Signs of Imperial Sclerosis?

Approach my inferences in the following with caution. It can be dangerous to infer too much from experiences and anecdotes separated by a long period of time, especially when events have intervened that might offer a more satisfactory explanation.

With that caution, however, I would like to advance the tentative hypothesis that the United States – even a bit beyond what might be expected in the wake of 9/11 – has become significantly more imperial in character than it was the last time a vice president of the United States visited the Orange County Register, the newspaper where I toil daily and generally happily.

I don’t remember exactly which year it was that Dan Quayle, veep under Bush 41, visited the Register, but it had to have been between 1988 and 1992 – probably 1990. So that was just more than 15 years ago.

The Register, to be fairly frank about it, is a major but second-tier newspaper – daily circulation around 300,000 and, as Editor & Publisher noted in a Web story this week (about us being the first relatively large newspaper to call for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq sooner rather than later), we’re in a top-25 market. It’s not considered a "national" newspaper like the L.A. Times or N.Y. Times, but it dominates its circulation area and is somewhere between 25th and 30th in the country in circulation, so it’s a significant outlet. It’s one of the few newspapers, in a country in which newspapers are less commonly read than was the case a generation or so ago, actually to gain circulation (though in the 1 percent range) over the last year or so.

California politicians of both major parties (and minor parties too) come by the Register for editorial board meetings during primaries and when some significant issue is being considered. We haven’t had a sitting president visit, but we’ve had many visits from active candidates during election season (which never seems to end these days), so the experience of having the Secret Service come in for several days before a visit to inspect all the entrances and exits, confer with our security people, decide on the least dangerous ways to get in and out, then stand around during the interview trying to look unobtrusive and noticeably tough simultaneously as only they can, is not unfamiliar.

The Way We Were

None of that prepared us for the scale of security that accompanied Mr. Cheney’s visit.

When Dan Quayle visited back in 1990 or 1991, the Secret Service did come in for at least a day beforehand and do the whole security shtick fairly extensively. The meeting itself was not all that different from other meetings with politicians and representatives of interest groups. We have three editorial writers, so they were in the meeting, along with the editor, deputy editor, our cartoonist, and probably one reporter from the newsroom.

The Secret Service people during the meeting were relatively unobtrusive. There was a certain amount of whoop-de-do when several limousines arrived in a parking lot that’s usually almost filled with customers, a certain amount of inconvenience for those who wanted to visit the newspaper for other reasons because part was sectioned off with yellow tape for the VIPs, and a bit of rubbernecking in the halls. Both Register and White House photographers snapped away, and I have a photo somewhere that shows the best side of Dan Quayle – the back of his head – shaking hands with me. But it was only marginally more pomp-and-circumstantial than a visit from a congressman, governor, or senatorial candidate

This many years later, I confess to not remembering the ostensible topic of discussion. Such meetings with officials as high as vice president tend to be more about symbolism and making gestures to constituencies than with delivering or eliciting significant information anyway.

Journalists love to entertain the fantasy that if they can phrase a question in just the right way or ask it at just the strategically critical time, they will have a Perry Mason moment, when the politician acknowledges that you made a good point and maybe he was wrong – or better yet, commits an egregious gaffe that gives you 15 minutes of fame as the steely-eyed journo who elicited it. But it hardly ever happens.

Politicians as a breed tend to be charming and adept at sidestepping potential embarrassment or they wouldn’t be in the racket. And most of them are drilled relentlessly by aides, advisers, and hangers-on about staying "on message" and turning any question in a way that allows them to deliver the message they had planned to deliver in the first place. Because I’m an opinion journalist rather than a straight reporter, I’ve experienced a few moments with politicians that I thought were genuinely candid. But even those with whom you agree on an issue or who seem to like you maintain a certain degree of wariness with media people.

An editorial board meeting can allow you to size up a politician to some extent – I think I have a slightly better feel for who Dan Quayle, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Bill Simon, Chris Cox, Bob Dornan, Arlen Specter, Bob Dole, Dennis Kucinich, Harry Browne, Bill Lockyer, John McCain, and a bunch of others are as people than if I hadn’t met them personally, talked fairly extensively with them, and pushed them a bit about their beliefs. But I certainly can’t claim to have looked deeply into their souls, as Dubya famously said about Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Even if I had the facility, it doesn’t happen at these kinds of meetings.

The Way Things Are Now

The meeting with Dick Cheney, however, was an order of magnitude or so different from the meeting so long ago with Dan Quayle, or any of the other political editorial board meetings I’ve attended. It wasn’t just a few Secret Service agents a couple of days before the meeting, but squadrons of them, for at least four days prior to the brief interview, going over every detail you can imagine and some you probably can’t, not a couple of times but seven or eight times. The meeting was on a Monday and our boss was involved in meetings with the Secret Service and vice presidential staff – along with the Santa Ana police – almost the entire day Friday.

