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The Cheney myth
The veep’s reputation is that of ‘the evil genius.’ His record at Halliburton, though, reveals him to be nothing more than a corrupt, incompetent hack.

FROM THE MOMENT Dick Cheney selected himself as George W. Bush’s running mate, he has cultivated an image of hypercompetent malevolence. Especially since 9/11, the vice-president’s calm, serious-as-four-heart-attacks, vaguely menacing demeanor has been his principal asset, reassuring doubters that the callow Bush had as his consigliere someone who knew precisely how to deal with Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and their ilk. A bad man for bad times, you might say. Or as Cheney himself once put it, "Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It’s a nice way to operate, actually."

Look more closely, though, and it becomes clear that Cheney’s reputation is vastly overblown. The truth is that Cheney is a lifelong screw-up, a mediocre functionary with a mediocre mind. As a young man, Cheney flunked out of Yale and got busted twice for drunk driving. As an up-and-coming government bureaucrat, he was responsible for tactical errors that arguably led to the defeat of the first president he served, Gerald Ford. And as the second-most-powerful person on the planet, he overhyped uncertain intelligence and told outright lies in order to drag the United States into the war in Iraq, our worst foreign-policy blunder since Vietnam.

As John Nichols, Washington correspondent for the Nation, writes in his recently published biography of Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President (New Press), "Cheney did not rise on the basis of his competence, as the official spin would have it. His career has been characterized by dashed hopes, damaging missteps, and dubious achievements. No, it was not competence; rather, Cheney has climbed the ladder of success because of his willingness, proven again and again, to sacrifice principle and the public good in the service of his own ambition and of those who might advance it."

Nowhere is the disconnect between Cheney’s reputation and his actual achievements more apparent than in the way he ran Halliburton Company, the giant (2003 revenue: nearly $16.3 billion) Texas oil-services firm over which he presided from 1995 to 2000. Halliburton has emerged as a persistent theme in the 2004 presidential campaign, with John Kerry and John Edwards regularly ripping into the company for the no-bid contract it won to rebuild Iraq’s oil infrastructure, and for the charges of mismanagement and corruption that have dogged Halliburton since its employees arrived in the Middle East.

"I didn’t want to give a slush fund to Halliburton," Kerry said at the first presidential debate as he attempted to explain why he’d voted against the $87 billion (to equip American troops and for the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan) after voting for it. During the vice-presidential debate, Edwards talked about Halliburton so much that he started to sound like a lawyer for dissident shareholders. "We ... thought it was wrong to have a $20 billion fund out of which $7.5 billion was going to go to a no-bid contract for Halliburton, the vice-president’s former company," Edwards said. And: "While he was CEO of Halliburton, they paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false information on their company, just like Enron and Ken Lay." (Not quite true, as we shall see. But not that far off, either.) And: "They did business with Libya and Iran, two sworn enemies of the United States. They’re now under investigation for having bribed foreign officials during that period of time."

Cheney’s response was to recommend that viewers go to FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan Web site sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that has called some of the criticism regarding Cheney’s tenure at Halliburton overblown. Only that’s not quite what Cheney said; instead, he referred to "FactCheck.com." And the folks at the company that owns FactCheck.com, fearing its server would crash, forwarded traffic to GeorgeSoros.com, the online home of the billionaire liberal activist, meaning that anyone who took the vice-president’s advice could enjoy yet another round of vigorous Cheney-bashing.

To most Cheney detractors, the image of Halliburton is that of a sleazy war profiteer. The truth is both more complicated and darker than that. By most accounts, few companies have the expertise to do the work Halliburton has carried out since 9/11, which ranges from building prison cells at Guantánamo Bay to feeding American troops in Iraq. Much of this is hard, dangerous, and thankless. As of this month, 48 employees and subcontractors of Halliburton’s Kellogg Brown & Root subsidiary had been killed in Iraq. (Naturally, Cheney’s successor as Halliburton’s CEO, David Lesar, has shamelessly exploited their deaths, lamenting in an op-ed published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that "instead of their praises being sung, their work is under attack, and the company’s contract with the government has become a target in this presidential campaign." Excuse us, Mr. Lesar. This isn’t about them; it’s about you.)

What’s troubling about Halliburton isn’t that it’s gotten rich off a tragically misbegotten war. Rather, it’s that Halliburton has skirted the edges of legality and morality for many years, most definitely including the Cheney years. John Edwards barely scratched the surface when he ran through his laundry list of complaints. What matters isn’t whether there have been a few cost overruns and some contract gamesmanship in the Middle East. What matters is that Halliburton, in many respects, represents the worst of corporate America, messing with the books, doing business with terrorist states, and cutting deals of questionable legality with oppressive regimes around the world.

Dick Cheney was both a beneficiary and an exemplar of this culture of greed, arrogance, and corruption. He enriched himself by an estimated $44 million. And he managed to do a pretty inept job of running the company while he was at it.

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Issue Date: October 22 - 28, 2004
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