By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2005
Vice President Cheney said in an interview that the proper power of the presidency has finally been restored after being diminished in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, and that President Bush contributed to the process by not allowing his narrow victory in the 2000 election to inhibit him during his first term.
"Even after we went through all of that, he never wanted to allow, correctly, the closeness of our election to in any way diminish the power of the presidency, lead him to make a decision that he needed to somehow trim his sails, and be less than a fully authorized, if you will, commander in chief, leader of our government, president of the United States," Cheney said in an interview last month that will be broadcast tomorrow night on "Inside the Presidency," a documentary on the History Channel.
Bush's assertiveness in the early days of his presidency, Cheney said, meant that he was able to respond decisively after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. "Faced with a whole new threat, set of challenges, you needed a strong, decisive president, and that's exactly what we had," Cheney said.
The vice president has been at the forefront of an effort by the Bush White House to promote an expansive view of presidential power by frequently invoking constitutional principle in refusing to hand over documents to Congress or allowing administration officials to testify before congressional committees.
The White House, for example, initially refused a request by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks to allow national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify, on the grounds that it would erode the separation of powers between the executive branch. Eventually the White House relented, and she testified.
Cheney himself has been in the middle of a controversy over shielding the internal workings of the 2001 energy task force he headed. Public interest groups sued to be allowed to examine the task force's records, but the case has been tied up in the courts.
Cheney said that the "low point" of presidential power occurred at the beginning of Gerald R. Ford's presidency and that "over time" it has been restored, despite such challenges as the Iran-contra investigation under President Ronald Reagan, which Cheney characterized as an attempt to "criminalize a policy difference" between the president and Congress.
"I think, in fact, there has been over time a restoration, if you will, of the power and authority of the president," Cheney said.
Cheney was especially critical of anything that would undermine the president's powers as commander in chief. He said he agrees with many who believe the War Powers Act, which was passed in 1973 and attempts to restrict the president's use of military force, is "unconstitutional," though that has not been fully tested in the courts.
"That made a change in the institutional arrangements that I don't think is healthy," the vice president said. "I don't think you should restrict the president's authority to deploy military forces because of the Vietnam experience."
Cheney said that when he served as secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush, he recommended that the president not go to Congress to seek approval for the use of military force in the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
"It was my view that Congress would be with us if we were successful and against us if we weren't successful and it wouldn't matter, even if they had voted for it in advance. I admit that was a somewhat cynical view by a former member of Congress," said Cheney, who served as a member of the House from Wyoming from 1979 to 1989.
The president, however, rejected Cheney's advice and obtained resolutions from the House and Senate approving the use of the military. "It was the right thing to do, and I told him that later," Cheney said.
But the vice president said he believes the former president should have used the U.S. military to eject Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait even if Congress had voted against military action. "I firmly believe to this day even if the Congress had voted no we had no option but to proceed," he said, adding that the Constitution, which makes the president the commander in chief of the armed forces, provides sufficient legal authority to launch a war.
He noted that the current President Bush won congressional resolutions for the military invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and said that "worked reasonably well."
Cheney said the changes enacted by Congress after Watergate had a negative impact on the presidency. "I'm not sure that that justified reducing or restricting presidential power and authority or making changes in the fundamental institutional balance between the two."
Ford, who was also interviewed for "Inside the Presidency," which was produced in conjunction with The Washington Post, echoed Cheney's concern that Congress placed too many restrictions on presidential decisions during his time in office.
Former president Jimmy Carter, also interviewed for the television program, said external events, such as the Iranian hostage crisis that began in 1979 when 52 Americans were held, often hampered him as president. But he said he worries about a new imperial presidency. "I think nowadays, there's a tendency to isolate the president, to exalt the president, to make it almost unpatriotic to criticize the president," Carter said. "I think this is a trend that causes me some concern."
Carter also made clear his differences with Bush over the Iraq war. "I worship the prince of peace," he said, "not the prince of war. And to launch a war that might take 50,000 Iraqi lives and so forth, I think 1,300 American lives, unnecessarily, I believe still unnecessarily, based completely on false premises, does contradict my own standard of religious faith."
Cheney said: "America's been enormously fortunate over the years to have the kind of people that the system produces as presidents."
Asked if he was including Carter and Bill Clinton in his praise, he said, "I obviously have varying judgments on various presidents. But I think as a general proposition we get individuals who are well-intentioned, who are committed to doing what they think is in the best interest of the country."
Cheney said that 2004 was his last political campaign. "I ran eight times, and we never lost when I was on the ballot, so I don't plan to run again."
History has been cheated after Watergate, he said. "The investigations that have occurred over the years, the role of the special prosecutors and so forth have dried up a major source for history."
"I don't keep a diary," he said, adding that he also does not use e-mail. "And I don't write letters."
So where is the record?
"It's all right up here," he said, pointing to his head. "And I suppose that'll fade over the years."
Researcher Christine Parthemore contributed to this report.