THE INDICTMENT of the vice president's chief of staff for perjury and obstruction of justice is an occasion to consider just how damaging the long public career of Richard Cheney has been to the United States. He began as a political scientist devoted to caring for the elbow of Donald Rumsfeld. As a congressman, Rumsfeld had reliably voted against programs to help the nation's poor, so (as I recalled in reading James Mann's ''Rise of the Vulcans") it was with more than usual cynicism that Richard Nixon appointed him head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the antipoverty agency. Rumsfeld named Cheney as his deputy, and the two set out to gut the program-- the beginning of the Republican rollback of the Great Society, what we saw in New Orleans this fall.
When Rumsfeld became Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff, he again tapped Cheney as his deputy. Now they set out to destroy detente, the fragile new relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Dismissing detente as moral relativism, Cheney so believed in Cold War bipolarity that when it began to melt in the late 1980s, he tried to refreeze it. As George H.W. Bush's secretary of defense, Cheney was key to America's refusal to accommodate the hopeful new spirit of the age. Violence was in retreat, with peace breaking out across the globe, from the Philippines to South Africa, Ireland, the Middle East, and Central America. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Cheney forged America's response -- which was, little over a month later, to wage an illegal war against Panama.