I have received a number of angry emails (plus supportive ones!) about this item earlier today, complimenting George W. Bush's dignity in his post-presidential year as prelude to criticizing Dick Cheney's angry, hyper-partisan attacks on the Obama Administration.
The angriest complaints boil down to:
- What about Al Gore?
- What about Jimmy Carter?
- What about Bill Clinton?
Hyper-literal as this may seem, here are the two important differences between the comportment of previous ex-Presidents and Vice Presidents who have gotten re-involved in political discussions and what we have seen in the past year from Dick Cheney.
1) In previous cases, the former officials have waited well over a year before criticizing the policies of their successors. After the extremely controversial (to put it mildly) resolution of the 2000 election, Al Gore was notable for his reluctance to question either the legitimacy of George W. Bush's selection or the policies he pursued. He did not clearly challenge Bush's policies until late September, 2002, with his frontal dissent from the impending invasion of Iraq in his remarkable speech at the Commonwealth Club of California. Jimmy Carter played no significant role in the debate over Ronald Reagan's tax cuts in 1981, nor did Bill Clinton in the debate over Bush's tax cuts in 2001. As best I remember (and as best I can now determine), neither George H.W. Bush nor Dan Quayle played a role in Bill Clinton's big legislative struggles in 1993.
2) In previous cases, former Presidents and Vice Presidents have been slow to question the character, loyalty, or patriotism of their successors, as Cheney has unmistakably done with Obama. For instance: Jimmy Carter had a very low opinion of Ronald Reagan, but it was many years before he allowed himself to be quoted to anything like that effect. And: I interviewed Bill Clinton for this magazine nearly two years after left office. He went out of his way not to be personally critical of George W. Bush, even though his wife was then in the middle of partisan politics in the Senate.
So we have a former Vice President who has observed no cooling-off/decent-interval period whatsoever before criticizing the policies of his successor; and who has directly attacked a new president's character, strength, and willingness to defend the nation's interests. We have had bad Vice Presidents through the nation's long history; I don't know of any precedent for this behavior.