VICE Recovers Grim History for An Amnesiac America


By Peter Laarman

When, in relatively tranquil days of yore, Gore Vidal would sneeringly refer to the “United States of Amnesia,” I thought he was overdoing it. I don’t think that now.

The prologue to Adam McKay’s film about Dick Cheney, which has a fair shot at winning Best Picture on Oscar night, includes a telling reference to a corrosive culture of distraction that has clearly grown worse in the years since we said goodbye to Bush-Cheney (or was it Cheney-Bush?). McKay wants us to see that overworked and overstressed people can hardly be expected to sort out what pols and pundits are saying, especially as the fiercely politicized cable channels ramp up the noise. When the film later directs our attention to the trashing of the Fairness Doctrine under the Elder Bush, and then to the early career of Fox News creator/archfiend Roger Ailes as a trusted Nixon ally, we behold the very roots of today’s cable wars and the thuggish Right’s “fake news” barrage. 

These are important clues to what McKay is up to in a film that is too important to be ignored by anyone who struggles to use real history as a weapon (in the sense suggested by James Baldwin) during our own time of rampant evil and wrenching constitutional crisis. 

To focus on the example that is immediately before us, our unhinged current president is already exercising near-autocratic executive power through his response to a trumped-up (sorry) “border emergency.” A Supreme Court that includes two of his appointees will doubtless back him up, in which case he is quite likely to undertake still more dictatorial power plays. McKay wants us to know that Trump might well succeed in this maneuver thanks to the specious legal theory of the “unitary executive” developed by Antonin Scalia and David Addington and warmly embraced by a rapidly ascendant Dick Cheney. 

Yes, David Addington. I’m guessing you forgot about him, or never even registered the name. But none of us should forget it. David Addington, John Yoo, Douglas Feith, and I. “Scooter” Libby are among the scoundrel lawyers closely associated with Cheney’s reign as Prince of Darkness. These are men who betrayed both their country and the law. Only Libby ever suffered ill consequences for his misdeeds; the rest of these wretches live off the fat of the land today, and even Libby has now been rehabilitated (as has the rebarbative Elliott Abrams, apparently now masterminding our latest Venezuela adventure).

Addington and Yoo: think torture, extraordinary renditions, and warrantless surveillance. All tools still available to any president who wants to use them, regardless of what Barack Obama might have told you. Their legal memos are still on Justice Department books, ready for activation as needed. 

McKay’s film is crazy-making because he needs it to succeed as entertainment, and there is nothing funny about an imagined festive dinner of the ghouls. In this scene, a fawning maitre d’ gives Cheney, Rumsfeld, Addington, and Paul Wolfowitz a detailed menu of all the abominations they can commit. Cheney, presiding, hands back the menu and mutters, “We’ll have them all.”

I can’t really object to this burlesque, in part because we can be confident that a filmed version of the estimable Noam Chomsky lecturing about these same abominations would probably not be doing well in commercial theaters, let alone contending for an Academy Award.

I’m all for big-screen projects with an edge of propaganda, provided they are rooted in real history. Is it true that Colin Powell was horribly humiliated by Donald Rumsfeld in a White House meeting and then ordered by the feckless George W. Bush, at Cheney’s prompting, to give that infamous UN speech naming Iraq as the source of 9/11 and the bearer of the nuclear capability to attack the United States? (Does it matter? He gave the speech.) Is it true that Cheney’s elevation of the importance of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a fairly minor al-Qaeda fighter based in Iraq, eventually led to the formation of ISIS? (What I remember best is Bush struggling to pronounce “Zarqawi.”) 

Questions like these are less important than the fact that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks, killed at least 600,000 Iraqis and ensured that we remain enmeshed in forever wars with jihadi militants in at least ten countries.

Brown University’s respected Cost of War project puts the post-9/11 fiscal cost of these engagements at $5.9 trillion and counting. The Army War College just concluded (surprise, surprise) that the big winner of the catastrophic Iraq war is Iran. We will never see the end of this. And yes, suicide rates among veterans who have served in these forever wars are at astronomical levels. Moral injury is a real thing. 

We cannot avert our eyes. For that we should be grateful to McKay and hope that his film will have legs beyond February 24. Tremendous performances by Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, should help. The subplot about Dick and Lynne abandoning their earlier support of lesbian daughter Mary in order to help straight daughter Liz get elected to Congress should help. Some clever bits about Cheney’s faulty heart(s) should help. 

One quibble. This film is all about men, Amy Adams’s stunning evocation of Lynne Cheney notwithstanding. I would gladly have traded detail on Cheney’s early rise for some focus on Lynne’s nefarious culture warfare. She is presented as a Lady Macbeth type, but McKay perhaps forgets that she harbored serious ambitions of her own and could wield power as ruthlessly as Dick. We see her before, during, and after her turbulent stint as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. No wringing of bloody hands for her. Mess with her triumphalist version of U.S. history and prepare for Lynne Cheney to mow you down like so many clay pigeons. 

McKay may simply have lacked room within his many-layered chronicle to tell the whole Lynne Cheney story. As well, plumbing the depths of the evil among the male imperialists must have been irresistibly attractive to McKay, who earlier displayed a knack for taking apart the testosterone set in The Big Short

Critics who dismiss McKay as a crank conspiracy theorist might consider the juicy stuff he chooses to overlook. For example, he ignores the neoconservatives’ Project for a New American Century. Were I making this film, I would have played that up. 

And while he has a lot of fun with Cheney’s thing for hunting and fishing, McKay does nothing with a little tidbit that can warm the heart of any real conspiracy theorist. To wit, how could it be that barely a month following the September 11 attacks, the mastermind of the “war on terror,” then still said to be at a “secure and undisclosed location,” would be happily shooting ducks and pheasants at a rich man’s hunting club in Upstate New York–a club much favored by senior energy executives? This oddity never garnered press attention, apart from a tiny item in The New Yorker. 

I was aware of this Elmer Fudd moment in Dutchess County, because at the time I had a small farmhouse + 2 acres in the middle of the elite hunting club’s 4,000 acres. When I was finally able to get up there, following weeks of grief and loss and work in the city, my neighbors in Clove Valley could not wait to tell me about Cheney’s visit, complete with helicopters hovering high overhead and lit-up police cruisers blocking both ends of our narrow road. Apparently, it was Exxon-Mobil weekend at the club. 


Make of that what you will. Also be assured that the “deep state” the Trumpists continue to talk about is no lefty conspiracy. There is a deep state, and it’s everything represented by one Richard Bruce Cheney, still improbably alive thanks to a transplanted heart (and whether he cut the line to get it remains a state secret).


Peter Laarman is a retired minister and justice activist living in Los Angeles. He volunteers his time to support a criminal justice and anti-racism project called Justice Not Jails.