In a luncheon round table interview today with a small group of conservative journalists, Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that “we don’t torture” but that “enhanced interrogation techniques” have “produced a wealth of information” that has protected the United States against terrorists – and, on a far more personal level, said that his four decades in public life have been a “helluva ride” that he is “seriously thinking” about recording in memoirs after he leaves office.
Cheney refused to comment on whether he has advised President George W. Bush to pardon his former top aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby or to comment on Libby’s perjury conviction – “the question of a pardon really falls in the President’s purview and his alone” – but emphatically pronounced himself a “huge fan of Scooter’s. He’s an extraordinarily able individual.”
The wide-ranging discussion touched on a multitude of issues handled by the Bush administration, but also included a number of Cheney’s stories from previous administrations and campaigns.
Of those, perhaps the most interesting was his account of the choice former President Gerald Ford faced in choosing a running mate for the 1976 campaign against Jimmy Carter. Cheney was then Ford’s chief of staff.
Cheney said the pollster Robert Teeter’s surveys “showed clearly [Cheney emphasized the word] that [Ronald] Reagan was the best choice for vice president [in terms of helping Ford win]. We took the polls up to Camp David to show the president – and he threw us out!”
By that time, Cheney explained while chuckling, Ford was so angry at Reagan’s six-month-long primary challenge that he didn’t even want to hear Reagan’s name.
Cheney himself seriously considered running for president in 1996, but said he does not regret at all his decision not to make the race. “The reason basically was I wasn’t prepared to do all the things that you need to do to run a presidential campaign…. It was a very conscious decision. I thought I had time to do other things in the private sector after 25 years in government.”
On the various controversies during his eight years as vice president, Cheney was most firm on the usefulness of interrogation techniques that, in just three instances under CIA auspices, included the procedure commonly called “waterboarding.”
“For a few senior al Qaida officers we captured early on, some of whom were subject to enhanced interrogation,” Cheney said, “we produced a wealth of information for us… a basic database about al Qaida: where they trained, who their people were, where their finances came from. This program was one of the reasons we were able to understand the basic intelligence about al Qaida.”
And, he insisted, that information was absolutely essential in helping ward off any and all jihadist attacks on the American homeland for the past seven-plus years.
“At the end of eight years, we don’t get a lot of credit for what didn’t happen – although I do think we deserve [credit],” he said. “It’s a big, complex, dangerous world out there. President Obama is going to have his hands full.”
The vice president said, though, that he thinks the country is in better shape than when he first came to Washington in 1968 – the year, he noted, of the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, race riots in major cities and “the riot in Chicago they called the Democratic Convention. But now we’re going to inaugurate the first African-American president in history, and that’s remarkable. I’m basically an optimist both for the country and for the party.”
Cheney said he does believe that eventually the “pendulum will swing” back in favor of Republicans, and that meanwhile his party has some impressive rising stars in Congress. He mentioned six of them by name: House members Eric Cantor of Virginia, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Adam Putnam of Florida, and senators Jon Kyl of Arizona, John Thune of South Dakota and Richard Burr of North Carolina.
As for President Bush, Cheney spoke in admiration of his “willingness to take on tough decisions and to make those tough decisions…. But I also know the depth of his feelings. I have watched him especially with the families of men and women who didn’t make it home, and he has a capacity to share their feelings that is remarkable.”
“In later years,” Cheney said of Bush, “He will be well regarded.”
Also at the interview with Cheney were Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, Bill McGurn, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, Jay Nordlinger and Kate O'Beirne of National Review, and Tom McArdle of Investors Business Daily.
Quin Hillyer is associate editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner.