Yesterday I joined a handful of conservative journalists for lunch with Vice President Cheney, his daughter, and members of his staff. For two hours we reviewed his years of service in government and looked ahead. Since Eisenhower there have been five Republican administrations. Dick Cheney has been inside four of the five.
The topics with the Vice President were wide ranging, from foreign affairs to domestic policy.
Most of the questions involved the Global War on Terror. Cheney had been asked early on about his image, a topic impacted by the war. He joked that it would be rather difficult to talk about his image on background, then promptly dove into the topic. He laughed that he might be most remembered for his exchanged with Pat Leahy on the floor of the Senate — helpfully pointing out that “the Senate was not in session.” “There’s no question [my reputation] had diminished,” he said after pointing out he left the Ford and first Bush administrations in good public standing. “People came away angry” after the election in 2000. That was an issue.
“My job in its purest sense,” he explained, “is advisory. The nature of the job I have is that I’m not in charge of anything. . . . I advise the President. But I can’t talk about it.” He said if he did talk about it, he would no longer be asked for his advice. The private nature, however, causes suspicion, particularly in this political age. He said he believed that, after 9/11, the first obligation of the administration was to make sure we did not get hit again. “That meant making tough decisions.” A lot of those decisions, in order to be successful, had to be highly classified. Secrecy was important to have a successful policy, but it played right into the ‘Cheney is secretive’ image. None of that helped his image.
At the end of eight years, Cheney pointed out, the administration did not get a lot of credit for the stuff that did not happen. We’ve ended up in a situation where critics label everything the administration does as “torture.” “That word,” he sighed, “is used with
reckless abandon.” Cheney was asked to assess whether President Bush and he would be leaving the Presidency in a stronger position than they found it. He thought so.
“Our system works best in this day and age with a strong executive,” he affirmed. He went on to say he thought the present administration had enhanced the ability of the President to do what needs to be done in the war given the circumstances. They made a conscious decision that they could not chance weakening the Presidency as happened after Vietnam. As a result, they made the decision to fight all the way to the Supreme Court on issues like the energy task force. Cheney said people told him if he had nothing to hide about the task force, why bother hiding. He said that wasn’t the point. “Henry Waxman does not tell me who he meets with” so why should I have to tell him who I meet with, Cheney argued. “You’ve got to be prepared to do these sorts of things to defend your turf.”
Those decisions involved putting together policies on enhanced interrogation techniques and other policies related to the war on terror. Cheney said the administration did in depth study on the precedents involved, including looking at what the Roosevelt Administration did during World War II, much of which was upheld by the Supreme Court. Fast forward fifty years and the Supreme Court looked again, determined the White House needed Congressional approval for military commissions, then decided they still did not like military commissions after the White House obtained that approval. There was clear frustration in Cheney’s voice describing the matter.
Many of the administration’s opponents have never let go of the belief that terrorists could be prosecuted. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is the best example: the dividing line between the Bush administrations admirers and its most vehement critics falls along not just party lines, but separates those whose views are legalistic and academic and those who view war pragmatically.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed belonged to Osama bin Laden’s inner circle inside Al-Qaeda: he was the operational planner behind the 9-11 attacks. On March 1, 2003, the Pakistani ISI captured him. He eventually landed in Guantanamo Bay. Cheney pointed out that very little was known about Al-Qaeda in the early days of the War on Terror. People forget that. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, having gone through enhanced interrogation, provided “a basic database of information on Al-Qaeda,” according to the Vice President. The sheikh provided information on where Al-Qaeda was located, how it received its funding, how it trained, etc. Without that information, which would never have been obtained via a judicial system prosecution, the United States would have been seriously set back in the early advancement of the war.
Looking forward, Cheney talked about the future of the Republican Party, his successor in office, and challenges the new administration will face.
On the party, Cheney pointed out he lived through both the 1974 and 1976 elections. The party survived. He said the party needs to recruit new leadership and old leaders like himself need to start stepping aside for a younger generation of Republican leaders. He listed Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Adam Putnam, John Kyl, John Thune, and Richard Burr as examples of younger leaders the party needs to look to.
He said he thinks the economy will be the immediate big issue the Obama administration will have to deal with and it will be important that the new administration not give up on the war on terror. Obama will also have to deal with Russia and China, both of which Cheney says he is interested to see how they fare in the current financial crisis.
I asked the Vice President about Joe Biden and if he had any advice for him. “No,” he said. “I like Joe. He’s an engaging fellow,” the Vice President offered. But, he said, it would be very hard to institutionalize a relationship between the Vice President and President. As a result, he did not want to offer any advice without the incoming Vice President understanding his relationship to the incoming President. He also noted that his relationship to President Bush is probably historically different from any other Vice President and President.
Regarding President Bush, Vice President Cheney was extremely complimentary. “He has been and is a remarkable man,” Cheney said of his boss. He admires Bush’s willingness to make and stand by tough decisions. He said he knows how hard President Bush has worked at the job and the depth of the President’s feelings over what he has had to ask people to do. “He has a great capacity to share with them and to an extent comfort” the families of the fallen and others, he said — going so far as to say the President was better at it than Cheney. He concluded saying that he thinks the President “will be very well regarded” in history for his handling of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror over eight years.
Charles Krauthammer asked the Vice President if he thought the hand of providence played a role in American history. The Vice President replied that he thought the United States had a very special place and was unique in history. “Clearly genius was involved in establishing the Republic. . . . We’ve either been extraordinarily fortunate from time to time or one can see the hand of providence.”
In 1976, he said, he had a poll conducted to see who should replace Nelson Rockefeller as Ford’s running mate. The poll concluded that a majority of Americans favored Ronald Reagan. As Cheney tells it, he flew up to Camp David to give President Ford the results. At the time, Ford still had raw feelings over Reagan’s challenge to him. Cheney went in, told Ford what the poll results were, and Ford threw him out. Had Ford picked Reagan, it would be hard to imagine the Reagan revolution four years later.
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