Cheney's Parting Gift

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, November 3, 2008; 12:38 PM

President Bush is hiding from public view until the election is over -- and for good reason. But Vice President Cheney briefly emerged from the shadows on Saturday to praise the McCain-Palin ticket. And Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama quickly brandished Cheney's appearance like a cudgel.

"John McCain's latest endorsement?" asks a rapidly-prepared Obama campaign ad. Up pops Cheney, proclaiming: "I'm delighted to support John McCain, and I'm pleased that he has chosen a running mate with executive talent, toughness, and common sense, our next vice president, Sarah Palin."

Cheney was speaking at a "victory rally" in a high school in Laramie, Wyoming, on Saturday. "[I]n three days, we'll choose a new steward for the Presidency, and begin a new chapter in our history," Cheney said. "It's the biggest decision that we make together as Americans, a lot turns on the outcome. I believe the right leader for this moment in history is Senator John McCain."

Jim Provance and Tom Troy write in the Toledo Blade that Obama mentioned Cheney on the stump as well: "'President Bush is sitting out the last few days before the election,' [Obama] said in Columbus. 'But yesterday, Dick Cheney came out of his undisclosed location.

"'Don't need to boo. You just need to vote,' he said in response to the crowd's reaction.

"'Dick Cheney came out, and he hit the campaign trail, and he said, and I quote, that he is "delighted" to support John McCain,' Mr. Obama said. 'You've never seen Dick Cheney delighted before, but he is. That's kind of hard to picture. So, I would like to congratulate Senator McCain on this endorsement, because he really earned it.

"'Here's my question to you, Ohio,' he said. 'Do you think Dick Cheney is delighted to support John McCain because he thinks John McCain is going to bring change, because he thinks that somehow John McCain is really going to shake things up, get rid of the lobbyists, and Haliburton, and the old boys club in Washington? Ohio, we know better.'"

Shailagh Murray, Juliet Eilperin and Robert Barnes write in The Washington Post: "When he was repeating his lines later in Cleveland, rain started to fall.

"'You notice what happened when I started talking about Dick Cheney,' Obama said with a chuckle. 'But a new day is dawning. Sunshine is on the way.'"

The AFP reports from an Obama rally in Pueblo, Colo.: "The vice president made the endorsement because he 'knows that with John McCain you get a two-fer: George Bush's economic policy and Dick Cheney's foreign policy,' Obama said."

Ewen MacAskill writes for the Guardian that Cheney's "endorsement may help McCain among loyal Republicans, but not with Americans disenchanted with the Bush-Cheney administration, or among independents angry over the stewardship of the past eight years. . . .

"Cheney had announced his endorsement for McCain before, but, like Bush, had been largely absent from the campaign trail during the past two months. His decision to participate in the Laramie rally at the weekend was prompted partly by a desire to speak on behalf of Republican congressional candidates and to deliver what amounted to an emotional look back on his career. He will retire from politics on inauguration day, January 20."

Pollsters don't ask about Cheney very often, but when they do, his numbers tend to be even worse than Bush's.

The Invisible President

Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote for the New York Times on Friday: "With Mr. Bush's job approval ratings at historic lows, political analysts have long said Republican candidates simply do not want to be seen with him. But now, with the election just days away, it seems that Republican candidates do not want Mr. Bush to be seen, period.

"'One of McCain's biggest challenges has been how to deal with Bush, and he never quite got it right,' said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. 'Now, the best thing is silence.'

"So the president has temporarily dropped out of sight. Until recently, Mr. Bush was giving talks about the battered economy on nearly a daily basis, prompting some Republicans to grumble privately that so much presidential face time was hurting their election chances. This week, Mr. Bush stepped back, holding just four public events, none with real policy implications. . . .

"Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton press secretary, said Mr. Bush's absence from the public stage, though brief, had consequences. 'This has an impact,' Mr. Lockhart said. 'The world marches on; we're in an economic crisis. We have tensions at home and abroad, yet I think if you walk down the street and ask people, "Has the president already left?" you'd have a lot of people saying, "Yeah, I think so."'"

