Devil’s Island

Illustration by Peter Bennet

I know that you got a job Miz Cheney But your husband’s heart problem’s complicating.

—Eminem

On last week’s opening episode of Survivor: Pearl Islands, the big question was who’d be the first to get the boot. There were three likely victims: the uncool Lillian (she’s 51 and a scoutmaster), young Ryan, who was quickly pegged as a wussy-boy, and gossiping Nicole, a 24-year-old massage therapist from Hermosa Beach who spent her time scheming ineptly. It was no contest. All seven of her Morgan Tribe teammates voted to bounce Nicole, who took her mortifying early dismissal with aplomb: “I knew going in that my biggest weakness was going to be keeping my mouth shut.” Such self-knowledge would make Socrates beam.

It’s just one measure of Survivor’s pop-culture genius that the phrase “vote off the island” has become a national idiom. You hear it in discussions of the Democratic presidential campaign, where everyone is banding together to get rid of Howard Dean (who keeps winning those financial-immunity challenges), the California recall, and even the New York Stock Exchange, whose chairman Richard Grasso was forced to resign when news broke that his pay package was worth $140 million. Although he’d broken no law (except, possibly, God’s), Wall Street needs visible scapegoats to mask its continuing malfeasance and greed. Mr. Grasso, the tribe has spoken.

Of course, these days the real fun lies in guessing who’s going to get tossed out of the Bush Tribe because of the troubles in Iraq. It’s bound to happen. After all, things have gotten so bad that Senator Edward Kennedy recently emerged from one of his long hibernations (he must store food in those cheeks) and turned into “Ted Kennedy,” the imaginary left-wing firebrand that the right pretends is the bogeyman. Teddy dubbed the war a “fraud” (before drifting back into his customary stupor), and millions agreed. The president’s poll numbers are slipping, General Clark’s in the race, and somebody needs to be sacrificed to appease the gods, if not the swing voters, for the administration’s hubris in claiming Iraq would be easy.

Although Bush is famous for being obsessed with loyalty, don’t kid yourself. He has a rich kid’s sense of what that means. The people who work for him are the help, and if they prove a liability — like ex–Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, who couldn’t sell Bush’s floundering economic program — they’re soon out the door. Indeed, during the big 16-word State of the Union “Yellowcake” kerfuffle, it briefly looked as if the White House was even preparing to make Condoleezza Rice a sacrificial lamb. Then somebody evidently remembered that Condi helps inoculate Bush against the charge that he is, well, what he actually is but can pretend that he isn’t because he’s got an African-American woman by his side.

So who can take the fall for Iraq? Not Colin Powell, who was widely reviled by the right for being insufficiently bellicose; not Defense underlings like Paul Wolfowitz or Douglas Feith, because it would diminish the president to suggest that they called the shots. While it might be possible to dump the unhinged Rummy (remember when our generals were bonkers and the civilians sane?), he’s so much the cocky face of American military action in Iraq that to dismiss him now would be to admit that the war was a blunder. As Tuesday’s U.N. speech made clear, Bush will never do that.

Believe it or not, the odd man out is eerie Dick Cheney, who, like Hermosa Beach’s estimable Nicole, has no small trouble controlling his own mouth. Two weeks ago on Meet the Press, he gave an interview that made headlines for its dishonesty: He insisted that the Bush tax cuts account for only 25 percent of the 2003 deficit (it’s actually 39 percent) and, shockingly, kept afloat the notion that Saddam was somehow tied to 9/11. This bad performance could have proved calamitous had faux tough guy Tim Russert — famous for grilling powerless newcomers yet obsequious to authority — asked the proper follow-up questions to Cheney’s shifty answers.

One audience that couldn’t have been thrilled by Cheney’s interview was the White House. The Bush administration is eager to shift the argument away from the official reasons for the war (they now sound unconvincing) and on to the need for that $87 billion. That’s why, after months of strenuously linking Saddam to September 11, Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld now explicitly deny any such connection. They’ve moved on. Only Cheney hasn’t heard the news. He keeps bulldozing forward.

