Richard Reeves

Our Man MacHiavelli

NEW YORK -- I suspect that there will be not much debate when jurors get together this coming winter to choose Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University. Few entries will be able to stand up to "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency," a four-part series by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, published in The Washington Post last week.

The series details the operations of this most secretive White House and, with telling examples in both foreign and domestic affairs, of the most influential vice president in history.

It is a formidable piece of journalism, but the story between the lines seemed even more important to me. That story is the hidden Richard Cheney style, which conjures up images of an American Machiavelli.

Like Niccolo Machiavelli, the ambitious and inner-driven 16th-century Italian bureaucrat whose major work was "The Prince," Cheney has studied the intentions and impact of government for decades. Extracting from the Post's accounts, these are the ways Cheney, for better or worse, has adapted the life and lessons of the 500-year-old Florentine court of the Borgias to serve his own agenda and his prince, Bush the younger:

-- Redefine the office. Cheney has emphasized the legislative role of the vice presidency to be able to claim he is not subject to the legal scrutiny affecting other executive branch offices, beginning with the presidency itself.

-- Seek access, intimidating access, to lower levels of government. Cheney simply appears, uninvited, at meetings of lower-level bureaucrats, stifling internal debate and forcing them to answer only to him.

-- Establish information systems that direct department papers into Cheney's office, but block any words coming out.

-- Whenever possible, seize the opportunity to prepare the first paper on any important subject, so that your draft is the basis for further discussion.

-- Proactively relieve the president of tasks he considers onerous, beginning with long intelligence summaries and rough drafts of legislative action. Then have your own office prepare new, shorter summaries serving your own agenda.

-- Effectuate the fait accompli. Cheney's small staff prepared the memo allowing President Bush, in his role as military commander in chief, to shunt foreign terrorism suspects to "military commissions," denying them all access to civilian courts or civilian lawyers. This edict, seen by only four people, was signed in the Oval Office, before Secretary of State Colin Powell or National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice knew the subject was under discussion.

-- Be the last man to speak to the president, by sitting with him as others leave the room, or even by arranging video links to "sit in" while traveling.

-- Work through surrogates -- Cheney's hand is often hidden in policy decisions -- and aggressively seek the placement of lower officials who answer to him rather than to department heads or to the president.

-- Exercise "the educational use of power," a euphemism for humiliating or firing people, not so much for their performance of duty, but as an object lesson for colleagues inclined to challenge the vice president's arguments or agenda.

-- Master language that deliberately contradicts itself, a tactic that keeps alive arguments that seem to be settled. One example was the wording, from the vice president's office, regarding the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo and other prisons: "Humanely and to the extent appropriate with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions."

-- Don't take "no" for a final answer. Continue, flexibly, to come back with rejected proposals in new forms, sent to new venues.

-- Make use of what intelligence operatives call "cut-outs." In other words, have documents or analysis transmitted to lower-level officials without revealing that their actual source is the vice president. Let others, ignorant others, deliver specifics of your own agenda. Leave no fingerprints.

Finally, according to staff and friends, Cheney's sneer is real when he talks about the great American public and the press. He does not believe the public is entitled to know what he does and why, and he does not consider that the press has a valid public purpose. It is a tool to be used sparingly for his own ends. He feels he is accountable only to history.

In other words, like Machiavelli, Cheney's great strength, his mastery of process, is also his great weakness. He does not know or care much about democracy.

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