Cheney Hints at Disappointment With Bush

Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009; 1:00 PM

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.

Washington Post staff writer Barton Gellman was online Thursday, Aug. 13, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss Dick Cheney's post-White House career.

Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.


Anonymous: From what you know of him, do you think Dick Cheney would be in favor of same-sex marriage if his daughter was not a lesbian? That stance seems to be at odds with his other positions on alternative lifestyles.

Barton Gellman: First, thanks for coming, and sorry I'm a couple minutes late.

This is an intriguing question but I keep away from speculation. The only real hints are these: Cheney has never cared much about the wedge social issues that animate one segment of the GOP, so he had no turnabout to speak of, and his wife Lynne wrote a novel decades ago that gave friendly, tolerant treatment to a lesbian love affair.

To be precise, Cheney opposes a federal ban on gay marriage, preferring to leave the question to the states, and implies he wouldn't mind a state marriage blessing.


Washington, D.C.: I am not sure who originated the statement but it seems apt: "the only people that can afford not to compromise are despots and lunatics." Which do you think Cheney is or do you think he is both?

Barton Gellman: Provocative, probably not entirely accurate. I'd put it that Cheney is as close to an anti-politician we've had in high office. He's a zealot, in the sense that he has urgent and edge-of-the-envelope views on what may be, and has to be done, and regards himself as among the few well-informed realists. A president, as Bush concluded, can't afford to be an anti-politician.


Tuckahoe, N.Y.: I've seen it written that, despite the fact that he brought so many neo-conservatives into government -- Wolfowitz, Libby, et al, with spectacularly horrific results, Cheney himself is not really a neoconservative. He wants to increase American power, profit and influence around the world, and whether or not it includes democratizing all these places at the point of the gun is beside the point. 'Let them obey, so long as they fear." What is his philosophy, in your opinion?

Barton Gellman: He reads history, not philosophy, and doesn't tend to articulate one as such. He has more in common, I think, with the Realist school of foreign policy, and sees eye to eye with Kissinger on many things. He doesn't share the neocon enthusiasm or optimism for spreading democracy, but his views coincided with theirs on the need for war in Iraq. I spend a lot of time on this in my book, "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency" (Penguin Press 2008), about which more at

_______________________ Barton Gellman/The Angler


Washington, D.C.: It's interesting how VP Cheney seems to take his loss of influence with President Bush very personally. Is this fuelling his interest in "setting the record straight" with a personal memoir, or does he have old scores to settle?

Barton Gellman: There's a personal element to this, I agree, but I don't think that's the main thing. What's personal: (1) Scooter Libby, who Cheney regards as victim of a miscarriage of justice and deserving of a pardon Bush refused, and (2) Cheney's sense that Bush caved to public opinion in his second term, a significant moral failing in Cheney's world view.

He also cares about his place in history, but doesn't think it will be fixed in his lifetime.

Most important to Cheney is influence over the here and now. He believes in his bones that there are grave risks to the United States and that he understands better than nearly anyone else how to address those risks. He is not ready to withdraw from the active debate because he sees his policies crumbling and doesn't think anyone else can shore them up.


College Park, Md.: I read your excellent account fo the Cheney vice-presidency in "Angler." You mentioned repeatedly that Cheney tried to control the direction of administration policy often by controlling who had access to Bush. How did this change over the course of the Bush administration in regards to the public perception of the Bush presidency?

Barton Gellman: Cheney's influence -- greatest in the first term -- had many roots. A big picture president, unengaged with details, happy to let Cheney (who knows that details ARE the policy) take care of many particulars. A rare combination of zealous views with a gift for finding the levers of power. (Most of the great operators are pragmatists.) An absence of strong rivals in the first term. (Bolten, Paulson, Gates and others changed that in the second term, as did the losses of Libby and Rumsfeld.) I don't know how much public perceptions changed, but there was a trajectory in the second term in which Cheney's power diminished, though it never went away. Most of all it was because Bush, unlike Cheney, had to bring the public with him, and the VP nearly led him off a cliff in the crisis over NSA surveillance of 2004, when Bush came close to a mass resignation at the Justice Department that would have dwarfed Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre. Nearly all the main players discuss this on the record in chapters 11 and 12 of my book.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I presume we haven't heard Bush's side of Cheney's complaints, but isn't it possible, even if Cheney refuses to realize this, that Bush simply realized that Cheney's advice was, well, not always correct? Cheney had a good run during the first term, and maybe Bush realized these policies weren't exactly what Bush wanted? Where is it written the president has to do what the vice president wants?

Barton Gellman: Bush really was the Decider when he wanted to be (with the one caveat that Cheney sometimes did things, ostensibly on Bush's behalf, that Bush didn't know about). No one who saw them together doubted who was in charge. Cheney's influence was indirect -- his advice, and his orchestration of options before they reached the Oval. And yes, Bush became convinced in the second term that Cheney's advice was unswerving even when, from Bush's perspective, it didn't work. Cheney regards resolve in the face of unpopularity, and waiting for the long term, as moral imperatives. Presidents tend to be more pragmatic in their outlook.


