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A Portrait of a Man Defined by His Wars

January 2001
January 2001 (Ron Edmonds - AP)
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Cheney's hard-nosed approach to the vice presidency mirrored his view of the presidency itself. "What's the definition of the job of president?" I asked him in a 2005 interview. "My definition," I said, "is to determine what the next stage of good is for the majority of people in the country . . . and then develop a plan to carry it out."

"That's not the way I think about it," Cheney replied. "I tend to think about it more in terms of there are certain things the nation has to do, things that have to get done. Sometimes very unpleasant things. Sometimes committing troops to combat, going to war. And the president of the United States is the one who's charged with that responsibility. . . .

"The stuff you need the president for is the hard stuff. And not everything they have is hard. They do a lot of things that are symbolic, and the symbolic aspects of the presidency are important. And they can inspire, they can set goals and objectives -- 'Let's go to the moon' -- but when they earn their pay is when they have to sit down and make those really tough decisions that in effect are life-and-death decisions that affect the safety and security and survival of the nation, and most especially those people that we send into harm's way to guarantee that we can defeat our enemies, support our friends and protect the nation.

"That's the way I think of it."

* * *

In our final interview, on May 21, 2008, the president talked irritably of how he believed there was an "elite" class in America that thought he could do nothing right. He was more guarded than ever, often answered that he could not remember details, and emphasized many times how much he had turned over to Stephen J. Hadley, his loyal and trusted national security adviser. There was an air of resignation about him, as if he realized how little he could change in his eight months left as president.

He alternately insisted that he was "consumed" by the war, "reviewing every day," before adding, "But make sure you know, it's not as though I'm sitting behind the desk and totally overwhelmed by Iraq, because the president's got to do a lot of other things."

By his own ambitious goals of 2001, he had fallen short. He had not united the country, but had added to its divisions and had become the most divisive figure in the country. He acknowledged to me that he had failed "to change the tone in Washington." He had not rooted out terror wherever it existed. He had not achieved world peace. He had not attained victory in his two wars. Bush himself has noted this, declaring in a Sept. 15, 2007, speech that success in Iraq "will require U.S. political, economic and security engagement beyond my presidency."

As the Bush presidency becomes history, the wars he began will become part of another president's story. "There's going to be a new president-elect who will come in here," I said in our final interview. "Not as a Democrat or a Republican, but as the president, what are you going to say to the new leader about what you are handing off in Iraq?"

Bush thought about it for a moment. His answer seemed to reflect his revised expectations. "What I'll say is, 'Don't let it fail.' "

Brady Dennis and Evelyn Duffy contributed to this report.

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