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Protecting the President's Power

James A. Baker III came to see Wyoming's sole member of Congress on Nov. 19, 1980, days after Ronald Reagan won election as president. He was about to assume the post of White House chief of staff, which then-Rep. Dick Richard B. Cheney (R-Wyo.) had held at the age of 34. Cheney's advice, recorded in four pages of handwritten notes on Baker's yellow legal pad, began with this:

1. Restore power & auth to Exec Branch -- Need strong ldr'ship. Get rid of War Powers Act -- restore independent rights.****** Central theme we ought to push

Cheney's muscular views on presidential power, then and now, offer one answer to the question raised often by former colleagues in recent years: What happened to the careful, mainstream conservative they once thought they understood?

In fact, Cheney's views on executive supremacy -- like many of his core beliefs about foreign policy and defense -- have held remarkably steady over the years. What changed was his power to promote them.

James A. Baker
Cheney's Advice to Baker
Advice from Cheney to then incoming presidential chief of staff James A. Baker filled four pages of a yellow legal pad. View the actual notes and a transcript. More »

In the Ford administration, Cheney backed largely losing arguments on executive authority, resisting the limits set by Congress after the Watergate scandal and the Church Committee's revelations of CIA abuse. He lamented a congressional override of President Gerald R. Ford's veto of amendments strengthening the Freedom of Information Act, opposed the limits on eavesdropping set by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and described the War Powers Act of 1973 as unconstitutional.

Cheney left the White House at what he later called "the low point" of presidential authority. Congress is "all too often swayed by the public opinion of the moment" and is incapable of making the swift decisions required in "a dangerous and hostile world," Cheney said at an American Enterprise Institute conference on Dec. 6, 1983, according to the transcript.

In a turn of phrase he would use many times after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Cheney said -- in the context of Reagan's invasion of Grenada, an island nation with 1,500 men under arms -- that it "might have cost hundreds of lives" had Reagan waited for "the usual dialog and debate about whether Congress would authorize action."

Simply by creating a defense establishment, Cheney said, Congress had "already given prior approval" for any presidential decision on where and how to make war. "We have appropriated the funds and raised the army and purchased the equipment and built the missiles and the bombers, and the president has the authority to make decisions about how to use those things," he said.

Not long before becoming vice president, at a 2000 conference about White House chiefs of staff, Cheney recalled that even as "a congressman, I found that I was still very much taken with the notion, the preeminence, if you will, of the president" in foreign policy and defense.

Every modern president, to some degree, has shared that view. But none -- including Reagan -- took the absolutist path that Cheney urged. Rather than "get rid of" the War Powers Act of 1973, which requires the consent of Congress after any 60-day deployment of U.S. forces abroad, Baker helped Reagan finesse the issue. Without acknowledging an obligation to do so, Baker negotiated a 1983 resolution with then-Rep. Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wisc.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to permit Marines to remain in Lebanon.

But the Reagan administration also maneuvered secretly to circumvent congressional bans on trading with Iran and funding Nicaraguan rebels known as Contras. An independent counsel indicted three top officials, including National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, and a special congressional committee of Congress concluded that the Reagan White House had subverted the Constitution.

Cheney was among the principal authors of a blistering dissent. The scandal, according to the Iran-Ccontra committee's minority report, was not that the White House had broken the law, but that Congress had tried to command the commander in chief. Reagan's secret decisions -- to sell prohibited arms to Iran and funnel the proceeds to Nicaragua's Contra rebels -- were not always wise, according to the minority report, but they "were constitutionally protected exercises of inherent Presidential powers."

Cheney was particularly concerned that the scandal would give momentum to a congressional effort to require notification of all covert actions within 48 hours, said Michael J. Malbin, who worked for Cheney on the committee.

Malbin recalled Cheney asking what would have happened if that rule had been in place during President Jimmy Carter's attempt to rescue hostages in Iran. Canada had offered assistance, conducting a clandestine operation to evacuate six U.S. citizens who had found their way to Canadian diplomats in Tehran. The Ottawa government insisted that Carter not inform Congress, and he agreed.

David Gergen, who worked with Cheney during the Ford years, said the vice president's "zealous reassertion of the power of the presidency" during this administration is completely consistent with the views he expressed long ago.

"He felt that what had become known as the imperial presidency during Nixon had become the imperiled presidency," Gergen said. "Where a number of us people part company with him is that a number of us believe that through Reagan, those powers had been substantially restored. When George W. Bush became president, I didn't think that should or would be a major priority."

About This Series | Chapters:

Cast of Characters

Read about the important people in and out of government who have had an impact on Vice President Dick Cheney's career.

Dick and Lynne Cheney.

Cheney's Personality

Dick Cheney's colleagues, friends, and acquaintances shared stories with Post reporter Bart Gellman.


Cheney's Life & Career

Starting as a junior aide on Capitol Hill, Dick Cheney built an unmatched Washington resume as White House chief of staff, House minority whip and secretary of defense.


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Hm. I suspect you are wrong, and this article is deeply misleading. Do your homework.

Put Cheney's remarks about executive power on a timeline, and I think you will find that he never argued for a strong executive during the Carter or Clinton presidencies.

I may be wrong about that, but if I'm right, what you call his "remarkably steady" arguments in support of a "muscular executive" have been anything but. He doesn't believe _all_ presidents should be powerful. He believes _Republican_ presidents should be powerful.

His arguments should not be taken at face value as some kind of principled Constitutional stance. They have instead been situational means to situational ends, dressed up in Constitutional rhetoric. Cheney turns ends and means upside down, using every means available to pursue his own ends.

He wants to _appear_ to be abiding by the rule of law, and to justify this by saying he simply has a different view of the law than the rest of us. In fact, like David Addington and John Yoo, he views himself and his political allies to be above the law and the Constitution.

Cheney's claim during the Reagan years that he supported such powers for Carter is an easy one for journalists to pursue. Did he say this in public during Carter's presidency? During Clinton's? I doubt it.

Posted by: DMenefee | June 25, 2007 01:07 PM

This is how Hitler got his start by scaring the people into letting him handle everything. SO PEOPLE, quit playing into Bush's hands, tell him "NO" and run him out of office. He and his father think that if you are an atheist you shouldn't be a citizen, but everything I have read about atheist say that they want everybody to live and prosper, Bush and Cheney want to get rid of everyone that doesn't believe like them. So, who would you want on your side, an athesit or a Constitution destroying fascist, like Bush and Cheney?
He has set it up to where in time of war (which we are in) he can eliminate elections. So why do you think he doesn't want the war to end? DAAAAA!!!!! He is trying real hard for a NEW WORLD ORDER and if you think I'm crazy, look it up. His regime is out to get rid of FREEDOM as we know it. He is doing this for the greedy of the world.

Posted by: Vic5440 | June 25, 2007 01:18 PM

Dick Chaney has become a one man wrecking ball to the presteige and respect the world once had for the United States. This man, in my opinion, is one of the most dangerous men in America. He truly believes HE IS THE LAW. He is, and has been a political-policy lose-cannon. Fortunately, he will be soon put out to pasture, he will soon want to spend more time with his family - I hope. There are powerful Republicans who want to put this man on a shelf and seal it with "Do Not Open!".

Posted by: Iconoclast1 | June 29, 2007 07:52 AM

It is the cronyism operating in a closed environment that is faciliating the exponential growth of corruption and wrongdoing in our government and spreading out into industry, particularly defense contractors. It is time to stand up and clean house America!

Posted by: rcvb | July 3, 2007 09:34 PM

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