Previous meetings with politicians sometimes caused a minor amount of inconvenience for the rest of the newspaper staff. This one disrupted the entire building for long stretches of the day. We have a five-story building, and the publisher’s conference room is on the fifth floor. On previous political visits, Secret Service people were content to station a couple of people by the doors to the conference room. For this meeting, they closed off half of the fifth floor to everybody but those scheduled to be in the meeting. They checked IDs of the advertising people who work on the other half of the floor. They cleared everybody – everybody – from the fourth and then the fifth floor for about 45 minutes so they could check with bomb-sniffing dogs and who knows what kind of equipment.

There were at least 30 Santa Ana police in various parts of the building, including stairwells, beginning about two hours before Cheney got there. I don’t know how many Secret Service people were deployed in the building and at the entrances, but I would be surprised if it was fewer than 50. A couple of helicopters circled the building continuously from about an hour before the vice president arrived. I hate to think how much it all cost the taxpayers.

It was fascinating to observe, but from my perspective more than a little over-the-top. Whether it was that or not, however, what was striking was how much more elaborate were the preparations for this visit than for any other visit from a politician in my experience. The contrast with the previous visit from Dan Quayle was incredible.

Imperial Overpomp

Now there’s no question that 9/11 had a great deal to do with beefing up visible and intrusive security through America, and that people simply flying airplanes, rather than hosting vice presidents, can tell you stories. And there are plenty of people out there who think Dick Cheney is the real evil genius behind George W. Bush’s aggressive foreign policies, and some of them are unbalanced enough to think assassinating him might be a dandy thing to do. Cheney himself, as has been reported so many times it’s tiring, has reportedly spent fairly substantial periods at "undisclosed locations" so that he and the president won’t be in the same place at the same time. All of this has something to do with the amount of security that surrounded this visit.

But I can’t help but think also that this was a signifier of just how much more imperial the United States has become, especially when it comes to the way high-ranking members of the executive branch, which is the branch that always grows in power, prestige, and pettifoggery during periods of imperial expansion, are treated by underlings and overseers.

The American state is in a more imperial mood than it was in the days of Bush 41 or Clinton, to be sure. This president has expressed a more expansive vision of America’s role in the world (though others have used the language of universal democracy), and backed it up with military action, than has been the case recently. The expansion of the Secret Service’s role, the obsession with security, the multiplication of the entourage, seems to me part and parcel of a more imperial attitude. Perhaps I read too much into one experience, but that’s what I see.

The Interview

Mr. Cheney came mostly to talk about Social Security, and that’s what most of the discussion centered around, although the 14 of us from the Register asked questions about other topics. For the record, in response to my question about how soon we might see U.S. troops start to withdraw from Iraq, he said, "We don’t want to set a timetable. If you do that, all the terrorists do is wait you out and then redouble their efforts after that." He said the U.S. would be watching the constitution-writing, referenda, and whatnot over the next year to see how things were going, but that the most important issue was security and getting enough Iraqis trained to handle it, before we could even think about drawing down American troops.

Asked about whether he expected there would be permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, he claimed that wasn’t the purpose of the invasion, but, "Once the new government is in place, I would expect there would be discussions about whether there will be some kind of continued security arrangement and over what period of time and what it might look like." Measured-sounding and open-ended, as I expected.

Cheney didn’t dodge questions, but he used an interesting technique, especially when discussing issues on which the administration might not yet have a firm position. Asked about oil and gas regulation being a patchwork among the several states, he responded by essentially elaborating on the premise of the question, offering an anecdote about an East Coast refiner he talked to who used to deal with three gasoline formulas but now has to handle 50. He thus demonstrated that he had a reasonably decent grasp of the issue, but finally said he didn’t see any magic wand to bring gas prices down. It was much less obvious than Bill Clinton’s "I feel your pain" shtick, but it amounted to saying at some length that I understand your concerns in some detail, but I won’t quite answer your question. Because the non-answer included a fair amount of detail, the fact that it was a non-answer was not immediately apparent to everybody.

Based on sitting in the same room with him (and about 25 other people) for just over 45 minutes, and exchanging a few smiles and nods, I can’t claim to be able to tell you whether Cheney is really the evil genius behind the Bush wars. From the biographical material I read in preparation and from watching him over the years, I’m inclined to believe he has strong views but prefers working behind the scenes to being in the spotlight. Although he seems shy, I suspect he has a more active sense of humor than one might expect. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he has an active mean streak, but he was cordial with us (though he slipped in a few digs when he thought questions weren’t too good).

Perhaps the most important thing to take from this is that he is a man like any other man. He has more power and more experience wielding power than most of us. But he’s a human being, and one with persistent health problems – his aides wanted to make sure he didn’t have anything caffeinated. He has strong points and weak points. But despite the pomp that surrounded his visit, he’s just one of us. The empire is not staffed by the great and powerful Oz behind the curtain but by fallible human beings. There are no gods or demigods guiding policy. And that’s one of the reasons, despite its toxic growth during the last several years, that this empire will eventually become an artifact of history.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).