The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy


By Charlie Savage

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In 1789, the Founding Fathers came up with a system of checks and balances to keep kingly powers out of the hands of American presidents. But in the 1970s and ’80s, a faction of Republican loyalists, outraged by the fall of the imperial presidency after Watergate and the Vietnam War, abandoned conservatives’ traditional suspicion of concentrated government power. These men hatched a plot that would allow the White House to return to, or even surpass, the virtually unchecked powers that Richard Nixon had briefly tried to wield. Congress would be defanged, and the commander-in-chief would be able to assert a unilateral dominance both at home and abroad.

Today, this plot is coming to fruition. As Takeover reveals, the Bush-Cheney administration has succeeded in seizing vast powers for the presidency by throwing off many of the restraints placed upon it by Congress, the courts, and the Constitution. This timely book unveils the secret machinations behind the headlines, explaining the links between warrantless wiretapping and the President Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, between the torture debate and the secrecy surrounding Vice President Cheney’s energy task force, and between the “faith-based initiative” and the holding of US citizens without trial as “enemy combatants.” It tells, for the first time, the full story of a hidden agenda three decades in the making, laying out how a group of true believers set out to establish monarchical executive powers that, in the words of one conservative critic, “will lie around like a loaded weapon” ready to be picked up by any future president.

Brilliantly reported and deftly told, Takeover is a searing investigation into how the constitutional balance of our democracy is in danger of being permanently altered. For anyone who cares about America’s past, present, and future, it is essential reading.


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Inside the Bunker


As the United States of America reeled, Vice President Dick Cheney took control.

At a quarter past ten o'clock on the morning of September 11, 2001, a choking cloud of debris and death, once the south tower of the World Trade Center, engulfed lower Manhattan. Flames and black smoke poured from the upper stories of the north tower. In northern Virginia, just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington, the Pentagon's western wall crumbled into its own blaze. Three miles away, the aboveground portions of the White House complex stood empty, evacuated just minutes earlier by the Secret Service as hijacked American Airlines flight 77, bound for the military headquarters, had barreled toward the nation's capital with its target yet unknown.

Three stories into the bedrock beneath the White House's East Wing, behind body armor–clad guards holding shotguns and MP5 machine guns, loomed a sealed vault door—the entrance to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center.1 Originally built as an air-raid shelter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, the cramped bunker had never before been used during a crisis. It had a few days' food and supplies, bunk beds, and a conference room with televisions, secure phones, and video links to key federal agencies and military installations. Inside, Cheney sat at a conference room table with a handful of other top officials. As they looked from one television screen to another, a military aide approached the vice president. The bunker had received reports of a second plane headed toward the capital. United Airlines flight 93, a Boeing 757, had veered off course over Ohio, banked sharply back over Pennsylvania, and was now believed to be just eighty miles away. The military had put fighter jets on patrol a few minutes earlier. The officer wanted to know whether the interceptors should shoot down the airliner, sacrificing the forty-four people aboard to prevent a potentially larger disaster from taking place.

Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was sitting next to the vice president at the table, taking notes. Libby later described Cheney's decisive answer to the aide: "In about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing," Libby said, the vice president authorized the military to destroy United 93. Five days later, Cheney would describe the order as the toughest decision made that day, but one that was necessary. "Now, people say, you know, that's a horrendous decision to make. Well, it is. You've got an airplane full of American citizens… and are you going to, in fact, shoot it down, obviously, and kill all those Americans on board? And you have to ask yourself, 'If we had had combat air patrol up over New York and we'd had the opportunity to take out the two aircraft that hit the World Trade Center, would we have been justified in doing that?' I think absolutely we would have."2

Shortly after Cheney gave the order, the military aide returned and said the aircraft, now believed to be sixty miles out, had just been confirmed as a hijacking. The aide wanted to make sure that the military had the authority to attack the plane. As Joshua Bolten, later the White House chief of staff but then just one of several deputies, later recalled, "The vice president said yes again. And the aide then asked a third time. He said, 'Just confirming, sir, authority to engage?' And the vice president—his voice got a little annoyed then—said, 'I said yes.' "3 The aide left and the conference room went quiet as the enormity of the exchange fell upon all who had heard it. Then, from down the table, Bolten broke the silence. Boldly, he suggested that Cheney call President George W. Bush to "confirm" the shoot-down order Cheney had just given.4

At that moment, the commander in chief was aboard Air Force One as it rapidly ascended into the atmosphere above Sarasota, Florida. Bush had been reading to children that morning at a photo-op at Booker Elementary School. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, it became clear that the country was under attack. After a brief delay, Bush and his entourage had headed for the airport.

The president and Cheney had spoken at 9:55 a.m., just before Bush's plane took off. Cheney, standing at a secure phone just outside the vault doors of the White House bunker, had urged Bush not to return to Washington until the situation was stabilized. "Basically I called to let him know that we were a target and I strongly urged him not to return to Washington right away, that he delay his return until we could find out what the hell was going on," Cheney later recalled.5

Bush had taken Cheney's advice. The president had hung up and strapped himself in aboard Air Force One, which had gotten safely off the ground with its ultimate destination—Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, as it would turn out—not yet chosen. Back in the tunnel, Cheney had hung up and entered the bunker, where he then learned that the military had just scrambled fighter jets around Washington.

Now Cheney took Bolten's advice. He called Bush back at 10:18 a.m. Aboard Air Force One, Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, was with his boss and, like Libby, taking notes. Two minutes later, according to Fleischer's notes, Bush hung up the phone and said he had just authorized the military to shoot down any remaining planes.6


Amid the initial turmoil, Cheney believed that the shoot-down order had been carried out. In a teleconference with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at 10:39 a.m. Cheney said he believed that two planes had just been shot down. But, as it turned out, the question of whether to shoot down hijacked airliners was moot. Investigators would later determine that United 93, the last of the four hijacked planes, had already nose-dived into a Pennsylvania field at 10:03 a.m. amid a passenger uprising against the hijackers.7 Confused officials had been looking at a computer-projected track of where United 93 would have been had the flight still been airborne, not at an actual radar image. Moreover, military commanders had never passed the shoot-down authorization on to the fighter pilots because, as they told the 9/11 Commission, "they were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance" coming from the vice president. (As the 9/11 Commission report noted, "In most cases, the chain of command in authorizing the use of force runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense, and from the Secretary to the combatant commander.")8 The shoot-down order, then, ended up a minor and inconsequential footnote on a morning full of hugely complex and important events. Yet the sequence leading to the shoot-down order would later become the subject of a pointed dispute between the White House and the 9/11 Commission. This conflict would sharply illustrate Cheney's willingness to exercise extraordinary executive power, Bush's penchant for deferring to Cheney, and their administration's efforts to control the flow of information about their actions to Congress and the public.

More than two years after the attacks, on April 29, 2004, Cheney and Bush met with the 9/11 Commission in the Oval Office on the condition that they would not be placed under oath, that no recording or transcript would be made, and that Cheney would sit beside Bush the entire time so that they could answer questions together. During the meeting, Cheney insisted that the president had given him permission to authorize shooting down hijacked passenger jets some ten minutes or so before Cheney first gave the order at 10:15 a.m. Cheney claimed that he had called Bush back immediately after entering the bunker conference room, when he was first told there were fighters in the sky, and during this earlier call, Bush had given him authorization to issue a shoot-down order if it became necessary. The president backed Cheney's account.9

In an extraordinary and largely overlooked passage of its findings, the bipartisan commission sharply scrutinized the president and vice president's account. It reported that it found "no documentary evidence for this call"—and the commission had had plenty of evidence to look through. "Others nearby who were taking notes, such as the Vice President's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who sat next to him, and Mrs. Cheney, did not note a call between the president and Vice President immediately after the Vice President entered the conference room," the commission report said.10 Nor had Fleischer, who was keeping detailed notes of events aboard Air Force One, recorded any earlier call. Bolten told the commission that he had spoken up to tell Cheney to call Bush to confirm the shoot-down order because "he had not heard any prior conversation on the subject with the president." Tucked away in the footnotes of the commission report was further evidence casting doubt on whether there had been an earlier call. In order to reconstruct the events that occurred in the bunker that morning, the commission reported, it also obtained the White House secure switchboard log, Secret Service and White House Situation Room logs, the White House "President's Daily Diary" record, and four separate White House Military Office logs that tracked significant events and communications in the bunker.11 None of these sources recorded the alleged earlier call that Cheney, much later, insisted he had placed. If Cheney and Bush were telling the truth, then their most trusted aides, Cheney's wife, and eight White House and military log keepers all somehow missed the single-most potentially momentous call of that morning.12