As for the election itself, Stolberg writes: "If the past is any guide, Mr. Bush will be matter-of-fact about the result. At [a celebration last week in honor of the 150th birthday of Theodore Roosevelt], the president 'seemed sort of fatalistic' about Mr. McCain's chances and his own place in history, said Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, who was there. Mr. King said his wife grew emotional, telling the president how much she would miss him. Mr. Bush did not grow emotional in return.

"'He just said, "Yeah, yeah," -- he seemed like, what happens, happens,' Mr. King said. 'I always feel that he thinks it's his job to keep everybody's spirits up.'"

The Bubble Holds

Indeed, as unlikely as it seems, Bush's aides insist the president isn't showing any signs of despair.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: [T]he economy is melting down, his own party has shunned him and Tuesday's election is shaping up as a searing rebuke to his eight years in office.

"Yet according to allies inside and outside the White House, Bush's mood remains buoyant and his attention is focused on the global financial collapse. In private meetings with business leaders, Bush has made a point of saying that he is happy the crisis happened on his watch so the next president and a new economic team do not have to grapple with it."

Some aides are evidently in a different state of denial. Writes Eggen: "Others inside and outside the administration, however, say the upbeat talk masks disappointment and frustration among many White House staffers, who believe Bush's reputation has been unfairly maligned for a series of calamities -- from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to the financial crisis -- that were beyond his control and which he handled well. GOP nominee John McCain's escalating attacks on Bush's tenure have added to irritation, these people said.

"'Everybody kind of wanted to spend the last 100-plus days doing some legacy things, and the financial crisis has thrown a wrench into that,' said one prominent Republican who regularly talks with senior White House officials.

"'You have a combination of no legacy stuff, a horrible economic mess and the likelihood that Obama is going to win,' this person added. 'There is a real sadness there.'"

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek that "those who know the president well say he has withstood the attacks with characteristic equanimity. Bush has never been one to torture himself with doubt or punish himself with what-ifs. . . .

"The opinion of the American people matters to him, and close friends and aides say he is not deaf to the fact that he has become an object of ridicule. But they say he also remains unshakably convinced history will see his decisions, on Iraq especially, as the right ones. The same air of self-confident resolve--reassuring to some, maddening to others--that allowed Bush to claim, during the 2004 campaign, that he could not name a single mistake he had made as president, now girds him in his final, difficult and somewhat lonely months in the White House."

As Wolffe and Bailey note: "Bush, whose poll numbers now hover in the 20s, will leave office in January with perhaps the lowest approval ratings of any modern president. Bush bashing is nearly as popular among Republicans as it is among Democrats."

So how does he maintain the bubble? "As his presidency winds down, Bush has seeded his calendar with . . . informal, non confrontational events in which he can showcase his softer personal side before appreciative audiences who are proud, even thrilled, to be in the presence of the president. Outside the White House, they are not easy to find."

And then there's this: "Some Bush aides privately express relief that political reporters, preoccupied with the campaign, no longer bother to scrutinize the president's every move and misstep."

Wolffe and Bailey also have more backstory about the White House's hurt feelings over Bush getting the bum's rush at the Republican convention in September. But a "senior McCain adviser" tells them that with a hurricane threatening the Gulf Coast, "[t]he last thing this party needed was for people to be reminded of every dumb mistake this administration made with Katrina." As for hurt feelings: "Bush understands the political environment we're in," the adviser says. "Or, hell, maybe he doesn't."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post about more bubble-preservation tactics: "With less than three months left in the Bush administration, the president's schedule in recent weeks has been full of fond farewells -- from last visits with foreign leaders to get-togethers with those who have worked for him over the past eight years.

"Thursday was a good example. Bush went to Quantico, Va., to attend his last graduation ceremony at the FBI Academy, then stopped off to bid adieu to the military squadron responsible for maintaining and operating presidential helicopters."

Look Back in Anger

His corpse isn't cold yet, but the devastating looks back at Bush's legacy are starting to pour in.

