Cheney Denies Falling Out With Bush, But His Memoir Is an Open Book

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Alex Brandon / AP

Former Vice President Dick Cheney addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, February 10, 2011.

Dick Cheney took a little jab at my book about him on Sunday’s Face the Nation. He had a pretty good line, I thought:

SCHIEFFER: How do you judge your relationship with the president right now? And I say that because Barton Gellman, who wrote a biography on you, “Angler,” said your book shows mutual disillusionment that developed between you and President Bush. Is that accurate?

CHENEY: No, I don’t think it is. I didn’t think Gellman’s original book was all that accurate either. I believe it’s called “Angler,” which is my Secret Service code name. He got that part right.

I used to talk to Cheney a lot when he was Secretary of Defense, but the former Vice President never did agree to an interview for the book. In the past he has had trouble admitting he read it. (I confess I get a kick out of the photo at that last link.) So I choose to take yesterday’s remark as as a sign of thaw. Liz Cheney and several dozen former aides have my phone number, and my calendar is open. I would love a chance to hear about and correct any errors of fact or interpretation.

I honestly find it puzzling that Cheney wants to deny a falling out with Bush, because he makes so little effort to hide it. Schieffer’s question referred to my Swampland post describing the memoir as “a telling account – occasionally explicit, more often implied — of their mutual disillusionment.” Of course Cheney says many nice things about the former President, but he is far from a fool. He knows the other stuff is news.

In My Time is a rise and fall story, with the author as its protagonist. Most of Cheney’s praise for Bush, on policy and on character, has to do with first-term decisions in which Cheney played an outsized role. The memoir’s penultimate chapter is called “Setback,” and that is subtle by contrast to the language of the text. Bush and his choices are by turns “misguided,” “out of keeping with the clearheaded way I’d seen him make decisions in the past,” and “headed for a train wreck.” In one example, when Cheney believes North Korea and Syria are “clearly violating the red line drawn by President Bush,” he is “a lone voice” for sending bombers. By Cheney’s account, Bush not only brushed aside his advice, but made sure everyone noticed. “The president asked, ‘Does anyone here agree with the vice president?’ Not a single hand went up around the room.” On Face the Nation, Cheney acknowledged that he and Bush have not spoken since Cheney sent the former President an advance copy of his book “a couple of weeks ago.”

All of these are Cheney’s words, not mine, and that’s before we get to Scooter Libby. I’m going to quote in full context what Cheney wrote about Bush’s refusal to grant a full pardon.

I understood that a pardon for Libby was unlikely to be well received in the mainstream media and that it wouldn’t be of short-term help to those around the president who were focused on generating positive press about his last days in office. But in the long term, where doing the right thing counts, George W. Bush was, in my view, making a grave error. “Mr. President,” I said, “you are leaving a good man wounded on the field of battle.” George Bush made courageous decisions as president, and to this day I wish that pardoning Scooter Libby had been one of them.

There are not two ways to read this passage. Leaving behind a wounded man, in the language of war, is universally understood to be a dishonorable act. Cheney reinforces the point by noting the absence of courage. He also goes out of his way to ignore Bush’s explanation, in his own memoir, that two trusted lawyers reviewed Libby’s case “from top to bottom” and “could find no justification for overturning the jury’s verdict.” Cheney leaves no room for the possibility that Bush thought he was, in fact, “doing the right thing.” Only “generating positive press” stood in the way of a pardon, and Cheney makes clear throughout the book that he has nothing but contempt for pursuit of friendly headlines.

Two years ago, when Cheney was shopping his memoir to publishers, I wrote a story reporting that he planned to express “disappointment with the former President.” He was telling publishers that Bush hardened against his advice, and one participant in those conversations said Cheney explained that Bush was “shackled by the public reaction and the criticism he took.” I noted that this would be a harsh verdict, if Cheney wrote it that way, because he “views concessions to public sentiment as moral weakness.” Mary Matalin, Cheney’s publisher and former aide, headed over to CNN the same day to denounce my article as “complete b.s.,” adding that “whoever this ‘participant’ was, some figment of Bart Gellman’s imagination, none of us spoke to him.” Actually, she had spoken to me for that story. And Cheney delivered everything he promised.