Monday, June 19, 2006

My Lunch with Dick Cheney

Through a confluence of happy accidents, I ended up spending a couple of hours today at the National Press Club, where Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at a luncheon honoring the recipients of the annual Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prizes. Cheney, you'll recall, served as Ford's White House Chief of Staff before serving in Congress and both Bush administrations.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I am an admirer of President Ford, who I rank with Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge as among the most liberty-minded presidents of the 20th century, as all three aimed at restraining and shrinking the size and scope of government.

After lunch, I ran into Mark Rozell, a professor at George Mason University, who was one of the judges for the journalism prizes. I used to be a guest lecturer for Rozell when he taught at American University. While we were chatting near the elevators, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger walked up to us. I extended my hand and said, "Dr. Kissinger, you probably don't remember me, but I was in your class at Georgetown 25 years ago." He seemed pleased to see me -- what teacher isn't glad to see a former student -- but the gentleman with him one-upped me. "I took his class 40 years ago!," he said, with a wink.

My table at the lunch was no more than 20 or 25 feet from the Vice President, so I got a few good photos. I was sitting between Senator Jon Kyl's press secretary and two gentlemen from the Red Chinese embassy, who were scribbling rapidly to take down as many of Cheney's words as possible.

I scribbled a few notes myself, which I turned into an article for this week's Metro Herald. To wit:

Cheney Speaks Out on War on Terror, Iraq, Government Secrecy
Rick Sincere
Special to the Metro Herald

(WASHINGTON) --- Vice President Dick Cheney was the featured speaker on Monday, June 19, at a National Press Club awards ceremony. In response to questions from the audience, Cheney spoke out on the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and government secrecy.

Cheney spoke at the annual luncheon ceremony, sponsored by the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, for the presentation of two journalism prizes named for the former president. The award recipients were Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News, for his reporting on the presidency, and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, for his reporting on national defense issues while working for the Los Angeles Times.

National Press Club president Jonathan Salant introduced Cheney as “pinch-hitting for Gerald Ford,” since Ford, who will turn 93 on July 14, was unable to attend the luncheon.

Cheney began his remarks by noting that his own history with President Ford goes back to 1974, when Donald Rumsfeld became Ford’s chief of staff and Cheney was Rumsfeld’s deputy. Later, when Rumsfeld became Ford’s Secretary of Defense, Cheney was promoted to White House Chief of Staff – later serving 10 years in Congress, a term as Secretary of Defense, as CEO of Halliburton, and today as vice president.

The Vice President noted that Ford served a short term – only 29 months – but because of the turbulent times, the “pace of activity was enough to fill an eight-year presidency.”

Paying tribute to Ford, Cheney said that “through all of this, America was extremely fortunate to have a steady hand at the wheel.”

“In every respect,” he said, “Gerald Ford labored hard at his job and he was good at it,” adding: “Gerald Ford is the kind of person whose good qualities appear on first impression and are only confirmed when you spend time with him.”

Joking with the audience, which consisted largely of members of the Washington press corps, Cheney continued: “President Ford is a patient and forgiving man, so naturally he has a high regard for the news media.” (This reference may not be so tongue-in-cheek. In his 2005 book, Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s, Dowling College historian Yanek Mieczkowski reports that Ford had unusually good relations with the press in comparison to other presidents of the late 20th century.)

Following his remarks about the former President, who was as much honored at the luncheon as the reporters who received crystal figurines in his name, Cheney answered questions from the audience, filtered through moderator Salant.

Asked “Are we winning the war on terror?,” Cheney said, “I believe we are.”

Explaining that after 9/11 that the United States developed an “aggressive strategy,” Cheney said that the biggest threat we now face is an al-Qaeda cell armed with a nuclear weapon or some other weapon of mass destruction. Still, he continued, “a look at the broad sweep of events” shows that “several things stand out.” One of these is that the United States “cannot all by itself succeed in every place unless we have friends and allies,” pointing to the cooperation we have received in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq in rounding up and killing terrorists connected to al-Qaeda.

The biggest sign of success, Cheney said, is that “it’s been nearly five years now and we haven’t been hit again,” though he qualified this by noting that “nobody can promise that we won’t be hit again” by al-Qaeda or “al-Qaeda wannabes.”

Cheney asserted that two of the reasons for success were the USA PATRIOT Act and the terrorist surveillance program – both of which, he acknowledged, have been controversial. He insisted, in regard to the surveillance program, that “it clearly is legal and consistent with the Constitution.” The program, he said, is “reviewed by the President every 45 days and he is assured by the Attorney General that it complies with the laws of the land.”

“The fact of the matter,” Cheney said, “is we’ve been safe and secure at home and that is no accident.”

Another questioner asked if Cheney had underestimated the strength of the insurgency in Iraq. Cheney replied that “nobody anticipated the level of violence we encountered.” He attributed this misjudgment to how the Bush administration “underestimated the effect of 30 years of Saddam’s rule.” There was a huge transition to make from dictatorship to democracy, he said, and he personally “underestimated the extent to which Iraqi society had been damaged by the Saddam regime.”

Asked if there will be a return to military conscription, Cheney flatly answered no. “I’m a big believer in the all-volunteer force,” he said, and although the structures for a military draft are maintained for the eventuality that certain extreme conditions might require it, “I don’t foresee the development of those conditions.”

As one might expect from a gathering of working journalists, there was a question about how the Bush administration is reacting to leaks, particularly leaks of national security information. Cheney said that he believes “there need to be secrets. There are things the federal government does in the national security arena that need to be kept secret.”

“One of the frustrations of this debate,” Cheney added, “is that you can’t talk about current operations to explain why” certain information has to be kept classified. He gave as an example of how reports of communications interception technology tipped off al-Qaeda that they should change their means of communicating with each other. He also noted that when U.S. secrets are compromised, “other intelligence services find it difficult to work with us.”

Just before he had to leave, Cheney was offered a light-hearted question: With the President celebrating his 60th birthday on July 6, what gift does Cheney plan to give to him?

Cheney pondered his answer for a moment, noting that the two of them do not usually exchange birthday presents, but only Christmas presents. Pausing to think, he smiled and said, “This is one of those things that need to be secret.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Rick Sincere covers political and cultural events for the Metro Herald.

For more information about the Gerald R. Ford journalism prizes, visit the Gerald R. Ford Foundation. A transcript of today's event can be obtained through the National Press Club, and C-SPAN recorded the luncheon speeches for broadcast. The Associated Press also has a report on the lunch.

1 comment:

IndianCowboy said...

Huh, you are the second person in the past week I've seen mention President Ford as being one of the more liberty minded presidents

My impression of him has always been about like the simpsons episode wehre george bush becomes their neighbor. This might've been exacerbated by the fact that president Ford was a Deke (so was I).

I'm going to have to read up on him now.