Who Is This Man Cheney?
John King's interview of Dick Cheney on Sunday on "State of the Union" has received press coverage of his candid admission of a profound disagreement with Bush over the issue of a pardon for Scooter Libby. Robert Gibbs's dismissive response to questions about Cheney's criticism of Obama is now receiving extensive press coverage, much of it very critical of Gibbs's alleged disrespect for the former Vice President. As Cheney was sitting for the King interview Sunday morning the Washington Post was running a lead story castigating Obama for "blaming" the Bush/Cheney administration for the our current economic woes. Anyone viewing coverage of the back-and-forth between Cheney and the Obama administration would fairly infer the following regarding Beltway rules of decorum for exchanges between new administrations and the highest officials of the prior administration:
1. It is unusual and probably improper for a new President to note that he inherited problems from the prior administration.
2. It is customary for high officials of the prior administration to harshly criticize the new administration a mere seven weeks after Inauguration day.
3. There is nothing unusual or improper about a former Vice President unambiguously repudiating critical elements of his own administration's foreign policy.
4. Any riposte from the White House press briefing podium in response to criticism from a former Vice President is disrespectful of the office of the Vice Presidency.
As any observer of Beltway practices would realize, however, these implied rules of decorum not only don't exist, they stand the actual, longstanding rules on their head. In each instance, the press coverage we've seen in recent days exhibits a bizarro world, alternative universe approach, in which former Vice Presidents scathingly criticize the current administration and even their own administration, and new administrations are prohibited from responding to such criticism or noting that they "inherited" problems from the prior administration.
Even before Cheney had taken the (not-so-) hot seat across from John King on Sunday morning, the Washington Post had an edition on newsstands in which Post staff writer Scott Wilson was reporting that Obama had adopted a "new tack" of blaming the Bush administration for the sad state of the U.S. economy. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Obama has been blaming the Bush/Cheney administration for their reckless mishandling of the economy for the two years preceding the election, and the "new tack" therefore a very old tack, Wilson's article suggested that there was something unusual and improper about a new President noting that he'd inherited problems from the prior administration. Of course, blaming the prior administration is perhaps the least controversial and most time-honored White House ritual in our nation's history, one which the Bush administration resorted to as unabashedly as any administration in memory. Did Wilson not recall the Bush administration constantly referring to the "Clinton recession" in 2001? Did Wilson not recall the Bush administration blaming 9/11 on Clinton's allegedly feckless terrorism policy? More recently, didn't the Bush administration blame Clinton policies for contributing to the economic meltdown in 2008, nearly eight years after these Clinton policies were last in effect?
It can safely be said that when it comes particularly to economic issues, there is no statute of limitations on the alleged failures of the prior administration, and Presidents will routinely lay at the feet of their predecessors the fault for economic problems that persist years into the new administration. If Obama violated some unwritten rule of D.C. decorum when he noted seven weeks into his administration that he'd "inherited" a crappy economy, then what is one to make of Reagan's 1982 State of the Union Address in which he stated - more than year after Carter's departure from office - that "Our current problems are not the product of the recovery program that's only just now getting under way, as some would have you believe", and proceeded to blame the "tax and tax, spend and spend" ways of prior administrations. Needless to say, nary a feather was ruffled in D.C. by Reagan's attempt to blame prior administrations for the brutal recession then gripping the nation.
The "blame game" between current and former administration is a one-way street, historically, as it has always been deemed by our D.C. doyens "bad form" for officials of the prior administration to criticize the current administration, even if offered in response to lamentations from the current administration about having inherited their problems. Indeed, it is unprecedented for a former Vice President to launch the kind of broadsides against the new administration that Cheney launched on Sunday only seven weeks into the Obama administration. It just isn't cricket, according to D.C. consensus. Ari Fleischer invoked this traditional prohibition on criticism from the prior administration when he was asked in January 2001 about the prospect of a "running critique" of the Bush administration by Clinton or Gore. "I think that would be a real break with tradition," Ari noted, "and I think that Vice President Gore and President Clinton, we would hope, would have no intention of doing that."
