives were neither virtuous nor wise.

The movie also rests on familiar, yet exaggerated or mistaken, premises, about Cheney’s vice presidency. For instance, the movie disparages the pre-Cheney vice presidency as a nothing job.  After Cheney initially declined to be Governor George W. Bush’s running mate but agreed to head the vice-presidential search (which did actually happen), the Dick and Lynne Cheney characters (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) trash the office during a private exchange.  We don’t know whether the conversation took place but it totally mischaracterized the office as of 2000 when the events allegedly occurred. Under President Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale had invented and implemented the White House vice presidency almost a quarter century earlier, George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle had basically followed Mondale’s model in their vice presidencies, and Al Gore was nearing the end of what was at that point the most engaged two-term vice presidency in history.

“Vice” implies that Cheney’s initial refusal to run with Bush was part of a Machiavellian plot  whereby Cheney would escape the scrutiny vice-presidential contenders usually get (what Joe Lieberman once analogized to “a colonoscopy without anesthesia”), control the search, and ultimately land the spot in a stronger position nonetheless.  Perhaps, but I doubt it.   More likely, Cheney was reluctant to leave his high-paying CEO gig at Haliburton for an uncertain run for vice president but, as he became comfortable working with Bush and saw the possibilities of life as the number two to a president who liked to delegate and as he saw the limited alternative options available to Bush, warmed to the idea of accepting the second spot.

The movie advances the familiar premise that in the Bush White House Cheney was the power behind the curtain, the ventriloquist pulling the strings that generated Bush’s words and acts.  Indeed, a familiar joke suggested that Bush was a heartbeat from the presidency.  Yes, Cheney was very powerful, especially in the first term, but Bush, not Cheney, was always president, and Cheney, though influential, was never co-president.  Cheney had used his role directing the 2000-2001 transition to place allies throughout the administration but Cheney generally needed to persuade Bush on important matters.  Although he often succeeded, Cheney lost some battles in the first term and many more in the second term after Bush began to see some of Cheney’s limitations and biases and recognized that some of Cheney’s assurances, including about the war in Iraq, had not been borne out, and that Cheney’s penchant for secrecy often had negative political consequences.

“Vice” does not present this aspect, but Bush believed that Cheney’s lack of presidential ambition would commit him to Bush’s agenda and mitigate the tensions that sometimes develop between the two top officers and their teams.  In fact, Cheney’s lack of presidential ambition made him less democratically accountable.  This characteristic manifested itself most clearly in spring 2004 when Cheney did not let Bush know until the last moment that the justice department was resisting reauthorizing the secret warrantless surveillance program and that some high-level members were prepared to resign over the issue.  Bush recognized that such an event would make the blowback from Richard M. Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre look like back page news by comparison, would expose the program, and would make him a one term president.  He must also have realized that Cheney was not as wise as he had thought.  In any event, Cheney had less influence during the second term than the first and left office with his approval rating under water.

This warrantless surveillance episode is not presented in “Vice” but it is discussed, as are these other points, in The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.  After you watch “Vice,” I hope you’ll pursue them there.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of numerous works on the vice presidency, presidential succession, and constitutional law.