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"It Goes with the Turf"

Cheney still doesn't take it personally.

11:00 PM, Jan 7, 2009 • By FRED BARNES
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Vice President Dick Cheney believes he hasn't "fundamentally changed" since he came to Washington 40 years ago. Only his job has changed. As vice president, he doesn't talk freely to the press about what he's doing. And he's been deeply involved in shaping controversial policies aimed at making sure America doesn't suffer another terrorist attack like 9/11.

That's his explanation for his relative unpopularity as he prepares to leave office in less than two weeks. He doesn't offer it as a complaint. He doesn't blame the press for caricaturing him. "I don't feel like I've been treated unfairly," Cheney says. "It goes with the turf."

Having known Cheney since he was deputy White House chief of staff to President Ford in 1974, I think he makes a pretty persuasive case. His jobs have changed -- congressman, defense secretary, Halliburton CEO, now veep -- and he's adapted to them. Washington journalists, however, haven't adapted. They expect him to be as chatty and candid as he was in his earlier jobs. Sorry, but he can't.

Cheney met with nine journalists Wednesday over lunch at the Admiral's House, the vice presidential residence, and talked about his years in Washington, especially the past eight. The conventional wisdom in the media, of course, is that he became more conservative and secretive and considerably less genial as George W. Bush's vice president.

Not really, Cheney insisted. He's always been conservative. And when reporters asked what advice he'd given the president, he wouldn't answer. If he did, "I'd shortly find I wasn't asked for my advice," Cheney says.

Another factor in his (and Bush's) unpopularity was the legacy of bitterness from the disputed 2000 election. And then there were the policies to prevent another 9/11 from occurring "on our watch." These included "enhanced interrogation techniques" used on al Qaeda leaders in the search for good intelligence.

"A lot of this had to be highly classified," Cheney said. "Secrecy was a very important part of having a successful policy." But there's a downside. "We don't get a lot of credit for what didn't happen," he said, apparently referring to planned terrorist attacks that were thwarted.

Cheney talked about the two things he's been most identified with at the Bush White House: strengthening presidential power and obtained useful intelligence from captured terrorists. "Torture." he said. "That word gets thrown around with great abandon." He denied that prisoners were tortured.

But tough interrogation of top al Qaeda officials Khalid Sheik Muhammad (KSM) and Abu Zubaida was necessary at a time when little was known about al Qaeda and its plans, he said.
Questioning KSM, who was captured in 2003, "produced a wealth of information, a basic database about al Qaeda. There was a lot we didn't have."

Cheney noted that presidential authority had been eroded by the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam war. "We enhanced the ability of the president -- the institution -- to do what has to be done in [today's] circumstances," he said.

One test of presidential authority was the effort by Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman to get the names of those with whom Cheney conferred in developing the administration's energy policy in 2001. Cheney refused to reveal them. "Henry Waxman doesn't call me up and tell me who he's meeting with," Cheney said. Cheney was vindicated when the Supreme Court upheld his refusal to disclose the names.

On national security matters, Cheney's advice for the new Obama administration was simple: move cautiously. Obama should take time to understand exactly what the Bush administration has been doing and whether it has worked before cutting back on presidential authority.

The Cheneys recently showed Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his wife around the Admiral's House, where they'll be moving in on January 20. "It was a lot easier and smoother than when we came to see the Gores eight years before. You didn't have those kind of frictions."

Cheney was reminded that during the campaign last fall Biden had called him a "dangerous." Cheney grinned. "I didn't take personally," he said.

Is America a better place than it was when he arrived in Washington in the late 1960s? Cheney said yes, emphatically. He cited these events in 1968: Tet offensive, LBJ's decision not to run for re-election, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, race riots, and the tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago.

"Here we are now 40 years later and we're about to swear in the first African American president," he said. So he's optimistic about America and also about the Republican party, which in two years lost the House, the Senate, and the presidency. "The pendulum will swing" again, he said.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.