Vice President Cheney protested yesterday that he had been misunderstood when he said last week that critics of the White House over Iraq were "dishonest and reprehensible."
What he meant to say, he explained to his former colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, was that those who question the White House's use of prewar intelligence were not only "dishonest and reprehensible" but also "corrupt and shameless."
It was about as close as the vice president gets to a retraction.
President Bush, traveling in China on Sunday, appealed for calm in the acidic debate over Iraq, which reached its low point Friday night when Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), in office little more than 100 days, implied that Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Vietnam veteran, was a coward. Bush said there should be an "honest, open" discussion about Iraq and "people should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions" without their patriotism being questioned. "This is a worthy debate," he asserted.
Cheney tried to follow his boss's edict. "I do not believe it is wrong to criticize the war on terror or any aspect thereof," he said.
But exactly three minutes later, the vice president added this caveat: "What is not legitimate, and what I will again say is dishonest and reprehensible, is the suggestion by some U.S. senators that the president . . . misled the American people on prewar intelligence." This, he said, "is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety."
He floated the notion that "one might also argue that untruthful charges against the commander in chief have an insidious effect on the war effort itself" -- before adding: "I'm unwilling to say that."
It was a delicate act: Celebrating debate and criticism while declaring that a key element of that debate -- whether the administration exaggerated prewar intelligence about Iraq -- is off-limits. But Cheney achieved it with matter-of-fact indignation.
As vice president, Cheney has always played the hard-line Cardinal Ratzinger to Bush's sunny John Paul II. Before the war, Cheney asserted that Iraq had "reconstituted nuclear weapons." Since the invasion, he has gone further than others in the administration in asserting Iraq's ties to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He caused a stir when he directed an obscenity at a Democrat on the Senate floor, and he has sparred with senators in both parties in his bid to block a ban on torture.
The single-mindedness has appeared to harm Cheney's image: A poll this month, after the indictment of Cheney's chief of staff in the Valerie Plame affair, found that only one in four Americans had a positive view of the vice president. Cheney has retreated from public questioning and interviews, while Colin L. Powell's former chief of staff accuses him of leading a "cabal" and longtime colleague Brent Scowcroft says he no longer knows his old friend.
If Cheney still has friends in Washington, they are to be found at the AEI, with which his wife, Lynne, is still affiliated. Norm Ornstein and the other AEI fellows in the first two rows led a standing ovation for Cheney when he entered. Introducing Cheney, AEI President Christopher DeMuth was lavish: "We have greatly admired and hereby heartily salute the leadership and fortitude of our esteemed former colleague, who is in the arena to America's great good fortune."
Cheney had little time for such folderol. In his 19-minute speech -- aides made clear there was not even the possibility of him taking questions -- he doled out the bare necessity of thanks, then stuck closely to his written text, stealing only quick glances at his largely silent audience.
Like Bush, Cheney praised Murtha as "a good man, a Marine, a patriot" and said his call for an immediate pullback from Iraq is part of "an entirely legitimate discussion." Similarly, he said, there is nothing wrong "debating whether the United States and our allies should have liberated Iraq in the first place."
The concessions were done. Cheney then branded any accusation that the administration "distorted, hyped or fabricated" intelligence as not only "utterly false" but also illegitimate, dishonest, reprehensible, irresponsible, corrupt, shameless, insidious and, quoting Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), "a lie."
The vice president's string of adjectives did not sway the Democrats from the behavior Cheney had deplored. An hour after the vice president spoke, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) fired off a six-page list of administration claims that seemed to overstate the prewar intelligence. "They continue to ignore the facts and lash out at those who raise legitimate questions," Reid said.
It may not qualify as the "worthy debate" Bush had in mind, but there could be no doubt both sides took seriously his admonition to "feel comfortable" expressing themselves.