Dick Cheney Isn’t Helping

One of the more intelligent decisions made by the Bush White House was to limit Dick Cheney’s public visibility. He would grant interviews from time to time, but Bush and his strategists – and Cheney himself – recognized that, when it came to selling the administration’s policies, Cheney’s cold and dour demeanor, coupled with his immense unpopularity, were significant liabilities. It was Bush who did the public cheerleading for the schemes Cheney drew up behind the scenes – at least this was the image that emerged.

So it seems odd that, at least in the first two months of the Bush post-presidency, the role of chief public defender of the Bush record has been handed off to, and embraced by, Dick Cheney.

The former VP appeared on CNN on Sunday in an extensive interview with John King. On the subject of the Bush-Cheney record, he was unapologetic. For instance, he vigorously denied any culpability for the economic catastrophe that took hold before he and Bush left office. “I don’t think you can blame the Bush administration for the creation of those circumstances,” Cheney offered. “It’s a global financial problem.”

He also made sure to single out two Democrats – Chris Dodd and Barney Frank – for sabotaging Bush’s efforts “to deal with the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac problem some years before” their troubles came to light. And when King confronted him with a slew of statistics – for unemployment, poverty, health insurance coverage, the federal deficit – that had grown dramatically worse during the Bush years, Cheney fell back on an old stand-by: “Eight months after we arrived, we had 9/11.”

What was more striking, though, was Cheney’s willingness – eagerness, it often seemed – to bluntly criticize Barack Obama and the new Democratic administration. Asked if “the president of the United States has made America less safe,” Cheney didn’t hesitate to reply, “I do.” Asked about Obama’s choice for a new ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, Cheney offered that “he’s not the man I would have picked for that post” and added that “I did not support the work that Chris Hill did with respect to North Korea.” And asked about a cover story in the conservative publication Human Events that accused the Obama team of resorting to “brazen” deception, Cheney agreed that “I think they’ve taken liberties, if you will, with the arguments.”

The CNN interview amounted to a televised and more expansive version of the interview Cheney gave to Politico in early February, just two weeks after leaving office. In that interview, Cheney warned of a “high probability” of another terrorist attack and charged that Obama’s efforts to reverse Bush administration policies relating to Guantánamo Bay and interrogation techniques would make the nation more vulnerable.

“When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry,” Cheney told Politico.

That interview received international attention, as Cheney’s chat with King undoubtedly will as well. Meanwhile, Bush has almost completely disappeared from public view. Besides showing up at a Baylor University women’s basketball game at the end of January (where he received a warm welcome from the conservative Baptist school’s fans), he has said and done nothing to attract notice – the customary posture for a recently retired president (even if his predecessor was a tad more reluctant to yield the spotlight).

So why isn’t Cheney following his old boss’ example? There really is nothing to be gained from a president or vice president serving as the critic-in-chief for their successors. Those who agree with what Cheney is saying (and there aren’t many of them), already felt that way before he spoke up – and weren’t about to change their minds. Similarly, nothing he might say or do now will cause his harshest critics to suddenly rethink their views of him. As for the rest of the electorate, the broad middle, Cheney is only providing them with more reason not to like him. The content of Cheney’s critiques aren’t important to them; the lack of dignity and class that he is showing by not giving Obama an opportunity to succeed is.

Cheney is in an unsual situation as recent ex-vice presidents go. The last three ex-VP’s to return to private life immediately after leaving office – Al Gore, Dan Quayle and Walter Mondale – all harbored future political aspirations (as opposed to George H. W. Bush, who went directly from the vice presidency to the White House). For them, it was essential to give their successors, at least initially, public breathing room.

Cheney, who waged his last campaign in 2004, isn’t similarly constrained. If anything, he’s more like Nelson Rockefeller, the unelected vice president of an unelected president. Rockefeller was 68 years old – the same age Cheney now is – when he left the vice presidency in 1977. Rockefeller had long coveted the presidency, but his experiences in 1976 – conservatives in the G.O.P. had made it impossible for Gerald Ford to nominate Rockefeller for a full-term as VP – had finally shown him that his quest would go unfulfilled. He, too, had run his last race.

As reviled as he was by the right, though, Rockefeller wasn’t the lightning rod that Cheney is. His post-vice presidency, which ended with his death in January 1979, was mostly eventless. Other than boosting the Carter administration’s Panama Canal treaty and getting into a brief dust-up with a group of artists and art dealers over a new business venture, Rockefeller didn’t make many headlines (until, of course, the mysterious circumstances of his death came to light).

Not so for Cheney, who probably won’t be following Rockefeller into the art-collecting business.  His temptation to speak up and make his case for the Bush administration (and against Obama’s) is understandable on a human level. But he really would do well to remember what the Bush administration realized early on: putting Cheney out there doesn’t help.