The British newspaper, the Guardian, asked seven American authors to reflect on the Bush era. Their essays are scathing.

Tobias Wolf writes about get-togethers with friends: "When we meet for dinner we do our best to take up other subjects - books, gossip, movies, our children - but then, like the addicts we've become, we sneak back to the drug of outrage, shooting up the latest barefaced lie and squalid revelation, not forgetting to list yet again the national and global catastrophes brought about by the incompetence, hypocrisy, muddleheadedness, venality, truculence, mendacity, callousness, zealotry, machismo, lawlessness, cynicism, wishful thinking, and occasional downright evil of the administration of George W Bush. Our economy is in freefall, our public school system a disgrace, our military exhausted, the wounded and traumatised dying of neglect, yea, the very earth groaning for relief - and he's optimistic! Yessiree! Looking forward to it! Leaning toward us over the podium with that exasperated little squint and that impatient, dentist-drill voice, utterly at a loss as to how he got saddled with a nation of such gloomy Guses and crybabies.

"Eddying around our own indignation again and again, as if caught in some Bermuda Triangle of complaint, we are unable not to remind each other of the fatal character of George Bush's incomprehension, the thousands upon thousands who have died by his blithe actions and inactions, and his inability to understand at any level - political, moral, emotional - the terrible damage he has done, this man whose idea of sharing in the grief of parents who've lost a son or daughter in Iraq is to give up playing golf! If he really did.

"There - I've stepped in the trap again. I can't help it. And for many of us that has been a defining condition of life in George W Bush's reign, this unanswerable need to register anew and aloud our shock and dismay, indeed our disbelief, at finding him at the wheel as we wake each morning."

Siri Hustvedt writes: "For years, Americans have been listening to a president who has essentially cut the world in two. We are 'the protectors of freedom' fighting the 'evil-doers' who 'hate freedom'. . . .

"Playing on the age-old fear of malignant outsiders and foreigners, both those residing on American soil and elsewhere, the administration successfully created an atmosphere of absolutism after 11 September 2001. The exhortation 'If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists' is a form of political speech that makes dialogue impossible. There is no legitimate response because anyone who counters with another thought has already been lumped with an inhuman enemy. In psychiatric parlance, rigid polarities like those the President has made time and again are regarded as pathological: 'splitting'. The patient is unable to tolerate ambiguity and insists on viewing the people in his life through an 'all good' or 'all bad' lens. Bush and his cohorts have been masterful splitters, employing a language that gives no room for exchange and necessarily distorts reality, which, unfortunately, is usually murky. This kind of speech does not recognise an interlocutor, a real human other. It is speech without empathy, and it is startlingly similar to the rhetoric of the Muslim radicals who spew venom on the West and 'the enemies of Islam'."

Walter Mosley writes: "Bush, along with his cronies - Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Rove - received the strongest hand that could be dealt a sitting president and squandered the potential for true personal, party, national and international advancement. After the World Trade Centre disaster we (Americans) had the sympathy and support of much of the globe on our side. But instead of capitalising on this largesse we declared war on the world and upon our own people - especially the poor. . . .

"Our soldiers have been killed and maimed, scarred physically and psychologically. Most have seen no remuneration and their homeland is no safer or any more secure.

"Bush has done many things wrong. Sometimes these transgressions have hurt us but even when we are wounded we learn. We now have a glimmer of understanding why so much of the world hates us and why so many others have disdain for our archaic sense of pride and vacuous moral authority."

Aleksandar Hemon writes: "I am no historian but it is my guess that the Bush regime would be in the running for the worst elected government in the history of Western civilisation. The score sheet is catastrophic: American foreign policy and international prestige are in tatters; the deficit and the national debt are reaching Zimbabwean proportions; states are impoverished and national infrastructure is falling apart; the practices of democracy have been so devalued that a militant bimbo is a viable vice-presidential candidate, while race-baiting is acceptable campaign practice. What to say of the destruction of New Orleans and the collapse of financial markets, neither of which the Bush court seemed particularly interested in until it was too late? Nothing Bush and his administration handled has remained undamaged, no stone misturned, all children left behind to forage through the debris in the aftermath of the past eight years."

