Presidential elections have a way of pushing us forward. Joe Biden said dumbly that an Obama administration would face an international crisis by the All-Star Break. Sarah Palin scolded Biden in a debate for dredging up the past and not looking forward.

Well, in my own spare time, I’ve been transporting myself to presidential elections four and eight years removed. The vehicle for this pursuit is Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, by Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman. If the title sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen some of this reporting before, either via the original, Pulitzer Prize-winning series that ran in mid-2007 in the Post, or a couple of follow-up excerpts that hit the paper recently.

Before the 2007 series showed up in the Post, I thought I knew a fair amount about Dick Cheney. I’d read all about his Iraq warmongering everywhere, from all kinds of blogs to Hubris, a great book by Michael Isikoff and David Corn on the selling of the war. Then I read the investigative pieces, by Gellman and Jo Becker, and realized how little I knew about Cheney. Did I have any idea how he reached deep into the federal bureaucracy to make sure that farmers in Oregon got water for irrigation—a decision that resulted in a massive fish kill? Not even close. Did I have any clue just how central he was to Bush administration decisions on the treatment of enemy combatants? Nope. Or how he was tilting the playing field on tax policy. Again, same answer. All this stuff had to be ferreted out via deep investigative reporting.

Following the series came news that Gellman would extend the reporting into a book. By that point, Becker had jumped from the Post to the Times, setting the stage for a spat between the two reporters. I couldn’t help thinking at the time: What a stupid idea! Here it was, September 1997. This book won’t see the light of day till the waning moments of the Bush administration. Who’s going to care about it?

Partial answer: me. Along with a lot of others, too, considering that the book is #335 on Amazon.com right now.

And the reason is that, well, Cheney in this account is far more fascinating than any other political figure who’s recently done 90-minute intervals on our TV screens. Sure, Sarah Palin will come up with some gaffes, and $150,000 is big clothes budget, and how many people can’t name a newspaper? Biden, too, can be a character.

But Cheney may well be the greatest operator this country has ever known. You simply cannot understand the Bush administration without checking this stuff out. The CW on Cheney is that he’s a secretive guy. OK, true. But that doesn’t even get you halfway to the reality. He’s not just secret, he’s downright invisible!

Time and again, as Gellman shows, Cheney manages to get George-W.-Bush signatures on papers whose provenance no one can figure out, much less trace. Without ever raising his voice, the guy drove war policy, cruel-and-unusual-punishment policy, tax policy, and environmental/energy policy throughout much of the Bush administration, though his influence has waned of late.

Angler’s killer history lessons, too, come packed in a quick narrative. Take the first chapter for, well, starters. I can summarize it all in one sentence: Cheney, way back when, is assigned to vet VP candidates for prez candidate W., so he puts all kinds of guys through an intense wringer, including Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who fills out every detail of his life for Cheney’s review, including his receipt of a gift from some guy, but Cheney manages to get the VP nod without going through the vetting and later essentially picks W.’s cabinet, for which Keating becomes an attorney general candidate, but that hope gets dashed after Keating makes a little joke about Cheney and Isikoff—magically—ends up with information about that gift that Keating had disclosed in his VP vetting packet.

That story, though, is much more compelling in Angler itself.