Ari was, in this one instance, absolutely correct, and Clinton and Gore, like their predecessors as former officeholders, refrained from criticizing the new administration in its first weeks and months in office. Gore broke his silence in September 2002 (20 months into the Bush administration) expressing concern that the Bush administration's "war on terror" was undermining civil liberties in the U.S. Gore's comments, although rather tepid compared to Cheney's allegation that Obama was endangering America, attracted the attention of the White House press corp and were raised with Ari Fleischer at a press gaggle on September 27, 2002. Ari, with the class for which he became famous, demonstrated his respect for the Office of the Vice President:
Q Gore said the war on terrorism has -- through the war on terrorism the administration has been attacking civil liberties.
MR. FLEISCHER: (Laughter.) You know, it's hard to pay attention to what Al Gore says because it's so hard to know what Al Gore really believes, given how many times he's changed his position on Iraq. In 1991, he praised President Bush -- former President Bush -- publicly for not going on to Baghdad and for not continuing --
Q He's not talking about Iraq.
MR. FLEISCHER: -- not continuing the military action. In his speech the other day, he said he was personally offended that the former President didn't bring the war to Baghdad. My point is that Al Gore changes his story and his tune so often on so many different issues that it's not an effective use of time to pay much attention to what he says.
Chip Reid, have you recovered from your fainting spell yet? Did Ari exhibit proper respect for the august office Al Gore had occupied? I don't know about Chip, but for flat-out derision directed at a former VP, I'd say it's Ari 1, Gibbs 0.
I haven't done a Lexis search (what am I - the great Glennzilla?), but I have googled thoroughly and searched the archives of the New York Times and Washington Post. I am sure any readers will be as shocked as I was to learn that Ari's airy and dismissive reference to Al Gore DID NOT arouse Village consternation. Think of it: here's a White House press secretary laughing at a former VP and suggesting, with dripping disdain, that only an idiot would pay any attention to the Former Vice President of the United States of America, and not one reporter summoned the courage and decency of a Chip Reid to defend the Vice President. Apparently the bullet-proof cloak of Respect donned by a VP upon leaving office is a rather recent development (or, perhaps, simply unique to Vice President Cheney). There was no uproar over Ari's impertinence.
And so it would appear - contrary to what one would be lead to believe by Scott Wilson, Chip Reid, Rick Klein, MSNBC and beltway tongues clucking on cable - that Presidents invariably suggest that they inherited problems from the prior administration, that former Vice Presidents generally wait substantially longer than seven weeks before, say, accusing the new President of inviting terrorist attacks on America, and that White House press secretaries do not welcome, or suffer silently, the partisan attacks of former Vice Presidents.
The most striking thing about Cheney's interview, however, has gone virtually uncommented upon by the media. The news coverage of the interview focused on Cheney's admission that he and Bush had strongly differed on the issue of a pardon for Scooter Libby. This was hardly news, however, as Cheney had said the same thing weeks earlier, the day after Inauguration day, publicly stating that he disagreed with the President's decision. Furthermore, Cheney's criticism of his Bosses decision, although extremely unusual for any Vice President, could be forgiven in light of Cheney's close relationship with Libby and his very personal interest in the matter.
What was truly unprecedented (and the gravest possible breach of Beltway etiquette) was Cheney's unequivocal repudiation of his own administration's policies on two critical foreign policy issues: Iran and North Korea. In each case, Cheney said clearly and forecefully that he disagreed with Bush's policies, and implied that Bush was too soft in dealing with the nuclear ambitions of these rogue states. George Bush? A pussy on keeping WMD from the terrorists? So sayeth Dick.
KING: You were not always happy with that [i.e. Bush's decision to engage Europe], especially at the end of the administration.
CHENEY: I was not always happy with that.
KING: You think your president invested too much in the European diplomacy?
CHENEY: Well, I can't say that. It was a choice he made.