Rick Moody writes: "The Ownership Society! That was the name for this second term of Bush's America, and it's logical to assume Bush didn't come up with the coinage himself, because how could he have? He has trouble getting through a simple sentence. Probably some staffer, gifted with ad speak, came up with it, coining what was already de facto policy, the notion that the government needs to remove itself entirely from the business of regulation and owning industries, leaving the oversight of corporate capital - as well as derivatives, packaged mortgages, and so on - to an ill-equipped marketplace.

"What the Ownership Society came to feel like to the overwhelming majority of Americans was feudalism. The modern return of the robber barons. No backstop in the case of catastrophic illness. No backstop in case of corporate malfeasance. No backstop in the case of a despoiled natural environment. No backstop in the case of cascading corporate bankruptcies. The wealthy and the large corporations, now largely unregulated, were free to do as they wished in most if not all areas, in order to increase the bounteous riches of their executives."

Edmund White writes: "Perhaps the most depressing moment in the last eight years was Bush's re-election. As a teacher, I've long lamented the dumbing down of America; now I was tempted to see our educational failure as a plot to keep the electorate stupid and gullible. In America, a tiny elite receives a rigorous education and the rest of the population is kept in darkest ignorance, just as a small percentage of our youngsters constitute Olympic champion athletes and the rest of the population is grotesquely obese: a strange idea of democracy. I was prepared to believe that Dubya's first election had been a mistake or a cheat, but the idea that the voters could re-elect him was too grim to contemplate."

Joseph L. Galloway writes in his McClatchy Newspapers opinion column: "They played on our fears like a mighty Wurlitzer Organ, frightening us with lies into an unnecessary war in Iraq. Frightening us into re-electing George Bush, even after we knew that he was anything but presidential, anything but intelligent, anything but a worthy, effective leader.

"They frightened us so badly that we voluntarily surrendered the precious rights that a million American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and others bought for us with their lives during two centuries of freedom and democracy.

"They used fear to violate international law, to torture and imprison thousands of suspected enemies without charges or trials. They used fear and invoked national security to suspend the right of habeas corpus, the foundation of our freedoms.

"For these and far too many other sins and transgressions to list in so short a space as this, we the people have every right, and perhaps a duty, to cast them aside, and with them their only hope of avoiding justice and judgment -- John McCain, who voted with them 90 percent of the time."

Deborah Solomon interviews economist James Galbraith for the New York Times Magazine.

Galbraith: "Reagan's economists worshiped the market, but Bush didn't worship the market. Bush simply turned over regulatory authority to his friends. It enabled all the shady operators and card sharks in the system to come to dominate how we finance."

Solomon: "So you claim in your recent book, 'The Predator State,' but will President Bush actually be leaving Washington a richer man?"

Galbraith: "Presidents don't make money in office; they do so afterward. In his case, I hope he won't. Maybe his friends will abandon him."

Nicholas D. Kristof writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Mr. Bush's presidency imploded not because of any personal corruption or venality, but largely because he wrenched the United States out of the international community. His cowboy diplomacy 'defriended' the United States. He turned a superpower into a rogue country. Instead of isolating North Korea and Iran, he isolated us -- and undermined his own ability to achieve his aims.

"So here's the top priority for President Barack Obama or President John McCain: We must rejoin the world. . . .

"The new president should also start a Truth Commission to investigate torture and other abuses during the 'war on terror.' This should not be a bipartisan panel but a nonpartisan one, dominated by retired generals and intelligence figures like Brent Scowcroft or Colin Powell."

Marc and Craig Kielburger write in an opinion piece for the Toronto Star: "The current economic meltdown, a fumbled response to Hurricane Katrina and a banner reading 'Mission Accomplished' are but a few of the things that will make up Bush's legacy. But it can be argued that through his ineptitude, Bush has shaken the electorate out of their apathetic daze, and in doing so, strengthened democracy in the United States.

"How's that for irony?"

