How, one wonders, when the US government has been revealed as a hollow sham, did we get it - or, more exactly, him - so wrong? I refer to Dick Cheney, Vice-President by rank, yet in effect chief executive of America Inc.
This has been a wretched week for Cheney, though you wouldn't guess it from the unflappable demeanour of the man, or from that inscrutable half-smile playing on his face, with its unmistakable message of "I know something that you don't". Over four days The Washington Post ran a series of articles setting out in quite breathtaking detail Cheney's unseen yet unshakeable grasp on the levers of power in Washington. Separately he received a congressional subpoena and was ridiculed for his attempts to pretend he was not even part of the federal government.
Yet the question gnaws. Why did no one warn about this when his nominal boss, George W Bush, entered the White House six and a half long years ago? Whatever their view of Bush, back in summer 2000 people tended to welcome his choice of Cheney for Vice-President. The future boss might be callow and ignorant of the world, but Cheney seemed a thoroughly known quantity. After all, he'd been around for ever, chief-of-staff to President Ford in the 1970s, Congressman and then Secretary of Defense in the Eighties and Nineties. In the first Gulf War he had been the safest of pairs of hands, before moving to the private sector as boss of the energy services group Halliburton.
He would bring with him huge experience yet - rare in a sitting Vice-President - no ambition for the top job. Cheney, we imagined, would be Merlin to the raw and untested King Arthur, dispensing wise and frank advice, an elder statesman with nothing left to prove. Yes, he was a conservative. But the record suggested he was a reasonable man, a conservative with a small "c" who didn't raise his voice or wear his ideology on his sleeve. You might disagree with him. By and large, however, you respected him.
But was there ever a greater collective misjudgement? What happened to turn this non-threatening figure into the most powerful Vice-President in the country's history, who rides roughshod over the US Constitution and uses his proximity to the President to bypass the normal decision-making process - so secretive that Richard Nixon seems the patron saint of open government by comparison? To be fair, even some in a position to know were fooled. Take Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser under the first President Bush, when Cheney ran the Pentagon. "I consider Cheney a good friend," Scowcroft told The New Yorker magazine in 2005. "I've known him for 30 years. But Dick Cheney I don't know any more." Scowcroft's belief is that 9/11 changed Cheney's world view, that the small-c conservative was transformed into a dark and scowling Hobbesian, now convinced that laws counted less than the principle of smiting your enemies before they smite you. Yet the "new" Cheney was in evidence even earlier.
Back in the spring of 2001, he chaired an energy policy task force that refused even to say who had testified to it. Environmental groups and some Congressmen objected so strenuously to the secrecy that the battle went to the courts. As would become usual, Cheney won.
Thus the stage was set. Over the past six years I've often run into old journalist friends who, like me, covered the Kremlin in its sealed Communist heyday. Invariably we were struck by the similarities between Moscow then and Washington now - how the adage about rule by general secretaries applied equally to life under George W …