Democrats do not know whether to pity former Vice President Dick Cheney or to vilify him. Once again, he has launched criticisms of President Obama’s security policies that are more partisan than professorial, akin to the kind of thing a mid-level communications director would say more than the words of a statesman. Indeed, there was a juvenile flavor to Cheney’s statement that Obama is "pretending" we are not at war and that such pretending makes Americans less safe, especially the way he repeated the charge of "pretending."
We accord former chief magistrates and their top assistants the status of statesman. We look to them to embody the role by transcending partisanship and engaging in more thoughtful contributions to the nation. Even Richard M. Nixon, despite the humiliations of Watergate and his forced resignation, was accorded the role of statesman and he fulfilled it with some measure of dignity, publishing learned books on foreign policy. After all, Presidents and Vice Presidents see things and experience things that the rest of us don’t. They make history every day. We want them to contribute from that unique source of knowledge and experience to our collective knowledge, so that the entire nation can learn from their time in the Oval Office or near it. This is why we spend so much money on presidential libraries and why someone like James Baker, who never held either of the top jobs, has an institute at Rice University.
Former Presidents and Vice Presidents may come out of retirement every four years to address their party’s conventions, but mostly they work on non-partisan activities. Indeed, the joint efforts of former Presidents George H. W. Bush (#41) and Bill Clinton on behalf of the victims of the Tsunami in 2004 and Katrina in 2005 exemplify how statesmen should act in their retirement. Bush and Clinton had fought a bitter campaign against each other in 1992. They two could scarcely have come from more divergent circumstances, one the privileges of Kennebunkport and Greenwich and the other from the rural poverty of Hope, Arkansas, but both men joined the small club of former presidents and that common experience trumped their previous rancor.
None of this has characterized Mr. Cheney’s time since he left office. Unlike most vice presidents, Cheney did not aspire to the top spot. So, his transition to post-partisan could have been immediate. Instead, he has engaged in the kind of gutter attacks that do dishonor to his office as well as to himself.
How should the Democrats reply? They should pay Cheney for his remarks. It is hard to imagine someone with less credibility about foreign affairs than Mr. Cheney, the genius behind the Iraq War. That war, and the zeal, to say nothing of the distortions, with which the administration made the case for it, took the nation’s focus off Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism. The Iraq War recruited hundreds, maybe thousands of new militants for the ranks of Al-Qaeda and similar groups. The Iraq War cost America the support of our allies. Yet, this is the man we should listen to? Instead of implementing, and evaluating the implementation, of the 9/11 Commission Report, Cheney was too busy selling the existence of non-existent WMDs in Iraq. That is why Mr. Abdulmutallab was able to get on a plane bound for Detroit with a bomb in his underwear. Indeed, while Cheney has denounced Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo, the leaders of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, where Mr. Abdulmutallab received his orders, had been released from Guantanamo by the Bush-Cheney administration. Yet, it is this man Cheney that we should listen to?
Cheney is undoubtedly sincere, but sincerity is a terribly low bar. If his track record were not so poor, the content of his charges, and the manner in which they are delivered, would also suggest that the Democrats should pay him for his efforts. He is not only churlish but childish. His venom is so palpable, his Manichaean worldview so relentless (and so tinged with anti-Muslim race baiting), and his willingness to assess the President’s motives so sophomoric, the Democrats should want nothing more than for this man to be the face of the GOP.