The dispute over the existence of the phone call was no small detail. It embodied the central role that Cheney played in the second Bush presidency. The most powerful vice president in American history, Cheney literally called the shots for the administration on 9/11. He did not hesitate to take command, and Bush acquiesced to his vice president's actions. As the war on terrorism unfolded, Cheney would continue to play a central role in guiding Bush's policies. Cheney, after all, was one of the nation's most experienced vice presidents when he and Bush were sworn in on January 20, 2001. He had been a midlevel Nixon-administration official, a White House chief of staff in the Ford administration, an influential congressman for ten years, and a secretary of defense under the first President Bush. By contrast, the second President Bush was a term-and-a-half state governor thrust to national prominence by elements of his father's old political network. Bush's father had been a member of Congress, an ambassador to the United Nations and to China, a chairman of the Republican National Committee, a director of the Central Intelligence Agency for ten months, and a vice president for eight years. His son shared the first President Bush's name but had been none of those things. George W. Bush was one of the least experienced presidents ever to take the oath.

The upper ranks of the new administration quickly filled with two types of people. There were Bush People—mostly personal friends of the new president who shared his inexperience in Washington. These included Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers, Bush's first and second White House counsels, each of whom was a corporate lawyer in Texas before becoming attached to the governor's political network. And then there were Cheney People—allies from Cheney's earlier stints in the federal government who were deeply versed in Washington-level issues, a familiarity that would allow their views to dominate internal meetings. These included Rumsfeld and other cabinet secretaries, key deputies throughout the administration, and David Addington, Cheney's longtime aide who would become a chief architect of the administration's legal strategy in the war on terrorism.13

Given the stark contrast in experience between Cheney and Bush, it was immediately clear to observers of all political stripes that Cheney would possess far more power than had any prior vice president. William Kristol, the neoconservative editor of The Weekly Standard and former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, said in early 2001 that Cheney would play the role of "Bush's number one adviser" and "super chief of staff," giving him "unprecedented" influence. "The question to ask about Cheney," Kristol said, was, "will he be happy to be a very trusted executor of Bush's policies—a confidant and counselor who suggests personnel and perhaps works on legislative strategy, but who really doesn't try to change Bush's mind about anything? Or will he actually, substantively try to shape administration policy in a few areas, in a way that it wouldn't otherwise be going?"14

By the Bush-Cheney administration's second term, Kristol's question had been decisively answered. Cheney had used his influence to shape policy in hugely substantive ways. To be sure, some of the administration's signature domestic issues—such as establishing national school-testing standards, pushing to reform the immigration system by turning illegal aliens into guest workers, blocking gay marriage, and creating faith-based initiatives throughout the federal bureaucracy—were a natural fit for Bush, the born-again Christian who had run a state that shared a border with Mexico, and who had tried to reform the Texas public education system. But in other key areas, the administration's policies emerged from Cheney's own experiences and interests. Indeed, while most of the media's attention was devoted to Cheney's influence in pushing the administration to invade Iraq, the vice president was also immersed in another, far less visible effort. This second project was rooted in an agenda he had been developing for thirty years, stretching back far longer than his interest in toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein, and if successful would mark American politics for generations to come.

Cheney was determined to expand the power of the presidency. He wanted to reduce the authority of Congress and the courts and to expand the ability of the commander in chief and his top advisers to govern with maximum flexibility and minimum oversight. He hoped to enlarge the zone of secrecy around the executive branch, to reduce the power of Congress to restrict presidential action, to undermine limits imposed by international treaties, to nominate judges who favored a stronger presidency, and to impose greater White House control over the permanent workings of government. And Cheney's vision of expanded executive power was not limited to his and Bush's own tenure in office. Rather, Cheney wanted to permanently alter the constitutional balance of American government, establishing powers that future presidents would be able to wield as well.

