There are moments in the life of every politician when the public gets an unfiltered glimpse of the person behind the platitudes. For the first President Bush, it was cameras catching his wonderment at a supermarket scanner. For Mike Dukakis, it was his bobble head impression in the tank. And for Bill Clinton, it was his pained effort to define what “is” is.
But we are rarely treated to the morsels Vice President Dick Cheney recently served up. By the time he had finished a trio of public statements, Cheney confirmed our worst fear: He is divorced from reality.
First, Cheney held up Fox News Channel as the pinnacle of objective reporting. Despite the brazen sensationalism and hard-right tilt that have made Fox the laughingstock of American journalism, Cheney last month told thousands of Republican Party loyalists that he “ends up spending a lot of time watching Fox News, because they’re more accurate” than any other media outlet. Of course, just last year, a University of Maryland study found that Fox may well be the most inaccurate news organization in America. The study found, among other things, that 80 percent of people, like Cheney, who watched Fox held at least one major factual misperception about the war in Iraq — a far higher rate than viewers of any other network.
A few weeks later, Cheney cited Wal-Mart as “one of our nation’s best companies,” ignoring its poverty-level wages, mistreatment of workers and repeated violations of environmental law. He claimed the company “exemplifies some of the very best qualities in our country — hard work, the spirit of enterprise, fair dealing and integrity.” He failed to mention the 60 federal complaints against the company for workplace violations, Wal-Mart’s decisions to lock workers into stores and charges that it doctored hourly employees’ time records in order to skimp on wages. Instead, he parroted the Wal-Mart executives, the same ones who are bankrolling the Bush-Cheney campaign, and called for “litigation reform,” saying the problem afflicting America is pesky workers who have the nerve to challenge corporate malfeasance in court.
Finally, amidst increasing U.S. casualties and international uproar over prisoner abuse in Iraq, Cheney said, “Donald Rumsfeld is the best Secretary of Defense the United States has ever had.” The statement effectively endorsed Rumsfeld’s failure to plan for post-war Iraq and his dishonest statements about Iraq’s (still non-existent) WMD arsenal. It also undermined Bush administration apologies for Abu Ghraib by giving a public vote of confidence to the same defense secretary who supported the brutal interrogation tactics.
As shocking as these declarations are, they are really no surprise in the context of Cheney’s past public statements. For instance, early this year, Cheney cited a document previously discredited by the Bush Pentagon as the “best source” of information about a Saddam-al Qaeda link (none has ever been proved). And Cheney continues to trumpet his former oil company Halliburton as a beacon of corporate ethics, even as the company bilks taxpayers and mistreats U.S. troops in Iraq.
Yes, these out-of-touch comments evoke jokes about spending too much time in a secure undisclosed location. But they also illustrate something far more serious: the man who in one instant could be president has lost touch with reality. His judgment is so severely impaired that he relies on Fox for facts, Wal-Mart for economics, Halliburton for ethics and Don Rumsfeld for security. Cheney’s psychological profile has become suspiciously similar to your “crazy Uncle Ned” — a man you don’t want anywhere near your family. And yet, just one heartbeat separates Uncle Ned from all of our families.
Pundits will say that nothing Cheney says or does will affect the election. They will point to data proving Americans have never before made vice presidential nominees a deciding factor in their vote for president. (What else could explain Dan Quayle?) But with the security failures of 9/11 and the casualties mounting in Iraq, Americans have a renewed appreciation for steady hands and sound judgment in the White House. That means the paradigm could shift, and the vice presidential candidates could face unprecedented scrutiny. At that point, Cheney would become the real albatross around the Bush campaign’s neck, the perfect symbol of an out of touch and out of control administration that should be voted out of office.