The sly little political joke of the past two years is that President Donald Trump is the best thing that ever happened to George W. Bush. The outrages committed by the current commander-in-chief almost – almost — make us forget his predecessor’s bumblings.
But Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, isn’t so lucky.
A lot of us started the new year remembering Cheney by heading over to the Senator Theatre to see the film “Vice,” starring Academy Award-winning actor Christian Bale and directed by Adam McKay. It’s Cheney’s life story. You want a political villain whose sins live long after his power waned, here’s your man.
But in Cheney’s case, it’s not enough to count the sins. You have to count the bodies as well — all those killed or maimed since we blundered into multiple wars in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
All these years later, it’s still mind-boggling that we attacked Iraq even though the Bush-Cheney team’s national security people were insisting there was no “credible evidence” that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the terrorist attacks here.
But Cheney, now 77 and arguably the most powerful vice president in American history, sloughed off such assurances. He’s the one who launched the lies about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction.
I wish the movie had made more of that deception. It was Cheney who fed the phony WMD story to New York Times reporter Judith Miller. It was a deal with the devil. In exchange for the story, all Miller had to do was conceal that Cheney was her source.
So The Times ran the story and, on one of the Sunday morning TV talk shows a few days later, Cheney reiterated the WMD allegation, adding that if we didn’t believe him, “It’s even in the New York Times.”
Of course it was – he was the one who secretly put it there!
The movie makes too little of that deception, and of Cheney’s Halliburton connections as well. Cheney was CEO of the American oil field service corporation from 1995 to 2000 when he gave it up to run for vice president.
But he didn’t quite give it up. He continued getting bonuses and deferred compensation – in the millions — from his old firm. And once the wars got started, Halliburton somehow went from being the 22nd biggest military contractor to the seventh biggest.
That’s one of the gnawing aftereffects of “Vice.” There’s so much material about Cheney that makes you want to scream (remember “enhanced” questioning becoming the euphemism for torture?), but there’s so much that the movie only skims.
Some of us left the theater wishing “Vice” had spent less time on Cheney’s early career and more on the vice presidential years – the real years of outrage and injustice, whose memory might have faded during the ongoing Trump saga until this movie reminder came along.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.