This should come as no surprise, for Cheney is probably the administration’s most hardcore right-winger, the hawkiest of hawks. Not only was he a reactionary congressman — his voting record was more conservative than Newt Gingrich’s — but, as a former secretary of defense and CEO of Halliburton, he’s the military-industrial complex made flesh. Cheney may not be the Bush team’s craziest member, but he’s surely the creepiest. Holding an office that FDR’s vice president, John Nance Garner, once compared to a “bucket of warm spit,” he has been unable to decide whether he’s Dr. Strangelove (“I vill play all zuh roles”) or Dr. Evil, one of the few pop-culture figures that Bush is known to enjoy. He often appears to think he’s actually president.

Where vice presidents traditionally struggled in vain just to get office space in the White House — Walter Mondale became the first, in 1976 — the secretive Cheney has spent the two years since 9/11 hiding in unknown rabbit holes, periodically popping out to say things designed to keep the public in a malleable state of anxiety. He said that the War on Terror could last 50 years and that it was “inevitable” there would be another huge attack on the U.S. He beat the drum for war with Iraq by deliberately overstating Saddam’s capacities and playing down contrary evidence from the intelligence agencies; then, when the WMDs weren’t found, he attacked those who dared question the administration’s inflated claims.

It has always been part of the Cheney myth that he is the acme of hard-nosed competence, whose reliable counsel and commitment to omertà make him a trustworthy adviser. In fact, he’s been an unnerving vice president, whose record recalls that of Nixon’s corrupt old hatchet man Spiro Agnew. Cheney launched his own do-nothing anti-terrorism task force before 9/11 (thereby ignoring the existing proposals of the Hart-Rudman commission). He sparked a firestorm of bad PR when he sneered at energy conservation as mere “personal virtue,” then blamed environmentalists and bureaucrats for the California energy debacle (energy companies had actually been fixing prices). Back in 2002, he shuttled around the Middle East trying to secure support for the invasion of Iraq (nobody jumped aboard). Today, he’s still taking money from Halliburton, even as the U.S. government has given it a huge contract in Iraq.

Cheney’s blend of the mysterious and the sinister has turned him into something of a sick joke. Saturday Night Live’s Darrell Hammond plays him as a maniac prone to bursts of glee, while Eminem pretended to electrocute him with a defibrillator in his nose-thumbing video “Without Me.” In a recent Village Voice parody casting Hillary Clinton as Harry Potter, Cheney turned up as a giant serpent who lived in the Hogwarts drainage pipes — “his voice sounded like an iceberg in a sewer.”

None of this would be problematic were the economy flush and Iraq going splendidly. But they aren’t, and Bush’s ideal running mate is no longer the unlikable Cheney but (to borrow his father’s locution) a kinder, gentler conservative attuned to the daily problems of ordinary Americans. (Is there a single nationally known Republican who actually fits this description? I don’t ask this facetiously.) I’m well aware that the White House has already announced that Cheney will be on the ticket again next year, and naturally the president won’t overtly can his veep or blame him for the things that have gone wrong in Iraq. But a year’s a long time, and Cheney’s no longer a public asset. So don’t be surprised if the president grows too worried about his good friend’s heart condition to let him risk his life by running again.

Californiaaaaah

In last week’s cliffhanger episode of The O.C., the most deliriously enjoyable trash TV show in years, our teen heroes bomb down to Tijuana, where Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) fills her skinny body with too many pills. Will she still be breathing once the show resumes after Fox’s World Series hiatus? Does anyone care? Me, I’m hoping the writers find a bigger role for Marissa’s social-climbing mother, Julie (the great Melinda Clarke), and her slippery-weak husband, Jimmy (Tate Donovan’s finest hour). As for Marissa, maybe series creator Josh Schwartz or producer Doug Liman will finally grasp that their sulky heroine isn’t merely a drip but a passive-aggressive psycho. I know she’s Ryan’s love interest and all, but this chick would be instantly thrown off any island where my friends and I have a vote.

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