It was indeed a choice Bush had made, and here was his own Vice President not only publicly disassociating himself from it, but unmistakably stating his disagreement with it! I defy any of our friends in the media to cite a single precedent for what Cheney did; a single precedent for a Vice President's statement of substantive policy difference with the President he served within a mere seven weeks of leaving office. If there is one truism in D.C., it's easier to find space between the stated positions of a President and his VP than space between Michael Steele's lips and Rush Limbaugh's ass.
Cheney was not finished with second-guessing the decisions of George Bush, however. After discussing Iran, Cheney and King moved directly to North Korea, whereupon Cheney explained that George Bush had been played for a fool by the North Koreans, and Cheney had warned Bush he'd be played for a fool.
CHENEY: I did not support the work that Chris Hill did with respect to North Korea.
KING: Why didn't the president listen to you?
CHENEY: Well, he gets to listen to whoever he wants to listen to, and I had my say. I got my chance to voice my views and my objections. I didn't the North Koreans were going to keep their end of the bargain in terms of what they agreed to, and they didn't.
Whoa. Dick didn't agree with the President's policy. And Dick was right. And the President was wrong, and foolishly so.
The almost completely insensate John King apparently didn't notice anything unusual about this. Here's Cheney making BIG AND BREAKING NEWS on King's Sunday chat show on CNN, and King reacts to Cheney's bombshell by...going to a commercial break. The mind boggles.
Bush, placed in the uncomfortable and unprecedented position for a former President of responding to criticism from his Vice President, declined to return fire, issuing a pro forma, standard-fare, traditional D.C. non-statement. Bush's spokesperson referred reporters to a previous Bush statement calling Cheney "a great Vice President."
Bush handled Cheney's criticism the way you're supposed to. This is the way it is done. These are the rules by which administrations and Presidents and Vice Presidents, current and former, play the game. It would be simply declasse for a President to criticize his Vice President. If Bush were to suggest that any of his administration's problems could be traced to Cheney's positions - say, for example, Cheney's uber-hawkishness on Iraq - how long would it be before Krauthammer, Kristol, Kagan and the rest of the neokon kolumnists would be tearing ol' Bushie a new one? And yet here is a former Vice President slamming his boss and we've yet to hear a cluck of the tongue or a muffled "oh, my" from the Broders and Brooks's of the media elite.
It is only two days since Cheney's attack on Bush, I suppose, and we may yet see the ruffling of feathers among the chattering classes. I sincerely hope we do, because frankly I'll start feeling a little anxious if we don't. I mean, who is this man Cheney who can not only criticize a new President and escape media censure but repudiate the President he served under without a peep from the hot house flowers in the White House press corp?
Well, I'm waiting. Bush might be muzzled by Beltway Rules (which, like the Constitution, apparently do not apply to Cheney), but surely W's former staffers will fan out to express off-the-record "disappointment" in the prodigal VP, and "bad form, dear Dick" columns will flow from the laptops of Broder and Boys. Right?
Meanwhile, I'm still wondering who this man Cheney is, that he can not only get away with this, but hypnotize the media into believing that this is the way it has always been: former Vice Presidents shitting on Presidents (current and former) and Presidents and their press secretaries constrained by decency to just smile and nod, out of respect for the former Vice President, even one displaying disrespect for Presidents. How can this man, the most widely reviled and disrespected figure in American politics since Nixon, shatter every Rule in the Beltway Book in the most brazen manner imaginable and be comfortable in the knowledge that the media will not only give him a pass, but will vilify the current administration for disrespecting the former Vice President? How can this man, whom one can reasonably believe ran death squads out of the White House and authorized the details torture, command the kind of respect from the media that not even former Presidents receive?
I was always amused by the Darth Vader jokes about Cheney, but really, what is this if not a Jedi Mind Trick played on the media?
I'll give the media another two or three days. If by then there isn't a single media bigwig hammering Cheney for his impolite treatment of Bush, I'll dig out the tinfoil hat, go down to the town square and start trying to warn people that Presidents come and Presidents go, but the REAL power in this country is wielded by a shadowy conspiracy of corporate interests, and even Presidents and the media dance on the strings held by these sinister forces.
And the Puppet Master is Dick Cheney.