Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
July 26, 2015

How to Understand the Newly Released 9/11 Photo of Dick Cheney with his “Foot Up”

Cheney foot up 9:11

It’s thoroughly obvious why this photo of Dick Cheney went absolutely viral the other day. For the left-leaning, it presents the ultimate opportunity to hate-on Darth Vadar for being so callous. And for the right, the nonchalance is cowboy fuel for biding one’s time before retaliating with vengeance.

I would argue, however, that anyone reading a smug indifference above, even if that’s characteristic of Cheney most of the time, would understand at some level that it’s misattributed here. At the same time, however, the way particular attitudes go along with certain body language, the shot can’t help but paint a portrait that is disconcertingly casual.

On top of the Twitter storm, though, to showcase this photo for one elevated leg as much of the media did (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), not only dishonors the persistence and energy that went into Colette Neirouz Hanna’s FOIA request to release the larger set of White House 9/11 photos on behalf of PBS’s “Frontline,” it also flies in the face of all we can glean from the 350 other historical images that were released with this one. And, in elevating this photo while subordinating the rest, well… Cheney, wins.

And why is that so, exactly? Because it was Cheney, in his omnipotence, who so spearheaded the stonewalling, the need-to-know basis, the cloak-and-dagger in all those years of secrecy justified by homeland security. And it was Cheney, in his imperial self, showcased by all the trumpeting about it, that made the invisibility of the presidential understudy in the 9/11 aftermath so pronounced that it became an instant subject of parody. So, rather than succumbing to the click-bait and, more significantly, forsaking the opportunity to honor a stellar act of journalism, why not study and learn from these trauma photos? And, starting from this one, one thing the edit reveals, in contradiction to Cheney’s famed hubris, the aura of invulnerability and the knee-jerk premise of this viral photo, is a man as tortured in the aftermath of the attack as everybody else was.

Simply stated, this doesn’t look too smug:

Cheney 9:11 b

Nor does this:

Cheney 9:11 a

And while we’re delving into the photo, it would be negligent not to offer a more plausible explanation for why the “leg up.”

First, it doesn’t make sense that Cheney would be seem so causual, even if he knew the photograph was destined for the archives. He was constantly aware of being photographed. And as arrogant and defiant as he is and was, he seemed to keep his attitude largely in check when cameras were around. (That’s why these two photos from the companion set of 2,500 FOIA’d images released last month were so notable.)

More specifically, however, appreciating how excruciating the 9/11 attack must have been to Cheney, I think what we’re seeing in the leg up had far less to do with his attitude than his basic health. Even though he consistently tried to hide it or play it down, the man was dealing with extremely serious health issues. (I have to say, it’s ironic to be defending Cheney’s body language in the “leg up” photo above when, back in 2006, I authored a post titled “De Feet of Inquiry” that addressed how Cheney’s foot problems actually colluded with his arrogance. But still….)

What was popularly known was that Cheney had a bad right knee, the result of an old football injury that required surgery and worsened over time from skiing. That alone, with the stress of the moment, justifies the “leg up.” But the background goes beyond that. According to available history, Cheney suffered his fourth heart attack in November 2000, and had a defibrillator emplanted in June after a bout of arrhythmia, just three months before the 9/11 attack. According to the website, drzebra, by today’s definition of the disease, Cheney was living with living with “stage B heart failure” from 2000-2005. More specifically though, Drzebra questions whether the football story was actually a cover and that Cheney’s knee problems, culminating in aneurysms in both knees in 2005, stretch back much earlier, the result of his vascular problems.

Given all that, if the man’s health was that precarious, not to mention, the photo documents this neocon warrior experiencing his worst nightmare, I can easily imagine how Cheney’s elevated leg had next-to-nothing to do with his character and almost everything to do with his chemistry set.

(photos:David Bohrer/National Archives)

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