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Cheney Uncloaks His Frustration With Bush

After years of praising George W. Bush as a man of resolve, former vice president Richard B. Cheney now hints at a less flattering opinion of him.
After years of praising George W. Bush as a man of resolve, former vice president Richard B. Cheney now hints at a less flattering opinion of him. (By Roger L Wollenberg Via Bloomberg News)

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By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

In his first few months after leaving office, former vice president Richard B. Cheney threw himself into public combat against the "far left" agenda of the new commander in chief. More private reflections, as his memoir takes shape in slashing longhand on legal pads, have opened a second front against Cheney's White House partner of eight years, George W. Bush.

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Cheney's disappointment with the former president surfaced recently in one of the informal conversations he is holding to discuss the book with authors, diplomats, policy experts and past colleagues. By habit, he listens more than he talks, but Cheney broke form when asked about his regrets.

"In the second term, he felt Bush was moving away from him," said a participant in the recent gathering, describing Cheney's reply. "He said Bush was shackled by the public reaction and the criticism he took. Bush was more malleable to that. The implication was that Bush had gone soft on him, or rather Bush had hardened against Cheney's advice. He'd showed an independence that Cheney didn't see coming. It was clear that Cheney's doctrine was cast-iron strength at all times -- never apologize, never explain -- and Bush moved toward the conciliatory."

The two men maintain respectful ties, speaking on the telephone now and then, though aides to both said they were never quite friends. But there is a sting in Cheney's critique, because he views concessions to public sentiment as moral weakness. After years of praising Bush as a man of resolve, Cheney now intimates that the former president turned out to be more like an ordinary politician in the end.

Cheney's post-White House career is as singular as his vice presidency, a position he transformed into the hub of power. Drained of direct authority and cast aside by much of the public, he is no less urgently focused, friends and family members said, on shaping events.

The former vice president remains convinced of mortal dangers that few other leaders, in his view, face squarely. That fixed belief does much to explain the conduct that so many critics find baffling. He gives no weight, close associates said, to his low approval ratings, to the tradition of statesmanlike White House exits or to the grumbling of Republicans about his effect on the party brand.

John P. Hannah, Cheney's second-term national security adviser, said the former vice president is driven, now as before, by the nightmare of a hostile state acquiring nuclear weapons and passing them to terrorists. Aaron Friedberg, another of Cheney's foreign policy advisers, said Cheney believes "that many people find it very difficult to hold that idea in their head, really, and conjure with it, and see what it implies."

What is new, Hannah said, is Cheney's readiness to acknowledge "doubts about the main channels of American policy during the last few years," a period encompassing most of Bush's second term. "These are not small issues," Hannah said. "They cut to the very core of who Cheney is," and "he really feels he has an obligation" to save the country from danger.

Cheney's imprint on law and policy, achieved during the first term at the peak of his influence, had faded considerably by the time he and Bush left office. Bush halted the waterboarding of accused terrorists, closed secret CIA prisons, sought congressional blessing for domestic surveillance, and reached out diplomatically to Iran and North Korea, which Cheney believed to be ripe for "regime change."

Some of the disputes between the president and his Number Two were more personal. Shortly after Bush fired Donald H. Rumsfeld, Cheney called his old mentor history's "finest secretary of defense" and invited direct comparison to Bush by saying he had "never learned more" from a boss than he had as Rumsfeld's deputy in the Ford administration.

The depths of Cheney's distress about another close friend, his former chief of staff and alter ego I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, have only recently become clear. Bush refused a pardon after Libby's felony convictions in 2007 for perjury and obstruction of an investigation of the leak of a clandestine CIA officer's identity. Cheney tried mightily to prevent Libby's fall, scrawling in a note made public at trial that he would not let anyone "sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder." Cheney never explained the allusion, but grand jury transcripts -- and independent counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald -- suggested that Libby's false statements aimed above all to protect the vice president.

Last month, an account in Time magazine, based on close access to Bush's personal lawyer and White House counsel, described Cheney's desperate end-of-term efforts to change Bush's mind about a pardon. Cheney, who has spent a professional lifetime ignoring unflattering stories, issued a quietly furious reply. In the most explicit terms, he accused Bush of abandoning "an innocent man" who had served the president with honor and then become the "victim of a severe miscarriage of justice." Cheney now says privately that his memoir, expected to be published in spring 2011, will describe their heated arguments in full.


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