Woodward Book, Part III

Today’s installment is entitled, “Cheney Was Unwavering in Desire to Go to War.” Aside from the “no duh” aspect of the title, the main theme is that there was a divide between Colin Powell and, well, everybody. But, of course, we already knew that. Hell, Powell opposed the first Gulf War. Still–if this passage is accurate–it’s clear that there was a personal aspect to this beyond simple difference in temperament:

Cheney and Wolfowitz remarked that Powell was someone who followed his poll ratings and bragged about his popularity. Several weeks earlier in a National Public Radio interview, Powell had said, “If you would consult any recent Gallup poll, the American people seem to be quite satisfied with the job I’m doing as secretary of state.”

He sure likes to be popular, Cheney said.

Wolfowitz said that Powell did bring credibility and that his presentation to the United Nations on weapons of mass destruction intelligence had been important. As soon as Powell had understood what the president wanted, Wolfowitz said, he became a good, loyal member of the team.

An interesting contrast; I’d have expected Wolfowitz to be angry and Cheney to be defending Powell as a team player. After all, they’d had a long working relationship. This passage sheds some light on that:

Colin Powell had always been just one level beneath Cheney in the pecking order. Over three decades he had worked his way up to become the top uniformed military man, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had wound up reporting to Cheney, who had been an improbable pick as defense secretary for Bush’s father when the nomination of Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) was rejected by his Senate colleagues. Then as secretary of state, the senior Cabinet post, Powell was again outranked by Cheney, this time the unexpected pick as vice president. At National Security Council meetings, Cheney sat at Bush’s right hand, Powell at his left.

Powell was often confounded by Cheney. Years earlier, writing his best-selling memoir, Powell kept trying to pin down the remoteness of the man and had drafted and redrafted the sections on Cheney, sending them off to his best friend, Richard L. Armitage, now deputy secretary of state. Not quite right, Armitage kept replying. Powell finally told Armitage he had found a way to be “relatively truthful but not harmful.”

In the final version of “My American Journey,” published in 1995, Powell wrote of Cheney, “He and I had never, in nearly four years, spent a single purely social hour together.” He told of Cheney’s last day as defense secretary, when he had gone to Cheney’s suite of offices at the Pentagon and asked, “Where’s the secretary?” Informed that Cheney had left hours ago, Powell wrote, “I was disappointed, even hurt, but not surprised. The lone cowboy had gone off into the sunset without even a last, ‘So long.’ ”

Powell had different issues with Bush. They were uncomfortable with each other. A sense of competition hovered in the background of their relationship, a low-voltage pulse nearly always present. Powell had considered running for president in 1996. He had had stratospheric poll ratings as the country’s most admired man. For personal reasons and after making a calculation that there were no guarantees in American politics, he had decided not to run. But he had been the man in the wings, the former general and war hero, a moderate voice who would not run in 2000 when George W. Bush did.

Several other passages on the Cheney-Powell tensions are interesting reading as well.

The other point Woodward makes is that, contrary to the views of many, Bush is the ultimate decision maker.

Nearly all presidents have had to deal with vice presidents with real or imagined political futures. Even Bush senior, the super-loyal vice president, broke publicly with President Ronald Reagan several times when he deemed it politically necessary, such as when the Reagan administration was negotiating with Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and Bush had distanced himself from dealings with the unsavory strongman. But Cheney had made it clear he did not aspire to the presidency.

On a few occasions, political adviser Karl Rove and the president had discussed the news stories that Cheney was the one pulling the strings and running things behind the scenes. Some of the White House communications people worried about this. Bush laughed. Both of them had seen how deferential Cheney was. “Yes, Mr. President,” or “No, Mr. President.” It was no different when the president and Cheney were alone.

When the president wasn’t around, Cheney often referred to him as “The Man,” saying, “The Man wants this.” Or, “The Man thinks this.” Cheney was a forceful, persistent advocate, but the president decided. The clearest evidence of that was Cheney’s strenuous objection to going to the United Nations to seek new weapons inspection resolutions. The president had gone against his advice. Cheney had saluted.

Rove argued that the politics of the Cheney-is-in-charge thesis worked in their favor. First, anyone who believed that was long lost to them anyway. Second, Rove wanted them to keep talking about it, throw the campaign into that briar patch. He believed the ordinary person wouldn’t buy it. Here 67 percent were saying Bush was a strong leader and that included a third of the people who disapproved of his performance in office. A strong leader would not kowtow to his vice president, and Bush did not look meek in public.

It’s clear that Bush relies heavily on Cheney, which is reasonable given the strong bond between them and Cheney’s relative Washington experience. But Powell, the major ideological outlier in the Administration, clearly has considerable sway as well, even if it’s only in shaping policy rather than setting it.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    Powell had different issues with Bush. They were uncomfortable with each other. A sense of competition hovered in the background of their relationship, a low-voltage pulse nearly always present.

    This may be reading more into it, on Powell’s part, than is actually there. I believe Bush is a very competitive man, and I would expect that most other highly competitive men would sense that about him simply as a matter of course.

    A man who is highly competitive, but uncomfortable about that fact (which may apply to Powell, given what I’ve seen over the years), would naturally be uncomfortable about Bush’s constant “low-voltage pulse” of competitiveness.

  2. Paul says:

    After only 3 days I’m more convinced than ever this is a boring administration. Really.

    What is the biggest thing we have learned?

    That we made a war plan before we used it and that when you have a bunch of successful alpha males in a room they disagree about the best to way accomplish a shared objective. (gasp)

    Does anyone really expect the team of men guiding this country (and arguably this planet) thru the post 9/11 era would be as confrontational as a knitting club?

    If you are making decisions like this, I damn sure want passion and debate. I’m actually surprised how little of it we have seen.

    A few weeks ago we all watched the video from some (forgotten) asian country where the politicians had a fist fight over banking regulations of all things.

    Certainly the post 9/11 era has been a tad more stressful for our leaders but we don’t see any flying chairs. We have actually seen very little dissension considering the stakes.

    Overall, I’m underwhelmed.