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May. 26 2009 - 9:18 am | 97 views | 1 recommendation | 1 comment

Dick Cheney is a literary lightweight

Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States.

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The news that Dick Cheney is shopping around a memoir, from which he’s hoping to get a multi-million-dollar contract, boggles the mind. Not the memoir part. That’s expected from a Washington insider who was a heartbeat away from the presidency. It’s the multi-million-dollar part that’s astonishing given Cheney’s reputation as a wordsmith. Read the only other book that Cheney has apparently written, “Kings of the Hill: Power and Personality in the House of Representatives” – a book about important Congressmen from old times to new – and here’s what you’ll find:

  • Snoozy, archaic prose.
  • A dubious emphasis on people’s looks.
  • Rehashed facts and little original reporting.

In the opening chapter on Henry Clay, for example, Cheney relies on the diary of a lawyer named William Plumer to write: “Plumer observed that Clay was especially favored by the ladies. It was not because he was particularly handsome. Except for an unusually large mouth (which he joked was so constructed that he could never learn to spit), he was rather plain featured.”

“Favored by the ladies?” That’s language from the 19th century. “Rather plain featured?” Ditto. The pattern continues on every page, alongside Cheney’s inane use of adjectives to describe people’s physical characteristics. The adjectives are unnecessary and – in many cases – just plain snide or rude. Congressman Samuel Taggart is not just a Federalist but a “corpulent Federalist.” Secretary of War Peter Buell Porter is not just a lawyer but “a rotund lawyer.” Congressman Sam Rayburn is “a short, bald-headed man (who) . . . didn’t look like a person of consequence.” Senator John Randolph is “wrinkled and sallow-skinned (and) appeared twice his age.” And Congressman Thaddeus Stevens is “a crippled man in a brown wig.” Cheney uses the word “cripple” again and again (also “handicapped” and “old”) to describe the anti-slavery maverick.

The book was originally published in 1983, at a time when Cheney was a Congressman representing Wyoming. Cheney co-authored the book with his wife, Lynne Cheney, but Dick Cheney’s name comes first on the tome – so even though it’s difficult to parse out who exactly wrote what, Dick Cheney has official top credit for “Kings of the Hill.” And so it’s Dick Cheney who’s responsible for writing like this, which speculates what might have happened when Rayburn (then House Speaker) left Washington on the eve of a crucial vote:

One can imagine the phone calls the next day. It was a Sunday, and so it was probably late morning before someone from the whip organization tried to call Rayburn’s apartment. When there was no answer, he would have waited a half hour or so and tried again. Still no answer. Where was Rayburn? Members of the whip organization would have begun telephoning each other with that question. Where could he possibly have gone just forty-eight hours before such a crucial vote? They probably began calling his personal staff at home to see if they knew.

Cheney’s use of “one can imagine” and “probably” and “would have” is the opposite of purple prose. It’s lazy prose. It’s somnambulant prose. It’s uninspired. Some books – like all great art – transcend their time, and remain fresh decades after their authorship. “Kings of the Hill: Power and Personality in the House of Representatives,” has lost any value it might have had. The original cover price was $14.95. On Amazon right now, you can order a used copy for one penny. (In fairness to Cheney, some copies are selling for more than the original cover price. It must also be noted that the book was reissued as a paperback in 1996 with a new subtitle – “How Nine Powerful Men Changed the Course of American History.” This tweaked version can also be brought for a single penny.)

A search of Amazon and the WorldCat library-book archive (“the world’s largest network” of library material) indicates that “Kings of the Hill” is the only book that Cheney previously wrote. WorldCat does list another original work by Dick Cheney: His 1966 master’s thesis from the University of Wyoming, titled, “Highway acceleration in Wisconsin: a case study in executive-legislative relations.” So far, that one isn’t available for widespread public scrutiny. But if the title is any indication, Cheney’s thesis – like “Kings of the Hill” – is an exercise in slow-motion writing. If a publisher wants to give Cheney millions to pen his memoirs, I hope it considers his literary past, which is nothing to shout home about.


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    Filmmaker Michael Moore may hate former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who may distrust Mohammed Fadlallah (the former spiritual head of Hezbollah) but all three can agree on one thing: They liked meeting journalist Jonathan Curiel. That’s me. I don’t fawn over people I interview, but I give them room to talk before formulating an opinion (or two). Beyond my journalism (a long reporting stint for the San Francisco Chronicle, plus freelancing for the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Columbia Journalism Review, and others), I’ve taught as a Fulbright Scholar at Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan; and conducted research at England’s Oxford University, as a Reuters Foundation Fellow. I’m also the author of “Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots.” If journalists are what they cover, then I’m an omnivore – someone as interested in Picasso and Seinfeld as I am in Washington politics and foreign affairs.

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