Cheney made no secret of his agenda of expanding—or "restoring"—presidential power. He repeatedly declared that one of his goals in office was to roll back what he termed "unwise" limits on the presidency that were imposed after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. "I clearly do believe, and have spoken directly about the importance of a strong presidency," Cheney remarked at an awards ceremony for the Gerald R. Ford Foundation in June 2006. "I think there have been times in the past, oftentimes in response to events such as Watergate or the war in Vietnam, where Congress has begun to encroach upon the powers and responsibilities of the President; that it was important to go back and try to restore that balance."15

Cheney was not the first person to try to consolidate governmental authority inside the White House. Others had helped lay the groundwork for expanding executive power during the preceding thirty years, especially during the Reagan and Bush-Quayle administrations. Many of these "presidentialists" joined the Bush-Cheney administration. But as vice president, Cheney became the most important of the believers.

To understand what happened to presidential power during the Bush-Cheney administration, it is necessary to start by examining Cheney's own beginnings in public life, from his political apprenticeship in the Nixon administration, to his first taste of real power in the Ford administration amid the fallout from Vietnam and Watergate, to a decade he spent defending the Reagan administration from inside a hostile Congress, and to his tenure as a wartime secretary of defense under President George H. W. Bush. The 9/11 attacks would reinforce Cheney's view on the need for centralizing strong powers in the presidency. The war on terrorism's climate of perpetual emergency provided a vehicle for turning his vision of an unfettered commander in chief into a reality. But Cheney's agenda was forged years before Al Qaeda attacked the United States. His agenda's origins date to 1969, when a former congressman named Donald Rumsfeld hired Cheney, then a twenty-eight-year-old graduate student in political science, to be his aide inside the Nixon administration.


The Fall of the Imperial Presidency and the Rise of Dick Cheney: 1789–1976


Richard Bruce Cheney was born on January 30, 1941, in Lincoln, Nebraska. When he was thirteen years old, his father, a soil conservation agent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was transferred to Wyoming. The Cheney family moved to the last house on the east side of Casper, next to a vast empty prairie. Cheney grew up with an American Graffiti lifestyle, though he never showed as much interest as some of his friends in cruising between the town's two A&Ws on Friday nights.1 He was a tough but popular teenager at Natrona County High School, where he was the class president and a football player. "Dick and I both made the varsity [football team] our sophomore years," boyhood friend Joseph Meyer recalled. "And the way we did it [was] one-on-one drills. We hit each other so hard that you could hear the sound. We did that about four times, and the sophomore coach called over the head coach and said, 'These guys are out of their mind!' "2

Cheney also learned to fight with his fists, recalled Tom Fake, who grew up with Cheney in Casper and became an all-state quarterback on the football team. (Cheney became a linebacker.) During Cheney's senior year, he and Fake crossed the railroad tracks to the poorer side of town and found an old boxer who taught them to spar. "We spent four months during our senior year fighting in each other's garage. He probably whipped me more than I whipped him," Fake said.3

Friends, teammates, and boxing partners, Cheney and Fake were also rivals. During their junior year, Fake dated Lynne Vincent, a popular girl who was the state baton-twirling champion. Vincent's father was a government engineer, and her mother was a sheriff 's deputy.4 A Casper native, Lynne would never grow taller than five foot two, but she had large ambitions. By senior year, she was Cheney's girlfriend—and his future wife. "I knew her when we were in the eighth grade, but she wouldn't have anything to do with me until I was a junior in high school," Cheney later recalled. "Actually, we double-dated with others first. And Lynne was dating my good friend Tom Fake, and shortly after that I asked her out. And when I first asked her out, she said, are you kidding? Which I took to mean she really wasn't very interested." It became an inside joke for the couple; Cheney's wife has always insisted that what she meant was she was surprised that he was interested in her.5

Cheney and Vincent would have a lifelong political partnership, and the relationship began paying dividends for Cheney immediately after he began dating her. The teenage Vincent had a part-time job as a secretary in the office of Alpha Exploration, a Casper-based oil company, and she introduced her new boyfriend to the owner, Tom Stroock. A graduate of the Yale College class of 1948, Stroock took a shine to Cheney and Fake and recruited them to attend his alma mater on full-ride scholarships. "In those days, you could do things you can't do now," Stroock later recalled, "so I called Yale and told 'em to take this guy" along with Fake.6

