Has Dick Cheney ever expressed a moral qualm about anything he ever did?
If his comments about the Senate torture report released late last year are any indication, the simple answer is no. Cheney’s life, both public and private, reveal a pattern of selfishness, devoid of any sense that he has ethically reflected on any of his actions or found any regret in his behavior. He stands as the paradigm of a public official nearly devoid of a sense of personal integrity, demonstrating a sense of self-rationalization that stands as a negative example of what ethics in public office represents.
There is a consensus among those who teach and write on government ethics that it includes a sense of personal integrity, reflection, consistency, respect for rule of law, attention to the reality and appearance of conflicts of interest, a shunning of self-dealing, respect for truth-telling, and promoting the public good. Applying these ethical benchmarks to Cheney, how does he measure up?
Dick Cheney’s public career is long. He served as a member of Congress, a presidential chief-of-staff, secretary of defense, and vice president, in addition to being the CEO of Halliburton. He has been described as one of the most powerful vice presidents in history. Yet almost from the start of his adult life Cheney had evidenced a selfish approach to the world, evincing no ethical maturation over time.
He is well-known for having avoided the draft and the Vietnam War with five deferments, proclaiming in a Washington Post interview that he “had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.” This is the same person who as secretary of defense sent troops to Iraq in Operation Desert Storm and later to Afghanistan and Iraq again as part of the war on terrorism. Military service is a noble calling for Cheney, when it is others besides him who put their lives on the line. If the mark of integrity is consistency between what one says and does, hypocrisy is the badge of unethical behavior. As philosopher Immanuel Kant once argued, a defining trait of unethical behavior is making yourself an exception to a rule you expect everyone else to follow. This is what Cheney has done.
Selflessly serving his country has never been an ethical priority for Cheney. As CEO of Halliburton, he oversaw a corporation that was repeatedly accused of gouging the taxpayer and engaging in bribes to secure business. When he gave up that post to become vice president the New York Times reported that he may have lied about severing his ties with his former company. It might well be that as VP he personally profited from decisions he made when Halliburton received government contracts. Even if he did not, the appearance of conflict of interest was something that he ignored.
Further proof of how he was inured to the appearance or reality of conflicts of interest was his hunting trip with Supreme Court Justice Scalia and how such activity might compromise the integrity of an impartial judicial system, especially at a time when the judiciary was adjudicating many Bush administration policies.
When it comes to his conduct in government, some might argue that Cheney is the consummate Machiavellian, echoing an “end justifies the means” ethic. His comments about torture after the recent release of the Senate report that “I would do it again in a minute” or that as he said on “Meet the Press” that “I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent” clearly demonstrate an end-justifies-the-means mentality. But labeling Cheney a Machiavellian acting for a noble cause gives him too much moral credit. First, his attitude in these statements expresses contempt for rule of law and human rights, something we expect of someone in a leadership position in a constitutional democracy. Second, his statements reflect less an appeal to some public or greater good than they speak of post hoc rationalization of illegal behavior.
Cheney is not really Machiavellian — he is simply partisan and self-interested. In 2004 after Bush won re-election the vice president spoke of tax cuts and spending priorities favoring his supporters by stating, “We won the midterms [congressional elections]. This is our due.” Cheney is less interested in appeals to the greater good than his own personal interests or that of his friends. Don’t forget, Cheney too has expressed disdain for the importance of personal ethics in guiding government policy. Time magazine once reported him saying about energy policy that: “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”
Respect for legality, patriotism, and honesty are generally hallmarks of ethical behavior. Yet Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, was convicted of four counts of lying and obstruction of justice, and he and the vice president are tied to the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame in retaliation for her husband and diplomat Joseph Wilson writing a New York Times op-ed sharply critical of the Bush administration’s false claims of Iraq’s efforts to obtain nuclear materials. It was such claims about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction that served as the pretext for the 2003 invasion. Cheney continued to assert in a 2014 “Meet the Press” interview that Saddam “had a 10-year relationship with al-Qaida” even though all the evidence clearly refutes such a claim.
Finally, some want to give Cheney credit for supporting same-sex marriage. Yet such support may be less altruistic and principled than thought — perhaps based more on the fact that his daughter is a lesbian. Therefore his views are less about ethics and more about personal or family self-interest.
What do we learn about Dick Cheney’s ethics? While his entire life has not been reviewed one can still learn a lot about his character based on choices he made in critical situations. It is clear that by most standards regarding what would define someone as ethical, Cheney falls far short. He is blind to conflicts of interest, real or apparent, and he is willing to make himself an exception to standards of conduct that most of us would expect others to follow.
David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul.