When I showed up for my interview with Vice President Dick Cheney on January 6, he was standing behind his desk in the West Wing of the White House sipping, as he often does, from a can of Sprite Zero.
I told him that I hoped we could spend a little time working through his feelings about leaving the White House after eight years. I wanted to see the softer side of Dick Cheney.
"All warm and fuzzy?" he asked, laughing. "In the last two weeks of my time in active service?"
"Yeah, you could start getting all emotional," I suggested.
"It ain't gonna happen."
If Cheney was reluctant to open up about his feelings, his talk on policies and politics was, as ever, revealing. He thinks Barack Obama is naïve about national security. He worries that the Bush administration's aggressive intervention in the free market will do long-term damage to conservative efforts to limit government. And though he tried mightily to avoid saying so, Cheney believes that the administration's North Korea policy has failed.
In 2005, a longtime Cheney friend and adviser told me the vice president believes that world leaders are best judged by what they've done, not what they say. The adviser explained that Cheney has few illusions about the possibilities of great change and offered an example: Kim Jong Il.
Cheney had warned in 1994 that North Korea posed the greatest potential threat to the United States and that the "Agreed Framework" struck by the Clinton administration was dangerously foolish in rewarding North Korea for its bad behavior. Ten years later, when Cheney met with top Chinese officials in Beijing, North Korea was his top priority. "Our concern is that time is not necessarily on our side, that North Korea may continue to use this technology to further develop their capabilities," Cheney told Jiang Zemin, according to two officials in the room. "One of the greatest threats we face is the proliferation of those technologies."
Cheney was right. Time was not on our side. And in the four years of diplomatic failure since those meetings, we have seen evidence of the dangers of proliferation. Yet in the 50-page brochure the White House just published--Highlights of Accomplishments and Results: The Administration of President George W. Bush, 2001-2009--we learn: "Through the Six-Party talks, the United States worked to secure a commitment from North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and its nuclear weapons program." That claim is literally true. The United States did work to secure such a commitment. But it failed. And in the process the Bush administration prostrated itself before a dictator whose rogue regime was not long ago considered evil.
I asked Cheney about it.
THE WEEKLY STANDARD: The administration is distributing a 50-page glossy blue brochure that you may have seen--
CHENEY: I know there's one around out there.
TWS:--listing accomplishments. And on page 40--I found this interesting--the accomplishment was: "Secured a commitment from North Korea to end its nuclear program."
Cheney did not need to hear the question. He dropped his chin to his chest, smiled broadly, and began shaking his head. "Is this an accomplishment that you celebrate?" I asked him.
Still looking at the floor, the vice president paused for several seconds before answering. He looked up and flashed a puckish grin.
CHENEY: I haven't read the report.
TWS: I assure you I'm quoting it accurately.
CHENEY: (laughing): I'm sure you are. I don't have any doubt about that. Well, I think I'm going to take a pass.
TWS: Let me ask it in a different way. Some of our common friends in recent days and weeks have called administration policy on North Korea "preemptive capitulation." Is that too strong a criticism?
CHENEY: Steve, you've put me in a difficult position here.
TWS: That's my job, that's my job.
CHENEY: That is your job. And I think--well, let me make a--without responding to that, let me make a statement on North Korea.
He stopped smiling.
CHENEY: I think the president has worked this one very hard, and properly so. But the Six-Party Talks constituted progress in the sense that we provided a mechanism by which you could get China actively involved, which is crucial because China has got more leverage over North Korea than anybody else. And--but we clearly have not achieved our objective with North Korea, primarily because the North Koreans have refused to keep the commitments they have made in connection with the negotiations that we've had--that they did not give us a full and complete disclosure of their nuclear program as they promised they would.
TWS: Did you expect that they would?
CHENEY: They tested a weapon, obviously, in '06. They have--they've failed to live up to the obligations that they agreed to in those earlier negotiations.
TWS: And yet we continue to provide concessions.
CHENEY: And they also built a reactor to produce plutonium and cerium. There's a major example of proliferation to a terrorist-sponsoring state. So, you know, we've worked very hard on North Korea, but we haven't solved the problem.
TWS: After all of those things--I think this is what I was getting at with my question--after all of those things--
CHENEY: I'm trying to avoid your question.
TWS: Well, I'll try one more time.
CHENEY: All right.
TWS: After all of those things, we went to them and offered to take them off of the state sponsor of terror list, after they were caught red-handed building a reactor in Syria, which is, as we both know, a state sponsor of terror. Was it appropriate to go to them and say, hey, we'll take you off of this list, given the whole range of their activities that you just outlined?
CHENEY: Well--Lea Anne [Foster, the vice-presidential spokesman] is over there saying, what's he going to say? (Laughter.)
TWS: I'm just thinking of the history books here.
CHENEY: Yes. It's not a decision that I was enthusiastic about. I don't make those decisions. I've been involved, obviously, in that ongoing debate, but I think the North Koreans have not lived up to their obligations.
Cheney used similar language in discussing the Bush administration's efforts to prop up the U.S. automobile industry--"it's a decision the president made, and I work for the president"--and he is pessimistic about its future without dramatic change.
I do believe that the industry needs to undergo radical restructuring. And I don't think they're going to. I don't think they've got much prospect of being viable long-term until they do that, until they come to grips with the basic fundamental problems that are now built into their business, like for example, labor agreements and all those kinds of concerns.
Cheney said that the timing of the industry's trouble--coming in the midst of a major financial crisis and a global recession--left the administration with few options.
CHENEY: I think the package that the president came up with, which I supported, is about as good as you could do under the circumstances. And if you were in the beginning of an administration, or if you were operating on this issue at a time when we didn't have a major recession underway or a financial crisis in the markets, it might have been something else.
TWS: You'd just let them fail?
CHENEY: I'll leave it where it's at. I thought I stated it rather artfully.
The vice president is concerned that the Bush administration may have paved the way for a dramatic expansion of the federal government. "I worry a little bit that what we had to do in the financial area has provided cover for folks who want to vastly expand the size of the government. I think it's a problem," he says. "They've always wanted to do this, and now they think they've got a shot at it because they've got the House and the Senate and the White House, and a rationale." He adds: "They can say, 'well, you guys started it, but look what you did for the banks.' I think that's a poor analogy, but it might be a successful political argument."
Cheney is more optimistic about the long-term prospects for those Bush administration national security policies that have kept the country safe for more than seven years. He believes that the incoming president might quickly come to appreciate the value of the Terrorist Surveillance Program and the special interrogation program for high-value detainees--the two Cheney cites as most important.
CHENEY: I hope that what will happen is they sit down every day now and avail themselves of the same intelligence information the president and I have been looking at for eight years; that they will come to understand the enormous importance of continuing to collect that intelligence; and that they will resist the temptation to automatically take their campaign rhetoric and make that policy. Now, will they do that? I don't know.
TWS: Was the campaign rhetoric then something born of naïveté?
CHENEY: Absolutely--or, well, I can't say it was malicious; it was the stuff that a lot of Democrats and a lot of people in the press have hammered us with for years. And I think on the left wing of the Democratic party, there are some people who believe that we really tortured and--then in the course of the Democratic primary process, he rode that issue pretty hard.
He's now going to be President of the United States, and two weeks from today we swear him in. And it would be a tragedy if he let his policies be founded on nothing more than the rhetoric of his campaign. It's got to be based on knowledge and experience.
To that end, Cheney says he's heartened by Barack Obama's decision to retain Robert Gates. The vice president, who also said that Obama had assembled a "pretty good team" on national security, believes Gates will push the new president to continue the controversial programs.
I'm hopeful, for example, that his decision to keep a guy like Bob Gates means he's at least open-minded enough on these issues, to sit down and find out the facts, find out what we've really done, find out what we've learned from it, before he automatically closes down those operations, because there's--you know, as I say, if you believe, as I do, that those programs have been instrumental in keeping us safe, then the conclusion would be if you cancel those programs, you may well enhance the danger to the nation.
I asked Cheney for his thoughts on Obama's election. He recalled the racial tension in the country when he first arrived in Washington in 1968 and noted, with a bit of wonder, perhaps even emotion, in his voice:
Forty years later we're swearing in the first African-American president in our history. There are going to be millions of people down there on the Mall to celebrate. That's great and that's--talk about change.
But he went on,
I didn't support Barack Obama; I wouldn't vote for him. He and I have got pretty radically different views of the world. I'm a conservative Republican and nobody ever accused him of that.
Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (HarperCollins).