Cheney and Fake, popular jocks from Wyoming, found a different world when they arrived in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1959. Like many scholarship students from the heartland who made it to the Ivy League, they found that they were unprepared for the Eastern social and academic world. The Casper boys, who had effortlessly dominated the teenage social scene and never had to study hard back home, were overwhelmed.7 They partied but failed to engage with the academic side of Yale. Cheney was forced to leave Yale after three semesters for academic reasons. He briefly returned to Wyoming, then went back to Yale for a second try at completing his sophomore year—but he again flunked out, and lost his scholarship.

Cheney withdrew from Yale for good in 1962. Three years later, a young George W. Bush would arrive on the Yale campus as a freshman. A New Haven native and the grandson of a U.S. senator from Connecticut, Bush shared Cheney's mediocre study habits and his youthful enthusiasm for partying. But Bush was much more comfortable in the Ivy League environment. He would be elected president of a fraternity and was inducted into the elite Skull and Bones secret society, coasting to graduation, where the Wyoming scholarship student had faltered.

Cheney returned to Wyoming and got a union job laying electrical lines in the blue-collar town of Rock Springs. He was arrested twice in the next year for drunk driving, and he would later speak of realizing that he was "headed down a bad road." In 1963, "when I should have been graduating from Yale, one of the world's finer universities, with a first-rate education, all paid for by the university, I found myself in Rock Springs working, building power lines, having been in a couple of scrapes with the law."8 While Cheney drifted, his girlfriend, Lynne Vincent, was earning a BA with highest honors from Colorado College and an MA from the University of Colorado. Then Lynne put her foot down. The Dick Cheney she had fallen in love with was the king of his high school with a wide-open future, not a dropout and manual laborer who was running afoul of the law. To keep her, Lynne made clear, Cheney needed to get his life back on track.

Cheney refocused and went back to school—first completing a semester at a community college in Casper and then switching to the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where he earned a BA and an MA in political science. In 1964, Lynne agreed to marry him, and to change from her Presbyterianism to his Methodism.9 "Turned out I was a pretty good student when I worked at it," Cheney said. "And a year later Lynne and I got married. I must say I've got to give her a good deal of the credit for being a positive influence in my life. Stuck by me all those years. We'd gone to high school together and dated throughout this whole period of time. And she made it clear she wasn't interested in marrying a lineman for the county. That was really when I went back to school in Laramie. I buckled down and applied myself. Decided it was time to make something of myself."10

Marriage and a return to college studies had other advantages as well. The Vietnam War was heating up, and the government was drafting increasingly large numbers of unmarried young men who weren't in college to go fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Cheney earned four draft deferments. Then, in October 1965, the rules protecting married men changed—only parents would be eligible to avoid being drafted. Within weeks, Lynne was pregnant with the first of their two daughters, and Cheney applied for a new deferment. In all, the future secretary of defense and wartime vice president would receive five deferments during the Vietnam War, protecting him from service during his draft-eligible years.11

In 1966, the Cheneys moved to Madison and began work on PhDs—he in political science, she in English—at the University of Wisconsin. As more and more young American men were dying in Vietnam, an antiwar movement gained force on many college campuses. Protests fueled a growing antigovernment sentiment and counterculture lifestyle that would become the hallmark of the sixties. Cheney did not relate to the political winds blowing around him. While his classmates were marching on Washington, Cheney was crunching congressional voting pattern data, looking for trends that could be used to predict the outcomes of political fights. In an American Political Science Review paper, for example, Cheney showed that lawmakers tended to vote in line with their party leaders on tax issues, but they voted in line with their district's demographic makeup on welfare issues.12


On Sale
Sep 5, 2007
Page Count
416 pages

Charlie Savage

About the Author

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie Savage is a Washington correspondent for the New York Times and has been covering post-9/11 legal policy issues since 2003. A native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, he graduated from Harvard College and holds a master’s degree from Yale Law School. His first book, Takeover, a bestselling and award-winning account of the Bush-Cheney administration’s efforts to expand presidential power, was named one of the best works of 2007 by the Washington Post, Slate, and Esquire.

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