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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)

Despite an ailing heart and reduced mobility, the former vice president at age 68 retains a prodigious capacity for work. He rises early, reads voraciously about history and current events, and acquired a BlackBerry in modest recompense for the loss of daily intelligence briefings. He allows himself some indulgences, Liz Cheney said in an interview. She said her father relishes his new freedom to take a morning drive to Starbucks in a black SUV, toting home the decaffeinated latte on which his doctor and his wife, Lynne, insist. He attends the soccer and softball games of his oldest grandchildren, Kate and Elizabeth, and spends more time than he could as vice president fly fishing near his vacation homes in Wyoming and on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

But Cheney passes most of his days at the top of the garage at his new house in McLean, where he built an office under the dormered roof and filled it with books and binders of his vice presidential papers. He kept copies of the unclassified ones and consults the rest on visits to the National Archives. He took detailed notes in the White House, head bobbing up and down as he wrote and sometimes disappearing from the screen in videoconferences. Those notes, according to one person who has discussed them with Cheney, will form the core of his account of the Bush years.

"What impressed me was his continuing zeal," said an associate who discussed the book with Cheney. "He hadn't stepped back a bit from the positions he took in office to a more relaxed, Olympian view. He was still very much in the fray. He's not going to soften anything or accommodate shifts of conscience. There was no sense in which he looked back and said, 'I wish I'd done something differently.' Rather, there was a sense that they hadn't gone far enough. If he'd been equipped with a group of people as ideologically rigorous as he was, they'd have been able to push further."

Some old associates see Cheney's newfound openness as a breach of principle. For decades, he expressed contempt for departing officials who wrote insider accounts, arguing that candid internal debate was impossible if the president and his advisers could not count on secrecy. As far back as 1979, one of the heroes in Lynne Cheney's novel "Executive Privilege" resolved never to write a memoir because "a president deserved at least one person around him whose silence he could depend on." Cheney lived that vow for the next 30 years.

As vice president, according to one witness, Cheney "was livid" when the memoir of L. Paul Bremer, who led the occupation of Iraq, made the less-than-stunning disclosure that Cheney shared Bremer's concern about U.S. military strategy. A Cabinet-level Bush appointee recalled that Cheney likewise described revelations by former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill and former White House spokesman Scott McClellan as "beyond the pale."

"If he goes out and writes a memoir that spills beans about what took place behind closed doors, that would be out of character," said Ari Fleischer, who served as White House spokesman during Bush's first term.

Yet that appears to be precisely Cheney's intent. Robert Barnett, who negotiated Cheney's book contract, passed word to potential publishers that the memoir would be packed with news, and Cheney himself has said, without explanation, that "the statute of limitations has expired" on many of his secrets. "When the president made decisions that I didn't agree with, I still supported him and didn't go out and undercut him," Cheney said, according to Stephen Hayes, his authorized biographer. "Now we're talking about after we've left office. I have strong feelings about what happened. . . . And I don't have any reason not to forthrightly express those views."

Liz Cheney, whom friends credit with talking her father into writing the book, described the memoir as a record for posterity. "You have to think about his love of history, and when he thinks about this memoir, he thinks about it as a book his grandchildren will read," she said.

What the former vice president assuredly will not do, according to friends and family, is break a lifetime's reticence about his feelings. Alluding to Bush's forthcoming memoir, Cheney told one small group recently that he had no interest "in sharing personal details," as the former president planned to do.

"He sort of spat the word 'personal,' " said one person in the room.


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