Americans expect certain things of the presidents we elect – strength abroad, prosperity at home, dignity of conduct – but we also harbor expectations of our former presidents. With affairs of state, direct influence over matters of peace and prosperity, abruptly removed from their hands – usually on cold days in late January – the realm in which these retired commanders-in-chief can distinguish themselves lies chiefly in sustained exhibition of the last trait: dignity.
In the modern era, with the sensory overload of data and information, our politics so thoroughly polarized and coarsened, the practice established by George H.W. Bush after he left the White House – of abstaining from direct criticism of his successors in the Oval Office – has always seemed especially admirable: noble demonstration of personal restraint, subtly binding salve for the Republic. Mr. Bush’s son, two-termer George W. Bush, has largely followed this admirable tradition, even as the man who separates the Bushes in White House lineage – Bill Clinton – determinedly eschewed it. Barack Obama’s choices in this regard will be telling.
However, a departure from such saintly courtesy by a former president, when he has already long maintained it, poses unique risks for damage to the statesman’s legacy. Thus today we behold an odd, indeed unprecedented, spectacle, courtesy of Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written the authorized biography of George H.W. Bush, Destiny and Power, and provided a blurb for my own book, Cheney One on One, published days apart.
It was to Meacham that Bush-41, unable any longer, at ninety-one, to brook silence for those who warrant condemnation, gave a piece of his mind. The result is that George H.W. Bush has now been tougher, where the historical record is concerned, on Dick Cheney than on Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. “He just became very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with,” Bush reportedly told Meacham. The former president said Cheney had somewhere along the line morphed into an “iron-ass…knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East.” What’s more, Bush-41 had observed that during his son’s presidency, Vice President Cheney had “marched to his own drummer” and engaged in the building of “his own empire.”
Then there is the added feature of the statement Bush-43 issued in the wake of the news coverage devoted to the Meacham quotes. Memory strains to recall another instance when a former president of the United States issued a statement explicitly to disavow the comments of another, with the recipient of the rebuke being his father. “Dick Cheney did a superb job as vice president. I was fortunate to have him by my side throughout my presidency,” George W. Bush’s statement read. He thanked Cheney for his “good advice, selfless service to our country, and friendship.” (Bush-41’s criticism had also targeted Don Rumsfeld, a nemesis from the days of Gerald Ford, and Bush-43’s statement defended him, too.)
What deserves closest examination is the substance of George H.W. Bush’s comments – and they do not withstand factual scrutiny, certainly not from Cheney’s point of view. I interviewed the former vice president for nearly ten hours across three days last December, shortly before his seventy-fourth birthday, in the book-lined study of his Northern Virginia home. The transcripts of these sessions – spanning Cheney’s entire life, in probing detail – form the basis of Cheney One on One.
While the Meacham quotes had not yet been reported at the time of our oral history, Cheney and I spoke at length about the two Presidents Bush: their distinct personalities and operating styles, the nearly opposite portfolios each brought to the White House. “43 was a lot more like his mother in terms of personality,” Cheney told me, “with a quick wit and a sharp tongue on occasion. Politically, in some respects, he was more successful than 41 because he got reelected….43 arrived as a successful two-term governor of one of our biggest states, with a heavy emphasis on the domestic side of the ledger. And from my standpoint, in part, that’s why he wanted me—because I brought my own background and experience on the international side.
“His dad, on the other hand, came with all the credentials of a guy who had been a naval aviator in World War II and director of the CIA and ambassador to the United Nations and ambassador to China, member of the House…So, totally different backgrounds.”
Indeed, to the extent that Cheney – universally regarded as the most influential vice president in recent memory, if not all of American history – amassed power in a way that provoked disquiet in George H.W. Bush, this was as Bush-43 wanted it. When I asked Cheney if Bush-43 had been aware, for example, that Cheney was reading the President’s Daily Brief every morning before the president himself had seen it, and was moreover recommending to CIA briefers that certain material be shifted here and there for the president’s consumption, Cheney responded: “Well, he obviously [wanted it this way]. I can’t remember a discussion about it.” Indeed, as the New York Times‘ Peter Baker reported in Days of Fire, his definitive history of the administration: “Cheney was largely pushing on an open door, taking Bush where the president himself was already inclined to go.”
Cheney has said he accepts the “iron-ass” comment as a badge of honor, testament to his heightened appreciation of the stakes for American national security in the wake of the September 11 attacks. But Cheney dismisses the idea that his career is properly divided into two schizoid eras, Moderate Cheney and Hard-line Cheney. To himself, he was always pretty much the same Dick Cheney, the conservatism of his House voting record ample evidence of as much.
The lone aspect to Bush-41’s criticism that I suspect may have bothered Cheney a bit was the assertion of “empire” building. From the days when Cheney had served as chief of staff in the Ford White House, he had observed poor working relationships between presidents and vice presidents, and had reached his own diagnosis as to the decisive factor. “Usually that started at the staff level, not at the principals’ level,” he told me. “Jerry Ford always got along great with Nelson Rockefeller. But obviously, in the end, Rockefeller had to go.” Determined to avoid such frictions, Cheney took an unprecedented step: He insisted his key aides – Scooter Libby, Mary Matalin, others – wear “dual hats,” and serve officially on both staffs.
“Everything we could do to tie the staffs together would strengthen the operation,” Cheney told me. “That, plus the fact that I wasn’t running for president myself: I didn’t aspire to the job, I didn’t have my own agenda. There was only one agenda, and that was the president’s. All of those kinds of things were important in terms of melding together the two operations. And I [recognized I] was going to be more successful as vice president, in doing what he wanted to have done and what I wanted to do, if in fact we did that.”
This hardly smacks of empire building; rather it appears, as was intended, an earnest effort at integration. Had Cheney truly been involved in empire building, he would not have afforded the president’s staff such clear visibility into the operations of his own aides. In the end, Bush-41’s quotes may be different, offered at advanced age, than would have been voiced if interviewed at an earlier point, closer to the prime of life.
Either way, we can safely say that the maintenance of dignity we hold so important in our former presidents seems no longer to constrain George H.W. Bush, no longer binds him to his own admirable practice. Accordingly, we may hope that Jon Meacham, or another suitable interlocutor, will draw from Bush-41’s lips his true feelings about the men who did the most – far more than Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld – to pivot us away from the America the Bushes worked so hard to leave us.
James Rosen is Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent and author of “Cheney One on One”. He will appear at Politics and Prose on Saturday, November 21 at 6 pm.