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Cheney now unapologetic and unrestrained

In the three months since leaving office, former Vice President Dick Cheney has upended the old script for former presidents and vice presidents, using interviews to kick off a campaign on behalf of his own legacy.
/ Source: The New York Times

On the mornings he is in town, Dick Cheney wakes up at 6, climbs into his black sport utility vehicle and drives himself to a Starbucks near his McLean, Va., home. He returns with a pair of grande skim lattes — decaf for him, regular for his wife, Lynne — and settles into work in the sun-drenched office above his garage, penning his memoir in longhand on yellow legal pads.

It is the kind of scene that Americans have come to expect from their elder statesmen: a quiet, unassuming return to private life after giving up power. Except, that is, for the quiet and unassuming part.

In the three months since leaving office, Mr. Cheney has upended the old Washington script for former presidents and vice presidents, using a series of interviews — the first just two weeks after leaving office — to kick off one last campaign, not for elective office, but on behalf of his own legacy. In the process, he has become a vocal leader of the opposition to President Obama, rallying conservatives as they search for leadership and heartening Democrats who see him as the ideal political foil.

Even before Mr. Obama released secret memorandums on the interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration, Mr. Cheney, as part of researching his memoir, had asked the National Archives to declassify two other documents he contends would show that harsh interrogations produced useful information, according to his daughter Liz, who is helping him organize and write the memoir. The documents do not reveal specific tactics, Ms. Cheney said.

When the Obama administration released the memos, Mr. Cheney asked the archives to expedite his request and made a splash this week by announcing it on Fox News in an interview with Sean Hannity.

Bush stays mum
Former President George W. Bush has said that Mr. Obama “deserves my silence,” but Mr. Cheney, who told Mr. Hannity he has spoken with Mr. Bush just once since leaving office, does not share that view.

“I think he feels compelled to make clear why, particularly related to national security issues, it is so important that we don’t abandon those policies and that we remember the fact that we are at war,” Ms. Cheney said Thursday. “When he sees the current administration making decisions that he believes are making the nation less safe, he does not believe there is any obligation under those circumstances to be silent.”

At a time when his party has no high-profile leaders on Capitol Hill, Mr. Cheney is in effect the ranking Republican speaking out against Mr. Obama. His message has been amplified — on television, in op-ed pieces and elsewhere — by an informal band of supporters, including Ms. Cheney.

Mr. Obama has repeatedly repudiated the Bush administration; in the interviews, Mr. Cheney has hit back. Speaking to Politico in February, he warned of a “high probability” of another terrorist attack. On CNN, he suggested that Mr. Obama was using the economic crisis to justify a big expansion of government. On Fox, he agreed when Mr. Hannity asked if Mr. Obama was “telegraphing weakness.”

To Democrats, Mr. Cheney is the perfect person to remind the nation of all the reasons Republicans were turned out of office. “I think the country has rendered a pretty clear verdict last fall on Cheney and Cheneyism,” said Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod.

Even some Republicans say they wish the former vice president would disappear. Among them is Meghan McCain, the daughter of the Republicans’ 2008 presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, who appeared Thursday on the ABC show “The View.”

“You had your eight years,” Ms. McCain declared. “Go away.”

Other former vice presidents have kept a much lower profile, at least this early after leaving office. Al Gore was supportive of Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but in September 2002 delivered a speech critical of Mr. Bush’s plans for the Iraq war. After John F. Kennedy bungled the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, Richard M. Nixon, the former vice president who lost to Mr. Kennedy, visited the new president at the White House and said the nation should support him.

But some conservatives, feeling beleaguered these days, are grateful that Mr. Cheney is speaking out. John R. Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a close ally of his, said that after having to hew publicly to Mr. Bush’s views, Mr. Cheney might be feeling liberated. “It’s about time he had a chance to get his voice back,” Mr. Bolton said. “There’s no cone of silence now.”

For its part, the Obama White House is trying to figure out just how to handle the lifting of the cone. After the former vice president appeared on CNN last month, the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was dismissive, declaring, “I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal.”

But now Mr. Cheney is gaining some traction with his argument that the Obama White House, which prides itself on transparency, should declassify the memorandums he is seeking. Mr. Gibbs faced a string of questions Thursday about whether Mr. Obama had read them (he said he did not know), and Mr. Axelrod said the White House would consider declassifying them after intelligence and national security agencies had weighed in.

As for Mr. Cheney, he does not have any more interviews scheduled, although his daughter said he was flooded with requests. Aside from working on his book, he has been meeting with foreign dignitaries, hosting policy luncheons around his kitchen table (it seats 10) and spending a fair amount of time at his other homes, in Wyoming and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He will be making a speech in New York soon, his daughter said, and he has a couple of fishing trips planned for May.

This story, "Unapologetic and Unrestrained: Cheney Unbound," first appeared in The New York Times.