Is Cheney Evil or Just a Weasel?

By likening Dick to He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, we confirm the bully’s power rather than undermine it

BY Susan J. Douglas

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Cheney has done some scary things, but likening to him to He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, we confirm his power rather than undermine it.

The Dark Lord. Voldemort. Darth Vader. The Shadow President. These threatening, macho soubriquets have been applied to Dick Cheney over the past six years, and are in rapid circulation in the wake of recent charges that Cheney’s office, beginning in 2003, refused to submit annual reports about how it classifies secret documents to the National Archives’ Security Oversight Office. Turns out Cheney claims to be above such laws. The Washington Post’s June 24-27 series by Pulitzer Prize winner Barton Gellman and Jo Becker about Cheney’s ruthless and determined consolidation of power in the White House has further burnished the Dark Lord aura.

But the time has come to dispatch these heavily armored nicknames and go with another. I propose “Weasel.” In an era when image is everything, it’s time to change the image and attack the power.

Yes, Cheney has been scary for a long time, has done evil things, and his iron-jawed, gravel-voiced, unflinching assertion of certitude (often in clear contradiction to the Constitution) has protected him and his policies. But by likening him to He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, we confirm his power rather than undermine it. That’s why I like “Weasel.” Other comparable nominations are most welcome, as long as they convey furtiveness, evasion, prevarication and cowardice.

Obsessed with secrecy and domination, Cheney is a bully. And within every bully lies a coward, someone, for example, who waits 20 hours before notifying the media that he has accidentally shot a friend and then has a woman make the announcement for him. Macho, macho man.

Cheney’s long overdue need for ridicule is why we should be grateful that so many young people get their news from The Daily Show. Cheney’s office made the preposterous assertion that he didn’t have to comply with the Executive Order mandating the annual reports to the National Archives because he wasn’t part of the executive branch. Unfortunately for a dignified correspondent like ABC’s Martha Raddatz, the constraints of her job confined her to reporting, with a straight face, that Cheney has used “the opposite argument in the past, citing executive privilege when asked for information about his travel and visitors to his office.”

Jon Stewart, under no such proscriptions, can provide the level of disbelief that matches the outrageousness of this latest Cheney gambit. What The Daily Show consistently does best is juxtapose video of administration officials making their bogus pronouncements with video clips from the past, showing them saying the exact opposite. So Stewart showed Cheney on tape emphatically asserting executive privilege because he’s in the, er, executive branch. Stewart then looked into the camera to tell Americans that Cheney has always meant “to come up to us personally and say ‘go fuck ourselves.’ “

Now, for the sake of comparison, let’s imagine an administration official who has made a decision that goes very wrong, one in which people, including children, die. This official, only on the job for a month, could have blamed the FBI, which had urged the disastrous course of action, but did not. Instead, the official said, simply, “I’m responsible.”

That official was Janet Reno and she immediately admitted that the decision to assault the Branch Davidian compound in Waco with tear gas, leading to a conflagration that killed more than 80 people, was “obviously wrong.” The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had begun the confrontation with the Branch Davidians on Feb. 28, 1993, two weeks before Reno was even confirmed; this was a catastrophe she inherited and yet came to own. She did not hide from the press or retreat to an undisclosed location; she appeared on CNN and “Nightline,” and told Ted Koppel, “I think it’s one of the great tragedies of this time.” As Laura Blumenfeld wrote for the Post, “It is clear that a different kind of bird has nested at Justice … . The attorney general’s candor may surprise those used to politicians who duck and cover when things go wrong.” Several months later Reno’s approval ratings were higher than Clinton’s and she had one of the lowest unfavorable ratings of anyone in his administration. Nonetheless, because Reno was also deeply threatening to American gender norms–she simply looked at the masquerade of femininity women are supposed to don and said “No thanks”–she was the ongoing butt of jokes on Leno, Letterman and, of course, Will Ferrell’s SNL “Janet Reno’s Dance Party.” No protective covering for her.

Commentary about Dick Cheney should now strip him of his various creepy veneers because they give him the cover that makes his power seem all that much more unassailable. As the indefatigable Rep. Henry Waxman, the Post and others go after him for his serial assaults on democracy and the rule of law, the macho language surrounding him should give way to images evoking an utter inability to ever face the music. Cheney et al. have attacked others who threaten their power with variations on the “girly-man” slur. But when you think about standing tall and alone, having true courage and taking the heat for your mistakes, who is the true girly-man: Janet Reno or Dick “Weasel” Cheney?

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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