The Obama-Cheney Face-Off: Teaching Lectern vs. Bully Pulpit

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Thursday's national security grudge match between President Obama and former Vice President Cheney could not have been more vivid in its disparities nor richer in  mutual recrimination.

 

 Rarely have two men of such rank been so dismissive of one another's recent handiwork. If given the rights, officials of the World Wrestling Federation would have erected a steel cage, stuck the two inside and charged $49.99 admission on cable pay per view.

 

 

First, just think about the respective venues and the styles.

 

Obama chose a stately hall at the National Archives, home to documents we as a national hold near and dear (as well as many involving presidential overreaching, notably by one Richard Nixon). Cheney chose a sterile think tank conference room.

 

Obama, cool and academic, used the podium as teaching tool, as if giving a combination constitutional lecture and primer on dealing with complex realities, notably those involving certain Guantanamo detainees. Cheney, with bulldog mien and melancholy air, used his as a bully pulpit, essentially wagging his finger at successors he deems grossly naïve and endangering the nation.

 

The Cheney message was unadorned and simple: The ends justify the means and, since we've not been attacked by terrorists again, we were right. Period.

 

Obama, who was giving the speech largely because he'd convinced the American public the Iraq war was a mistake and he should lead them, disputed virtual every Cheney premise. Not only were our means not effective, they made us less secure, tarnished our image, and involved rigging the record.

 

That last point might need its own spotlight. When a president accuses a predecessor of having "trimmed fact and evidence" to support an ideologically-driven cause, that's rough. Obama thus called Cheney & Co. liars and cheats in this national security grudge match.

 

 It was one providing a rare look at a very tough streak in Obama, You saw it elsewhere amid occasionally soaring rhetoric.

 

 There were shots at the media and others for falling "off course" via silence and passivity as the Bush administration did its supposed trimming. His condescension toward the whole political game surfaced with derisive, and correct, comments about how certain elements of his speech will now be edited and distorted by opponents in  public debate (translate: cable television blabbing) and direct mail.

 

Obama's speech, which was right up there with his high-stakes Philadelphia campaign effort on race, will leave some supporters chagrined. That's especially true when it comes to certain Guantanamo detainees against whom, he concedes, there's insufficient evidence for prosecution. He's carved out a category of folks he still deems dangerous enough to keep in our clutches.

 

As for Cheney, he'll bask in plaudits from conservatives. He's a last of the Mohicans, a true believer who won't budge from his unequivocal defense of his eight years in office. Obama thinks waterboarding was wrong; he thinks it was right. Obama thinks "enhanced interrogation techniques" sullied our values and image; Cheney thinks they were by and large justified, and that the only folks sullied are patriotic, lawful military and intelligence officers who were protecting us.

 

Lost in Thursday's tussle, and certainly not conceded by Cheney, is how deeply ambiguous the factual underpinning of this whole dispute appears to be. It remains unclear, definitively, what benefits all those dark procedures brought. Right now, we don't really know.

 

Ironically, that might be reason to reject the one commonality Obama and Cheney shared, namely refusal to support an independent commission to ferret out the truth. Obama thinks it should be up to the Congress, if at all.

 

Cheney presumably would prefer a commission to look into what he deems nihilistic security leaks by a favorite scapegoat of the right, namely the evil New York Times. In addition, he'd throw in scrutiny of how the Times was subsequently aided and abetted by the Pulitzer Prize Board, Thursday's oddest object of derision.

 

The former vice president is not shuffling quietly into the night of his post-political career. And we probably should be thankful, as WWF promoters would concur. Obama clearly won Thursday but the prospect of return bouts is alluring.

 

 Thank goodness for the wonderfully untidy essence of democracy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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