40 years ago, Laurence J. Peter published a seminal book that was originally intended as humor. It became a part of our language, a sort of linguistic precursor to an eye-rolling Dilbert culture. The Peter Principle. Peter's thesis was that competent people tend to be promoted. They then master new duties, perform competently, and are promoted again. "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence," he wrote. The subtitle of the book was "why things always go wrong."
When George W. Bush was elected, he was clearly not up to the job. That was okay. Conventional wisdom held that the success of a Presidency was dictated by astute advisers, not by a capable chief executive. The notion had been reinforced by a cadre of wise old men going back to Roosevelt. Richard Nixon seemed eclipsed by his Secretary of State. "What if something happened to Kissinger and Nixon became President?"
By the time President Bush left office, conventional wisdom had changed its collective mind. Competence did matter. The administration had been overrun by those ruled less by an intelligent measure of reality than by unexamined extremist passions. The ignored warning before 9/11, the cynical manipulation of the tragedy for political purposes, the ineptitude of federal response to national emergencies, the strangling of civil rights in the name of security, all bore witness to conservatism as a governing philosophy.
Laurence J. Peter was a master of pithy sayings, a few even original. I thought of a few of them as I reviewed public statements by, and investigative revelations about, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
It is now apparent that the Vice President did not follow the evidence concerning Iraq. He ordered it to be created. He badgered the CIA to come up with the conclusions he wanted concerning everything from an Iraq-al Qaeda connection to Weapons of Mass Destruction. He dictated that the interrogation of even those terrorist captives who were cooperating must be interrupted in order to torture the right evidence out of them.
He insists that the administration was following the best legal advice available to keep "enhanced interrogation" within the limits of the law. But it is now apparent that the administration ordered the Department of Justice to come up with the desired conclusions.
"When I want your opinion I’ll give it to you," Peters said to laughing audiences 40 years ago, in mimicry of the approach of some executives. Decades later, that was the precise approach of the Bush administration.
Peters had another famous saying that seems to me applicable to the former Vice President's more recent pronouncements.
"If at first you don’t succeed, lie, lie again."
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