Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Cheney’s interview with John King. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
In his first interview since leaving the White House, former VP Dick Cheney declared in no uncertain terms that the Obama administration’s reversal of some of the Bush administration’s foreign policies has left America less safe than before.
The substantive claim may well be true. And it doesn’t even matter that Cheney has no credibility having been wrong about the WMDs and the prediction that the Iraqis would greet American troops as liberators. But he makes such bad arguments with so much conviction that he gives us clues as to how we were all hoodwinked by an administration drunk on its own hubris and desire to save us from Evil.
Here, I think, is his central argument against Obama’s attitude towards waterboarding, wiretapping and all the other “legal,” “constitutional” programs his administration pursued:
“Those programs were absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed of being able to collect the intelligence that let us defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the United States since 9/11.”
So the argument goes:
- A. We have had no terrorist attack on American soil since September 11, 2001.
- B. Everything the Bush administration did was therefore instrumental to this positive outcome.
- This argument has no difference in form to this other one:
- C. We had not had a terrorist attack on American soil until September 11, 2001.
- D. Everything the Clinton and Bush administrations did until September 10, 2001 were instrumental to delivering this positive outcome.
If this sounds like a crackpot argument, it is because it asserts a premise and leaps (across galaxies) to a conclusion with utter indifference to the need for counterfactual reasoning. Too often, we allow our politicians to substitute assertion for argument. We have allowed conviction to substitute for reason, and we have paid a heavy price for it.
All the slick moves Cheney made while in office he made again in his interview with CNN’s John King. Here is another telling paragraph in response to King’s probe that Cheney had gone back on his fiscally-conservative principles, in which Cheney displayed his dark rhetorical genius:
- 1. Always start off with a casual reference to September 11.
- “Eight months after we arrived, we had 9/11. We had 3,000 Americans killed one morning by al Qaeda terrorists here in the United States.”
- 2. Deny all agency (and with that culpability) by characterizing every decision as an inevitable bow to necessity.
- “We immediately had to go into the wartime mode. We ended up with two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of that is still very active. We had major problems with respect to things like Katrina, for example.”
- 3. When all logic has been cast aside and one’s sympathetic partisan audience suitably hypnotized, declare an ideological about-face and expect to get away with it with grim determination.
“All of these things required us to spend money that we had not originally planned to spend, or weren’t originally part of the budget.”
Topsy-turvy, Right becomes Left, Wrong becomes Right, spell-binding shenanigans. But, I concede, it’s Cheney’s and every politician’s job and instinct to rewrite history in their favor. In this precise instance, I blame John King for buckling under Cheney’s intimidating sneer and delivering a slew of softball questions with no follow-up.
Cheney may be the original Tricky Dick, but our journalist from “the most trusted name in news” completely failed to pin him down. This is the democracy in which we live, where the mere facade of a free exchange of ideas between rational interlocutors belies us that it is reason and not rhetorical brow-beating that dictates the direction of policy.