Independence Ave: Who decided on Cheney as Bush's vice president, and why? Was it because Bush was too green (inexperienced and immature)?

Barton Gellman: There's no question Bush came first to Cheney to sound out his interest in becoming VP. Chapter 1 of my book shows how Cheney played out that process, even as he ran the vetting process for others, and the relationship thus established -- Cheney's methods of maneuver, their mutual taste for secrecy, and their tendency to reach similar results for very different reasons -- played out repeatedly in the next eight years.


Anonymous: Is it really true that Cheney was asked to head a search committee for potential VP's for Bush, and came back with an endorsement of himself as the best possible running mate? That sounds surreal to me.

Barton Gellman: Cheney actually recommended against himself, but did so with arguments that were easily defeated and that Bush was inclined to take as a kind of challenge. That's what fascinated me so much about the process, and why I devoted a full chapter to it in my book. It has some big surprises: for instance, that nobody ever saw Cheney's medical records. And look for the previously undisclosed account of what happened to Frank Keating, one of Cheney's rivals. A cautionary tale for those who thought of crossing the VP later.


Woodbury, Minnesota: Have you been able to decide for yourself if Dick Cheney has been good for America or has his influence had a decidely negative impact on the country?

I'm in favor of strong American leadership in the world, working from a position of strength both morally and militarily. I think it takes people like Cheney to remind us of the need to recognize that we have enemies and what the US needs to do to keep them at bay.

I admire his ability to do that.

Barton Gellman: There's lots to admire about Cheney. Discipline, work ethic, clarity of goals, operational skills that are nearly nonpareil. In several ways I show how his tactical victories brought about strategic defeats, on his own terms. Whether he was good or bad for the country just isn't my subject as reporter or author. ANGLER is a narrative of what really happened and why, giving us a first draft of a history that we didn't know we had.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Do you think Cheney feels remorse for any of his actions while in office?

Barton Gellman: I don't know of a time he has ever publicly acknowledged second thoughts. And remorse is a strong word for a remarkably dispassionate guy. But he is deeply interested in after-action reports, and eager to hear from people who disagree with him, if he thinks they're smart and don't actively get in his way. I can't imagine that he doesn't have regrets.


Oxford, Miss.: Is it true that Dick Cheney and Barack Obama are shirttail cousins?

Barton Gellman: Lynne Cheney turned up a very distant family relationship, to the amusement of all concerned. Blood ain't thicker than politics in this case.


Narberth, Pa.: Do you believe that Cheney's main interest right now is to try and change his legacy, as different and apart from Bush's legacy?

Barton Gellman: Without repeating myself too much, I'll say that would be a strong hypothesis for almost any other public figure, but secondary in Cheney's case. He won't be able to disclose enough of the classified stuff to make what he sees as his best case now. He's leaving that to historians decades from now, and professes great confidence in the outcome. His current book, and public remarks, are intended to help steer the nation's course in the much shorter term.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you think he was dissppointed in Bush because Bush started to broaden the circle of advisers and took his into consideration, rather than just blindly following it?

Barton Gellman: He was disappointed because he thought Bush made the wrong choices, and thought the stakes were very high. Even more so because he was convinced Bush lost his nerve. Steadiness through adversity is a core value for Cheney. And this is one of many qualities that begin with something widely accepted (nobody wants a politician who shifts with every poll) and takes it way past the point of common acceptance (politicians should disregard public opinion entirely).


Indianapolis, Ind.: It seems to me that with Carl Rove, who saw everything as political as another person with great influence, there would have to have been a falling out between the President and VP Do you think so?

Barton Gellman: Rove was pretty careful to avoid locking horns with Cheney directly (his nickname for the VP, behind his back, was Management, as in "better check with Management"), but no doubt he told Bush he had to care about politics. Much of a leader's power is indirect, and requires bringing the public and Congress and allies along, rather than by command. Cheney gave that much less weight than Bush did in the end.


Anonymous: The Washington Post published an editorial at the time alleging that Cheney's involvement with the Plame affair was simply an attempt to "educate the American public." Do you view the outing of Valerie Plame, and the attacks on the Wilson family as honest attempts to defend the invasion of Iraq and to set the record straight, or do you view it as a new low in character assasination?

Barton Gellman: I try to avoid the normative, so I'm going to leave the good-or-bad part to others. I disagreed strongly with the factual premises of that editorial, and said so to our Ombudsman at the time. I can't recall the details.


Libby pardon: Hi there, thanks for an (another) interesting article. I think the fact that Bush didn't pardon Libby is extremely fascinating, given how close (at least at one point) he and Cheney were. Any thoughts as to why Bush didn't pardon him? Retribution in some way?

