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Washington Sketch: Obama vs. Cheney

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In dueling speeches Thursday, Obama and Cheney spar over Guantanamo, harsh interrogations and other approaches to fighting terrorism. Video by Jonathan Forsythe/The Washington Post

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By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 22, 2009

Dick Cheney came out swinging.

He had been forced to delay his speech attacking President Obama by 48 minutes yesterday morning because the cable networks were carrying a dueling speech by Obama himself. "Well, good morning, or perhaps good afternoon," the former vice president growled when he finally took the podium at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's pretty clear the president served in the Senate and not in the House of Representatives, because, of course, in the House, we have the five-minute rule."

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Cheney then gave his speech -- at 36 minutes, nearly as long as Obama's.

No matter: It was not Cheney's logic but his prodigious anger that was on display yesterday. It was the political world's equivalent of Ali-Frazier, a televised smackdown between the president, giving a speech about terrorism at the National Archives, and the former vice president, jabbing back from across town at AEI.

In the blue corner stood Obama, smiling and cerebral. "I want to solve these problems, and I want to solve them together as Americans," he said soothingly. "And we will be ill served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue."

In the red corner stood Cheney, scowling and, well, fear-mongering: "To bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger. . . . It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness and would make the American people less safe. . . . The terrorists see just what they were hoping for: our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted. In short, they see weakness and opportunity."

Cheney used the word "attack" 19 times, "danger" and "threat" six times apiece, and 9/11 an impressive 27 times. It was as if all the angry thoughts edited out of his speeches by Bush aides over eight years were finally free to tumble forth. He railed about "contrived indignation and phony moralizing" among Democrats and a stance that "blames America." He accused Obama of giving terrorists "a lengthy insert for their training manual" and accused the New York Times' reporting of aiding al-Qaeda. "It impressed the Pulitzer committee, but it damn sure didn't serve the interests of our country or the safety of our people," he said bitterly.

On paper, Obama should be an easy victor in his duel with Cheney; Obama is viewed favorably by about 60 percent of the public, Cheney by about 25 percent. And yet Cheney seems to be winning this fight. Senate Democrats, rebelling against the president, voted against funding his plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Obama himself backed down from his support for the release of photographs of prisoner abuse. And he's gone back and forth on whether to prosecute or investigate those accused of authorizing torture.

For the moment, at least, Obama's intellectual arguments can't match Cheney's visceral rage. Even if Cheney can't reverse the new administration's policies, he's building a case for Obama to be blamed if there is a terrorist attack on his watch. Repeatedly yesterday, Cheney boasted that his policies "had everything to do with preventing another 9/11 on our watch."

At the very least, Cheney has gotten the president's attention. After Cheney's speech was scheduled last week, the White House booked an Obama speech for the same time on the same topic. His speech was scheduled to begin at 10:10 a.m., but Obama delayed that until 10:30 -- exactly when Cheney was supposed to speak across town. In the AEI conference room, those awaiting Cheney watched CNN's broadcast of the Obama speech on a projection screen.

The president seemed slightly off his game. He introduced Defense Secretary Robert Gates as "William Gates," confusing his Cabinet member with the Microsoft founder. And he was thrown off by an apparent teleprompter malfunction at the end of his speech. Mostly, though, Obama struck a defensive tone. "The problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility," he reminded his audience many times. Without naming Cheney, he objected to his critics' trying "to scare people rather than educate them."

At just that moment, some of those very words were being distributed to the audience at AEI: an advance text, still warm from the printer, of Cheney's rebuttal. The crowd at the conservative think tank offered no applause during or after the Obama speech but gave a warm ovation when Cheney entered the room and flashed a crooked grin. His remarks went quickly to Ground Zero and "the final horror for those who jumped to their death to escape being burned alive."

In an echo of the with-us-or-against-us theme, Cheney told Obama: "In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground."

Cheney, battling respiratory congestion, listed the many things that have made him dyspeptic. The "so-called truth commission." The "feigned outrage based on a false narrative" of the opposition. The administration soliciting "applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo." The "euphemisms" he thinks Democrats are using to sanitize terrorism.

"Tired of calling it a war? Use any term you prefer," he growled. "Just remember: It is a serious step to begin unraveling some of the very policies that have kept our people safe since 9/11."

A swift uppercut to Obama's chin! Nine more 9/11 jabs and Cheney was ready for his rubdown.


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