It's been joked about since George W. Bush sat down in the Oval Office -- that the real chief executive is nominal second banana Richard Bruce Cheney. But if after four years you don't have any notion of Cheney beyond his sneer and his "go fuck yourself," consider John Nichols' scathing political biography Dick: The Man Who Is President your formal introduction to this most secretive, and most influential, of White House figures.
Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, argues that Cheney is simply the most powerful veep ever, and a singularly Machiavellian operator; he is also the wellspring, or at minimum the keystone, of much that progressives abhor about Bush 2.0, from its abysmal energy policy to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Drawing on original reporting begun in 1996, when Cheney was seeking the Republican nomination for president, Nichols paints a fascinating if ultimately repulsive portrait of a man driven not so much by any half-baked ideology as by the raw pursuit of power. From his first days in politics, the Yale dropout and member of the Vietnam-era draft-avoidance Hall of Fame has excelled primarily at accepting thankless tasks that put him close to sources of power, then patiently waiting for the chance to elbow aside those who stand in his way. It's a strategy that served him well in the Nixon and Ford administrations -- where as a relative political novice he undermined no less than Henry Kissinger -- up to and beyond his infamous chairmanship of the search committee for a Bush II veep, which settled on none other than ... Richard Bruce Cheney.
Wielding a snappy wit, Nichols relies heavily on earlier books, including James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, but has done a lot of legwork too. He exposes Cheney's faux roots as a Wyomingite, and recounts Cheney's virulently reactionary voting record in the '80s as "Apartheid's Congressman." Perhaps most infuriating is the story of how, as Bush I's secretary of defense, Cheney fought a successful rear-guard action against the peace dividend -- including his efforts to begin privatizing the military, all to the benefit of companies such as the one he later headed (Halliburton) and which would reap rewards with him as veep. If you doubt that Cheney fits his sarcastic self-description as "the evil genius in the corner," Dick will go leagues toward dispelling it.