Barton Gellman: TIME magazine had a very good piece on the pardon recently -- it's linked, I think, in my story today -- told largely from Bush's point of view. The former president doesn't comment directly but the piece relied on intimate details of conversations between Bush and his personal and White House lawyers, so it really couldn't have been done without his blessing. My read on it, with only indirect evidence, is that Bush had a number of motives: disgust with Clinton's pardons and resolve not to follow suit; a sense that he was let down, or worse, by Libby and Cheney (who insisted among other things that the White House issue a statement that Libby had nothing to do with outing Plame); and irritation with the public portrait of Cheney as puppetmaster. He gave Libby clemency -- keeping him out of jail but not voiding the conviction or the quarter million dollar fine -- but said at the time that he respected the jury's verdict and regarded false statements to a grand jury as a serious crime. It would have been very hard to reverse himself on the way out the door without looking, and feeling, unprincipled.

_______________________ Inside Bush and Cheney's Final Days (Time Magazine, July 24)


Dallas, Tex.: Mr. Gellman, You've indicated what you admire about Cheney, what traits do you dislike?

Barton Gellman: I disagree with his conception of democratic representation, which is more or less the one put forward by Edmund Burke in the 18th century -- you get to elect your leaders, but don't try to tell them what to do when they get there. That's not the model that crossed the Atlantic, and it doesn't sufficiently describe the complex participatory system we developed. As a citizen, as well as in my journalistic role, I believe that Cheney also took secrecy much too far -- another time when the VP took a widely accepted notion (that deliberations are freer behind closed doors) and asserted that this value trumped all else. I talk about these things at greater length in the last chapter of my book.


Dallas, Tex.: Mr. Gellman, It seems the Cheney family stands together by their views. Why?

Barton Gellman: I guess there are two main models of generational politics: rebellion by the children, and otherwise. Liz Cheney, in particular, carries on her father's world view in even more combative form. She's a ferocious debater, and doesn't try for Cheney's subtlety or calm, avuncular style. Signs suggest she'll make her own run for office.

The family is close. Mary loves and defends her father but steers clear of politics, and I have no idea whether she has her own strong feelings about his national security agenda.


Austin, Tex.: Do you think reaction to this "orchestrated leak" will affect the final contents of his eventual book? More specifically, if the media continues to say President Bush looks good because of Cheney's criticisms do you think he would be unhappy with that reaction and tone it down?

Barton Gellman: No way. Nothing about the way he's wired inclines him to soften in the face of critics.


Tucson, Ariz.: Do you think Cheney will ever sit down for a Fog of War-style documentary?

Barton Gellman: Well, it's about as hard to imagine as it was for McNamara, but we know how that one turned out. I don't like to make predictions; I'm bad at it. But I do see differences of personality between the two men, and I'd still bet against anything close to the confessional look back that McNamara made.


St Petersburg, Fla.: What role did religion play in Cheney's policies. I don't recall him appealing to religion as did Bush. Is Cheney even a religious guy?

Barton Gellman: He resolutely avoids any talk of faith, even with friends. One of his oldest friends and colleagues, David Gribbin, is a lay preacher and speaks often of God, but never could discover a hint of Cheney's views. Cheney certainly doesn't use religion or the social issues in politics. Just not interested.


Shreveport, La.: What statue of limitations is he talking about?

Barton Gellman: Mostly a metaphorical one -- the idea that it would do any harm to talk about old disputes. In a technical sense, there are secrets whose value has expired -- future war plans, for instance, when the war has long been launched -- and classified information that has since been declassified.


Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.: If Cheney were found guilty of a crime while acting as vice-president, do you feel his reaction would be defiant, contrite or otherwise? Would he seek a pardon?

Barton Gellman: Way beyond my ability to report by evidence, and evidence is what I'm after. Couldn't begin to say.


Tampa, Fla.: Many Americans believe Cheney was instrumental with NORAD's failure to scramble fighter jets upon the hijacked planes on 9/11. Do you believe he will ever meaningfully this issue?

Barton Gellman: I don't know what many Americans think, but there's an extensive record of the NORAD delays and not a scrap of evidence that Cheney played any part in them. See Chapter 5 of Angler, which has a lot of new material about the morning of 9/11 and Cheney's role.


Washington, D.C.: Bart -- Your article mentions Cheney's argument that the "statute of limitations" has expired on some (all) of the secrets he may have been in on.

Since many of these would appear to be secret because Cheney made them so, isn't that argument a little self-serving?

What sort of items might flow if the "statute of limitations" is lifted?

Barton Gellman: I didn't address the self-serving part of this question in my previous answer. Look, Cheney stands by a lot of his views, but some of the shifts are convenient. He used to talk about the necessity for wide consultation and a clear vetting process for policy in the White House, but didn't practice that under Bush. He used to talk about the need to keep the VP (Rockefeller, under Ford) under the policy discipline of the chief of staff (Cheney). Ditto. Cheney used secrecy when it helped his cause, and wants to loosen it now for the same reason. In all cases he is mainly motivated, I think, by the overriding urgency in his mind of making the right policy choices. That doesn't make him right or wrong, but on that count he's pretty consistent.


Barton Gellman: I'm sorry to leave so much unanswered, but I've got to sign off. Thanks for all the interest and probing questions.


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