Days after an earthquake and a hurricane, there were no locusts, as some had nervously joked that there might be, but there was a forecast of “heads exploding all over Washington.”
And so they did.
Former vice president Dick Cheney had made the prediction about the reaction to his memoir, In My Time. And if the man who has been a congressman, a defense secretary, and a corporate executive, among other roles, is looking for another career, his predictions may be better than those of the average paid pundit. Most pundits simply don’t know politics the way he does: He has lived it.
They don’t have the experience he does, and some of them don’t even seem to have bothered to read his book. As with many a Washington memoir, most quasi-readers skipped to the hot parts (if they read the book at all before discussing it), in search of the sections that are good for ratings.
But the conventional presentation of those parts as the whole of the book is misleading. The memoir is actually not a series of “cheap shots,” as has been commonly reported. Cheney’s book doesn’t resemble the portrait of it that the media has painted. Ironically enough, the media’s failure to give him a fair hearing was why the man wrote the book in the first place.
For example, Cheney writes about transitioning from searching for a potential vice president to becoming a potential nominee himself. He made sure to sever his financial ties with Halliburton, where he was chairman and CEO. Although “there was no legal requirement that we do so,” he writes, “Lynne and I set up an irrevocable gift trust agreement that would donate all the after-tax profits from these unvested options to three charities: the University of Wyoming, George Washington University Hospital, and Capital Partners for Education, which provides scholarships to inner-city children in Washington, D.C. That agreement has resulted in more than $8 million being donated to charity.”
That will be news to many. As Cheney recalls: “I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but after all the steps I had taken to guard against any possible assertion that I had an ongoing stake in the fortunes of the company, it angered me that my critics continued to make false claims about my ties to Halliburton. During the 2004 campaign, the charges were especially outrageous. Early in that campaign summer, Senator Pat Leahy conducted a conference call as a campaign surrogate in which he suggested I was being dishonest and dishonorable and was profiting from Halliburton business while I was vice president.”
This is not the biggest issue in the world. But it reflects poorly on our sense of fairness that we don’t at least care to hear a man out just because we’ve long ago established an opinion of him.
So much of our public conversation tends to be merely competing spin. With his book, Dick Cheney does a service to students of history by telling his version of events as he remembers them. When the passage of time allows for a more sober consideration of his life and times, the account will be even more revealing.
But Cheney provides perhaps an even more important service: a reminder to read more deeply and more broadly. A reminder that as we hit the refresh button, there is something more out there.
The lesson isn’t entirely received, however, when most of the coverage of the book doesn’t reflect the whole of the book. But when even someone who has spent four decades in and around the halls of political power is surprised that people will lie about one another in politics, that may, oddly, be a good sign. A sign that we expect better of ourselves and our politics.
The Cheney book, in other words, is about much more than his career or “legacy” — to use a common Beltway buzzword. Beyond what you think of him, or Halliburton, or his politics, or his policies, his book reminds us that there are facts, there is truth, and there is a perspective beyond the news cycle we are currently in.
As he recalls from a Sunday-morning sermon prior to a vice-presidential debate:
Suzanne Harris was in the pulpit that morning. Her granddaughter was battling leukemia, and we were all moved as Reverend Harris talked about three-year-old Hannah’s strength and courage, beyond what any child should ever have to demonstrate. She talked about what Hannah’s life taught about faith — “Our faith is not that bad things won’t happen,” she said. “Our faith is that when bad things do happen, God can still use that material to make something holy.” She reminded us that life is short. “We do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us,” she said. “So be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”
Cheney saw campaign staff scattered in the pews and reflected, “I am sure they, like me, figured a prayer or two couldn’t hurt.” He writes: “In the midst of a hard-fought political campaign, her sermon made all of us pause and reflect. Hannah died a few days later, and Suzanne’s words that autumn morning in Jackson are still as fresh in my mind as I write this a decade later.”
In the ups and downs of politics, as we track polls like sports scores, it’s worth remembering that it should always be in service to something greater and more enduring than a campaign or temporal power.
It’s worth remembering as David Gregory asks Michele Bachmann incredulously if she actually believes in God as something more than a mere “safe harbor,” or as Piers Morgan tells Rick Santorum that actually believing what the Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality is “bordering on bigotry.”
We won’t always agree on issues. We may interpret events differently. But we must never simply accept what the crowd says without first gathering a few primary documents, reflecting in the light of reason, and keeping a perspective rooted in something way beyond the headlines of the moment.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.