VDH, you say, “How a non-confrontational conservative with a long record of working with Democrats was transmogrified by the media into someone demonic is one of the strangest events of our times.” Quite right. I asked Cheney himself about that. And he gave a detailed and superb explanation. This was in January 2009, in his last days in office. A group of us met him at the vice-presidential mansion. I wrote it up for NRO under the headline “‘Darth Vader’ Speaks.” The relevant chunk, for those interested, can be found after the jump.#more#
Impromptus readers are familiar with a theme of mine: For decades, Cheney was one of the most respected Republicans in the country. Respected by all sides and factions. This was true when he was with Ford, when he was a House member (and leader), when he was defense secretary. John Tower’s nomination went down, Bush (41) turned to Cheney, and everyone said “Hurrah.” You never heard a bad word about Dick Cheney. He was the ultimate in the sober, sensible, responsible politician-statesman.
But now he’s viewed as a right-wing monster: a Torquemada or Attila the Hun. What the heck happened? I put this question, about image, to Cheney himself. (Kate interjected, “I’m surprised he’s allowed to live near preschools.”)
Said Cheney, “There’s no question, and I’m well aware, that my image today is different from what it was before I took this job, and that I came out of my time — well, in the White House with Ford, or in the Congress, or as secretary of defense, with pretty good standing. A polling question would have been generally positive on who I was and what I’d done. And there’s no question that [my standing] has been diminished by the last eight years. I account for that in a number of ways.”
One, “I think the election in 2000 was so close that a lot of people came away from that angry that we had won, some believing that we hadn’t won. There was sort of a residue, if you will, of criticism there that reflected the frustration some of our opponents felt in connection with the outcome of that election.”
Two, there’s “the nature of the job I’ve had this time around. I am not in charge of anything. I don’t run anything. I don’t run 4 million people in the Defense Department, or the White House staff. My role in its purest sense is strictly advisory. I can go to virtually any meeting I want to go to. I’m included in all the policy debates and discussions, and I get to advise the president on the issues of the day.
“But that means, for me to be effective, I can’t talk about it. I’d sit down with a group of reporters and the usual question was, ‘Well, what did you advise the president?’ And the answer had to be, ‘I’m not going to tell you’ — because if I talked all the time about the advice I gave the president, I would shortly find that I wasn’t asked for my advice.
“In other words, to be effective I had to be out of the limelight, not out there explaining myself or what I did, but really taking a low profile.
“And you add to that a third factor, which was the basic challenge we’ve had to deal with: 9/11. I believed — and the president did too, obviously, because he ultimately made the decisions — that our first obligation was to do everything we could to make certain that we didn’t get hit again, that there wasn’t going to be another 9/11 on our watch. And that meant that we had to aggressively find ways to defeat al-Qaeda, or to defeat further attempts on the United States. And that meant collecting good intelligence. And that meant setting up things like the Terror Surveillance Program and the enhanced interrogation techniques for al-Qaeda types like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed . . .”
Moreover, “a lot of this, in order for it to be successful, had to be highly classified. We didn’t talk about the Terror Surveillance Program until the New York Times revealed it in December of ’05 — that there even was such a thing. And secrecy was a very important part of having a successful policy. But it also played into the notion that Cheney is some kind of secretive, manipulative, doesn’t-like-the-public, doesn’t-like-the-press individual. And it played into the, I guess, negative image.
“I think it’s that combination of things that means, at the end of eight years, we don’t get a lot of credit for what didn’t happen — although I think we deserve a fair amount for the success that we’ve had in defending the nation. And the president made some very tough decisions, and I was obviously associated with those policies and strongly supported them — and still do to this day, and go out and defend it publicly when I’m asked about it.
“Then” — and here Cheney gets exercised — “you end up in a situation where your critics start labeling everything you’ve done some version of ‘torture.’ And that word gets thrown around with great abandon.
“So it’s been a difficult environment in which to portray yourself as somehow warm and fuzzy. Hillary Clinton referred to me as Darth Vader. I joke that I asked my family if they were offended by that, and they said, ‘No, it humanizes you.’
“So, I’ve looked on it — it’s been part of my job, and I don’t feel like I’ve been treated unfairly or maligned. [Others of us do.] It goes with the turf. And if I had it to do all over again, I would do exactly what was done — because I think it was that important. I think it’s the only way you could do it.”