Angler, by Barton Gellman

February 23, 2013 at 14:13 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics) (, , , , )




Gellman does not really have much reason to coddle the subject of this biography. The notorious secrecy¬†that he describes as innate to the Cheney Vice-Presidency extended past 2008, and it is clear from an examination of Gellman’s sources and his postscript that on matters of substance, Cheney’s office was generally cold and hostile towards him in the construction of an attempted intimate portrait of the Bush government. He puts a faintly transparent mask over his perplexity at Cheney’s intransigence, which leaks through readily when describing events that he considers to be indicative of Cheney’s worst moments. But it is important to note that it is perplexity, and not outrage or dismay. Gellman might be a rather emotive author prone to strong reactions, but he keeps carefully balanced on a plinth of professionalism, and takes great care not to tread on the narrative with heavy feet of approval or disapproval.

George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Karl Rove, and many of the other big-noise names from Bush’s presidency receive only marginal recognition in this carefully-focused book; obviously Bush himself is the most important peripheral figure, but surprisingly he is only studied when Gellman seeks to explain his oft-misunderstood relationship with his Vice President. In the hands of a poorer author, such a myopic focus might be detrimental, but Gellman is absolutely terrific at crafting context without stepping outside of a very tight circle. There is much that is missed, but few readers will complain for missing it.

“All hell was breaking loose at Justice. Phone calls and BlackBerry messages pinged around the senior staff. Lawyers streamed back to the building from the suburbs, converging on the fourth-floor conference room.

Barton Gellman has little or no patience with stupid questions, and when he is obliged to bring up accusations or issues without basis in fact, he does so brusquely and with marked brevity. He is unafraid of admitting a dearth of information with a particular subject, and purposely leaves some questions dangling for future authors to pick up, rather than neatly trimming them off. He clearly recognises that an unanswered question is sometimes of equal value to an answer, and his attention to detail and zeal for a comprehensive account are both commendable.

This book could never be described as a panegyric, but neither is it a bleak demonisation or even harsh criticism. When Gellman has (frequent) cause to be critical, it is not always because Cheney has done something “bad” that he ought to be punished for. Often it is because Cheney has done something that the author neither condemns nor lauds, but which led to certain consequences that are spelled out as far as is possible, and then analysed. Such an approach might be considered dry, but either to Gellman’s credit or because of the rich subject matter, even the most noncommittal verdicts read very fluidly. This will hardly be the last word on Dick Cheney, for better or for worse, but it is a valuable insight that succeeds on all of the goals that it sets out to achieve.


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