Looking Back, Bush and Cheney Reveal Different Views

December 26, 2008

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been unusually talkative in recent weeks, sharing candid thoughts in a string of exit interviews.

But after eight years of a tight partnership that gave Cheney powerful influence inside the White House, the two are sounding strikingly different notes as they leave office, especially on one of the most fundamental issues of their tenure: their aggressive response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Bush defends his decisions as necessary to keep the nation safe, yet sounds reflective, even chastened. He has expressed regrets about not achieving an overhaul of immigration laws and not changing the partisan tone in Washington. And the man who got tangled up in a question about whether he had made any mistakes — he could not come up with one in 2004 — recently told ABC News that he was “unprepared for war,” and that “the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq.”
Cheney, by contrast, is unbowed, defiant to the end. He called the Supreme Court “wrong” for overturning Bush policies on detainees at Guantánamo Bay; criticized his successor, Vice President-elect Joseph Biden Jr.; and defended the harsh interrogation technique called waterboarding, considered by many legal authorities to be torture.
“I feel very good about what we did,” the vice president told The Washington Times, adding, “If I was faced with those circumstances again, I’d do exactly the same thing.”
The difference in tone, friends and advisers say, reflects a split over Bush’s second-term foreign policy, which Cheney resisted as too dovish. It also reveals their divergent approaches to post-White House life. Bush, who is planning a public policy center in Dallas, is trying to shape his legacy by offering historians a glimpse of his thinking, while Cheney, primarily concerned about the terrorist threat, is setting the stage for a new role as a standard-bearer for conservatives on national security.
“The president’s interviews are about creating a basis for historians to evaluate the context of his decisions differently, with more input from him,” said Wayne Berman, who has advised Bush and is a longtime friend of Cheney. “Cheney is living in the moment of, ‘There’s a serious ongoing threat,’ and I believe he sees himself more in a Churchill-like role, as the sentinel issuing the call for vigilance.”
Bush and Cheney still have lunch together once a week, administration officials say, and the vice president remains the president’s staunchest defender. But while Cheney has been “loyal to a fault,” said John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations whose views often reflect those of the vice president, he is also “increasingly in a beleaguered position.”
In the first term, Cheney, backed by his close ally, Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was then the defense secretary, was ascendant, and his views about the aggressive use of executive authority and military might held great sway. But after Bush fired Rumsfeld in 2006 — the only presidential decision Cheney has publicly disagreed with — the vice president took a back seat to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who pushed the president to pursue greater diplomacy with two countries he once called “rogue nations,” Iran and North Korea.
“Our ability to explain what we’ve been doing in the national security field for eight years has been wholly inadequate,” Bolton said, “and part of that is because too many high officials in the administration were embarrassed by the decisions. Cheney has never been embarrassed by it, and now, in the last months, he is freer to make the kind of forceful and emphatic case for it that others were unwilling to make.”
Bush and Cheney appear to be giving more interviews than their recent predecessors. Dan Quayle, the last vice president not to seek the presidency while in office, gave three exit interviews; Cheney has so far given four. President Ronald Reagan gave five interviews during his last two months in office; President Bill Clinton gave seven. Bush has already given 10, to outlets as varied as Real Clear Politics, the Pentagon Channel, an Arabic television channel and a sportswriter for The Washington Post; the White House says more are to come.
Historians say presidents, especially those who serve two terms, often grow reflective at the end of their tenure. “They tend to be exhausted, they’re worn out, they’re trying to make some sense of their administrations, and there’s a natural tendency for them to want to give their own perspective,” said Jay Winik, who got to know Bush and Cheney after they read his book, “April 1865,” an account of the closing month of the Civil War.
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Source: IHT

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