Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cheney, Miss Manners and Watergate

Official Washington is amazed at the vice president's unwillingness to make any sort of public explanation or statement of contrition about shooting a man:

"I cannot believe he does not look back and say this should have been handled differently," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who is close to the White House. Weber said Cheney "made it a much bigger issue than it needed to be."

Marlin Fitzwater, a former Republican White House spokesman, told Editor & Publisher magazine that Cheney "ignored his responsibility to the American people."

These criticisms reflect a certain post-Watergate, information-age etiquette. If Cheney followed the commonly-accepted rules for vice presidents-who-shoot-people, he would have promptly disclosed the incident, then come out before the cameras, said he's sorry and wished his friend a speedy recovery. Then the media and the public would, as they say, get closure and move on.

The etiquette presupposes a certain compact between public officials, the media and the public. It's often silly, but it until recently it worked reasonably well. It's predictable (public officials will screw up in spectacular and unexpected ways, necessitating explanation and contrition that go beyond mere spin – for example, when Reagan admitted trading arms for hostages). It gives public a brief glimpse past the carefully-buffed image. If done right, it lets officials get on with actually governing. Even Bush has (reluctantly) observed these rituals from time to time.

But Cheney is out to destroy the post-Watergate consensus in its various forms, from the commonly-accepted definition of the separation of powers on down. He rejects this etiquette and the compact that underlies it. Cheney despises the media. His attitude toward the public is obscure: Paternalistic? Contemptuous? Oblivious? In any case, he simply doesn’t care to observe this ritual, no matter how useful it might be. That is part and parcel of his overall aim to degrade the basic machinery of accountability that has emerged over the past 30 years.

He would care if this made any difference in terms of his ability to wield political power. That depends solely on the president, and how much he values the basic civility that the etiquette embodies.