‘Washington trembles at the return of Darth Vadar’, as one headline has it, might be overstating things, but Dick Cheney’s ‘don’t go quietly’ approach to former Vice Presidency-dom is certainly attracting interest.
It is also drawing a parallel with George Bush who appears to be taking a different tack, making a speech to schoolkids about pooper-scooping while Cheney was effectively going head to head with Barack Obama over plans to shut down Guantanamo Bay.
‘Is George Bush as stupid as he seems?’, or variations on the theme, is one of the questions I am asked most often when out and about doing speeches and Qs and As. It is up there with what did you think of your portrayal in The Queen, who coined ‘People’s Princess?’, what was the best moment? (Good Friday Agreement), what was the worst? (David Kelly’s death) and is it true that rugby players Paul O’Connell and Steve Thompson debagged you on the Lions tour, and stole your blackberry which had a draft TB speech on it? (yes)
In answering the question about Bush I always find myself being kinder to him, and his intelligence, than most audiences expect. His politics are very different to mine, and God was never far away when he was speaking, but he was much cleverer and much more rounded than the caricature. He was also self-deprecating, which many leaders are not, and always interested in the lives and opinions of others down the food chain, like the drivers and the waiters and the security men and women, which many leaders are not.
I also find myself saying that Bush at least understood the difficulties in the politics of other countries like ours, and genuinely wanted to know why we felt America was seen as it was in so many parts of the world. I’d be hard pressed to say the same about Cheney.
Bush’s inquiries on that, at a meeting at Camp David, led to one of my most vivid memories of Cheney. Bush asked why we felt anti-Americanism was so strong, and amid a discussion on communications to the Arab world, I made the point that when he and his American colleagues spoke of democracy, the Arab world heard ‘Americanisation.’
It led to a Cheney growl followed by him asking whether I was saying they should stop talking about democracy, which of course I wasn’t.
No doubt he has lots of personal friends and family who love him dearly, but I remember thinking he was not the kind of bloke you’d fancy bumping into on holiday, wheras Bush could at least engage a bit beyond politics.
On the day of Obama’s inauguration too, wheelchair-bound Cheney could hardly have looked less enamoured of what was happening around him.
So I don’t think we should be too surprised he has started to lay into Obama. As the Thatcherites have shown in Britain, defending your record when out of power and never tiring of engaging in the arguments you pursued in power, is very much part of the Right’s mentality.
I also wonder if his recent onslaught might have been in part provoked by Obama’s hilarious speech to the White House correspondents’ dinner, on which I blogged a while back, when he said Cheney was busy writing his memoirs which ought to be called ‘How to shoot friends and interrogate people.’ The audience roared its approval. But I suspect Cheney will have had a sense of humour bypass on it.
After Obama took office, the senate in Cheney’s home state of Wyoming passed a ‘happy retirement’ resolution which said he could now lay down the burdens of office, fish and write to his heart’s content.
It looks like Cheney will be doing no such thing. Bush is looking positively statesmanlike by comparison.