Before Dick Cheney was Dick Cheney -- the horns, the tail, the breath on fire and all that -- he was just another Washington inside player who had mastered all the important aspects of the capital city game. He made friends in the right places; he schmoozed the right reporters. He struck most people as a respectable conservative who respected the processes and institutions of American government -- people found him funny, and they liked him. It's almost impossible to imagine now, but Cheney the congressman once chastised Army colonel and conservative hero Oliver North for trying to stiff-arm Congress during its probe of President Ronald Reagan's Iran Contra scandal.
In 1987, as North tried to circumvent congressional subpoenas requiring him to testify on the scandal, Cheney, then the ranking Republican on the House Iran Contra Committee, declared: ''If the ultimate objection is to avoid any testimony to the Congress then it seems to me that the colonel would move in the eyes of many of us from the posture of being a man trying to serve his country and president ... to a figure who is ... obviously not a pillar of patriotism.'' Wow! To think that Cheney once thought Congress was entitled to information from a White House that did not want to give it. Oh, how things change.
The Cheney currently on display is a unique specimen of a special time. At the end of the day, the former vice president is a Cold Warrior, a man formed by the United States' long confrontation with the Soviet Union. Cheney's experience as part of the administration that declared America the victorious superpower tells us three important things about him relevant to his current behavior:
- He is conditioned for protracted fights. The more ideological, the better.
- He always needs a “foremost adversary” in order to organize his world. This explains his attraction to the neo-con obsession with Saddam Hussein, in the face of real al-Qaeda dangers. It also explains his implacability in his battles with the Obama administration in defense of the Bush administration.
- It's hard for him to believe that the world can change, despite all the contradictory evidence. He keeps fighting the same war, in the same way. In March 1989, when he was officially sworn in as defense secretary, he assessed the changes taking place in the Soviet Union in the following manner: “Containment has worked. Deterrence has held. Principle has paid off. Still, dangers abound. ... We must guard against gambling our nation's security on what may be a temporary aberration in the behavior of our foremost adversary.” That is the same Dick Cheney we have now.
Part of the explanation for Cheney's current public-relations crusade in defense of Bush policies flow from his time as defense secretary and his Cold War understanding that, in some wars, a consequence of defeat is a permanent ignominy, with no possibility of redemption. The threat of communism is dead forever.
To be certain, the failures of the Bush administration do not parallel the demise of the Soviet Union. But Cheney feels a comparable sense of failure: The wholesale discredit being heaped upon the Bush administration is just too much to take. Despite his storied stoicism, Cheney does not want to be remembered as the man behind the most dismal era in American foreign policy in modern history. He began his now infamous Face the Nation interview by saying, jokingly we presume, that “it’s nice to know that you’re still loved and are invited out in public sometimes.”
Cheney cares. He cares enough to want to repair his name. Despite his reputation as the consummate insider, his public life has never been a howling success. Before his most recent tour of duty, he served in two Republican administrations – those of Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush -- that ended in disappointment, rejected by America. In some ways, this moment is his last chance to make it right. With no one defending him or his politics, Cheney almost had no choice but to come to his own defense. Silence is the saddest form of eulogy.
Meanwhile, Cheney's quest to salvage his reputation is driving Republicans crazy. The most unpopular figure in a now unpopular party is suddenly the most vocal. Worse, he's saying everything nobody wants to hear. “He is not our best spokesman,” concedes one GOP player to Ken Walsh of U.S. News & World Report. Dan Balz of The Washington Post talked to an anonymous Republican strategist who admitted, "The fact that most people want to talk [without attribution] shows what a problem it continues to be." The strategist further added, "Cheney continues to be a force among many members of our base, and while he is entirely unhelpful, no one has the standing to show him the door."
Cheney's highest-profile defender, so far, is his daughter Liz. She says that her father is acting on pure principle, rooted in the belief that the Obama administration is making the country less safe by reversing Bush-era policies. “I think that because of that, he feels very strongly that he's got an obligation to speak out,” she said on MSNBC's Morning Joe this week. “It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to go fishing and spend time with his grandkids, but he worries about the world his grandkids will inherit.”
But given the unwelcome response to his quest so far, even from Republicans, Cheney might want to consider the fishing-and-grandkids option more carefully.