Howard Fineman of Newsweek recently ratified the conventional media wisdom on the vice president. "Dick Cheney isn't running for anything, which, of course, gives Dick Cheney a lot of scary freedom in people's eyes."
What is it with the press and Cheney? Why do they insist he sit in his Naval Observatory quarters and obsess about his low approval rating rather than execute his responsibilities? Why do they feel a vice president serves at the pleasure of the media, and not at the pleasure of the president?
There is a lot of scary freedom going on, of a different sort.
Author Stephen Hayes has a new book out simply called "Cheney." The veep gave him 30 hours of interviews. One theme that emerges is that Cheney's opinion of the press corps has deteriorated just as much as their opinion of him. They clearly think Cheney doesn't operate by professional norms. But as the book documents, it is the professional norms of journalism that are often tossed overboard by reporters out to get him.
In May 2003, Cheney spoke at Southern Methodist University in Dallas as a guest of Hugh Sidey, the former Washington bureau chief of Time magazine. The session was officially off the record, not to be quoted by the press. The ruling established, Cheney could be more forthcoming, and among other things, he told the gathering that he thought they had killed Saddam Hussein on the first night of the war in Iraq.
You can only imagine his reaction the next day when the Dallas Morning News, which co-sponsored the SMU event, ran a story quoting Cheney, blatantly violating the journalistic rules established. The reporter even acknowledged in his piece that: "Before Mr. Cheney's remarks, university officials announced late Tuesday afternoon that the session would be considered off the record." But that sacred rule was violated -- because it was Cheney.
In pursuit of their Great White Whale, the Republican menace of the moment, it's quite clear the liberal media don't feel a responsibility to observe the niceties of their own profession. It's their own version of "scary freedom."
Hayes also reminds us of Washington bigfoot Bob Woodward, another reporter who makes up the rules as he goes along. Cheney refused to grant an interview for Woodward's Bush-bashing book "State of Denial." But then former president Gerald Ford called Cheney in his last months to ask him to cooperate with Woodward for another book on the Ford administration. Cheney obliged his old boss and friend.
Cheney granted two hours of time, and then, voila, a month before the 2006 midterms, up popped Woodward on CBS's "60 Minutes" running tapes of the Cheney conversation for the Ford book as if he'd given his consent to being interviewed for "State of Denial." The scoop was that old Nixon hand Henry Kissinger had easy access to the Bush White House.
Hayes reports Cheney said he called Woodward and unleashed a "low-volume tirade," to which Woodward just responded: "It's on the record. It's on the record. It's on the record. Everything is on the record." Obviously, Cheney thought there were conditions in effect -- his comments were reserved for the Ford book for a later date -- but Woodward would concede nothing, so Cheney hung up on him.
Woodward used the same movable line when he talked to Hayes. He claimed Cheney had said "nothing about Ford could be used until I do my Ford book," but Woodward weaseled around it by establishing the rule in his own mind that unless Cheney used the words "Jerry Ford" in the sentence, it was all usable -- to help secure him a big splash on "60 Minutes." His lust for fame and fortune came first.
And he would milk it for all he could. A week after "60 Minutes," Woodward went on "Meet the Press" to insist that Cheney's anger at Woodward's ethics-schmethics behavior was symptomatic of Cheney's state of denial: "It's a metaphor for what's going on. Hang up when somebody has a different point of view or information you don't want to deal with."
Perhaps the most amusing media anecdote in the Hayes book is an e-mail sent to Cheney aide Kevin Kellems by Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times. In his quest for access, Keller acknowledged the "liberal assumptions" of most journalists, but then claimed liberal bias in the Times was "relatively rare." (Break here for laughter.) Keller insisted to Cheney that he wouldn't want to be like Attorney General John Ashcroft and refuse interviews. Ashcroft, he warned, "still lives in the land of the stereotype."
To suggest to Dick Cheney that he wouldn't be stereotyped by liberals if he merely granted access to an unethical media that hates his conservative guts isn't helpful. It's a threat, a form of political blackmail. No wonder the vice president doesn't care for the press. Scary freedoms, indeed.