What They'll Miss

The New York Times op-ed page asked six writers to reflect on what they have most admired about Bush.

Semi-official Bush biographer Robert Draper calls him loveable and loyal: "When the vault of the 43rd presidency is sealed, it will include, among many things, evidence of President Bush's virtue."

Former press secretary Ari Fleischer writes: "I'll miss President Bush's moral clarity. The president's critics hated his willingness to label things right or wrong, and the press used to bang me around for it, but history will show how right he was."

Bushisms chronicler Jacob Weisberg writes: "In the face of defeat, Mr. Bush remains unbowed by grammar. You've got to admire that, kind of."

Turncoat former press secretary Scott McClellan writes: "While he did not always choose wisely in his efforts to advance human dignity, his motives were genuine. And in those somber moments when he visited wounded troops or families of those who'd made the ultimate sacrifice, I saw -- ever so briefly -- a glimmer of self-doubt."

Hand 'em Over

Joan Lowy writes for the Associated Press: "A judge has ordered the Justice Department to produce White House memos that provide the legal basis for the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 warrantless wiretapping program.

"U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. signed an order Friday requiring the department to produce the memos by the White House legal counsel's office by Nov. 17. He said he will review the memos in private to determine if any information can be released publicly without violating attorney-client privilege or jeopardizing national security.

"Kennedy issued his order in response to lawsuits by civil liberties groups in 2005 after news reports disclosed the wiretapping.

"The department had argued that the memos were protected attorney-client communications and contain classified information. . . .

"'We think just as a common sense matter the legal theories for the president's wiretap programs cannot be classified and should be available to the public,' said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the groups seeking the memos.

"'It's an important decision because up to this point the judge has relied on the government's assertion that it has done everything properly under the law and that it has disclosed everything it needs to disclose,' Rotenberg said Saturday."

Hand Her Over

Jesse J. Holland writes for the Associated Press: "A group suing Dick Cheney to preserve a wide range of records from his time as vice president can depose one of his top aides, federal courts ruled Friday.

"U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered Claire O'Donnell, the vice president's deputy chief of staff, to make herself available to lawyers from a private group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, known as CREW.

"CREW is suing Cheney and the Executive Office of the President in an effort to ensure that no presidential records are destroyed or handled in a way that makes them unavailable to the public.

"The group had wanted to depose Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington, but a three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said deposing Addington 'would constitute an 'unwarranted impairment' of the functioning of' the vice president's office."

Environment Watch

Deborah Zabarenko writes for Reuters: "As the U.S. presidential candidates sprint toward the finish line, the Bush administration is also sprinting to enact environmental policy changes before leaving power.

"Whether it's getting wolves off the Endangered Species List, allowing power plants to operate near national parks, loosening regulations for factory farm waste or making it easier for mountaintop coal-mining operations, these proposed changes have found little favor with environmental groups. . . .

"Even some free-market organizations have joined conservation groups to urge a moratorium on last-minute rules proposed by the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others."

Bryan Walsh writes for Time: "There is no shortage of people eager to see President George W. Bush hit the road -- his approval rating hovers at 25% -- but few will celebrate the end of the Bush era more than environmentalists.

"From the green perspective, the Bush Administration has been an unmitigated disaster, with sins of omission (the failure to do anything significant on climate change) and commission (stealthy attempts to weaken environmental protections such as the Endangered Species Act). . . .

"It doesn't help that President Bush seems bent on dismantling as many of the nation's environmental regulations as possible before his time runs out."

Sewer Politics

San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross remind us of that city's all-important referendum tomorrow: "Proposition R, the proposed renaming of a sewage-treatment plant after George W. Bush. . . .

"'The potential irony here is that this is a modern facility that protects the ocean and the environment every day,' [Public Utilities Commission spokesman Tony] Winnicker said, 'and I'm not sure that's the right legacy for President Bush.'

"No, but there would be no mistaking the smell."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush the uniter, Garry Trudeau on the majesty of the office, Ben Sargent on the end of the ride, and Marshall Ramsey on Bush's lack of concern.

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