My lunch with the Cheneys: Noshing over ex-VPs latest garbage with standing-room only crowd

Sadly, Mary wasn't there. But who needs the real-deal 4th Cheney when you have an ample substitute in Mike Allen?

Published July 15, 2014 3:45PM (EDT)

Lynne, Dick, Liz Cheney           (AP/Harry Hamburg/Luis M. Alvarez/Cliff Owen)
Lynne, Dick, Liz Cheney (AP/Harry Hamburg/Luis M. Alvarez/Cliff Owen)

Dick, Liz and Lynne Cheney had a difficult time getting things going Monday afternoon at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

They, the "three Cheneys," were downtown for the Politico Playbook Lunch, where they would be interviewed by the ever-peppy author of POLITICO PLAYBOOK, Mike Allen. It was, according to Allen, the "first standing-room only Politico lunch" in the history of this charitable effort to educate the public, co-sponsored by the Bank of America. The lines, stretching nearly a full city block within the confines of the Mayweather, were testament to that. Some of us were reporters. Others were students, and others there for the free lunch. It may sound odd, but some may have even chosen to spend their lunch hour walking through the 90-something-degree Washington heat and into long lines at the Mayflower to take in the knowledge of the wisdom of the suddenly ubiquitous former vice president.

And a few others, still, were there to interrupt the proceedings. Code Pink, which had established a presence outside, was able to plant a few operatives inside the cozy Mayflower ballroom and its balconies (arranged as if there was to be a dinner-theater production of "The Vagina Monologues" immediately afterwards.)

After a friendly first question from Allen about whether the Cheneys discuss politics at the dinner table, and a very rehearsed jab at Hillary Clinton from Lynne Cheney about how the Cheneys weren't ever "dead broke," the first of the Code Pinkers, bearing handcuffs, interrupted from the left flank off the stage, shouting, "arrest Dick Cheney -- war criminal!" repeatedly as security tried to get a handle on the situation.

Then, from the center of the ballroom, another: "You've destroyed Iraq and you're destroying this country," she said as she was escorted out. Lynne offered the usual that's what's great about this country, you have the right to express yourself national back-pat. Dick never looked once at the scene.

Just as Lynne was getting into the pressing business of plugging her new book about James Madison and whether the Founder had epilepsy, two more protesters erupted from the balcony. Security rushed upstairs, took care of the situation, and down went the rebellion for the rest of the event with a final tally of four bodies.

Thank goodness. Because then Mike Allen was able to get back to the important questions, like, "What would James Madison think of Dick Cheney?"

Mike Allen asked the Cheneys a total of two series of uncomfortable questions over the course of the hour-plus lunch.

One was unimportant, but did address the elephant in the room: Where was the Cheneys' other daughter? This, after all, was billed as a lunch with the "Cheney family," and it was hard not to notice the absence of Mary. Mary, Allen explained, was invited, but wrote to Allen that she would would be in Colorado and not Washington. Have the Three Cheneys, Allen asked, repaired the rift with Mary that broke out during Liz's short-lived Wyoming senatorial campaign, when Liz objected to same-sex marriage -- such as the one her sister is party to? The Three Cheneys all explained that everyone in their family loves each other, and they'd leave it at that, lest (any more) family business spill into the press. Which was fine. Who needs the real-deal fourth Cheney when you have an ample substitute in Mike Allen?

Allen's finest moment came in the brief window when he acknowledged that most of the country despises the Cheneys and doesn't want to follow their advice, or even hear them, when it comes to the future of Iraq. Liz and Dick Cheney, on the other hand, want to offer as much advice as they can, and are doing this recent media tour in promotion of their new political non-profit, the Alliance for a Strong America. Allen mentioned the now-infamous line/sub-headline from Liz and Dick Cheney's recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many." As Allen said, the "main reaction" in the media and foreign policy circles has been, "takes one to know one." He referenced Fox News host Megyn Kelly's contentious interview with the Cheneys in which she posited, regarding Iraq, that "time and time again, you got it wrong." As Allen said, people aren't sure they want to hear the Cheneys "lecturing them about Iraq."

Liz and Dick Cheney argued they didn't intend to "lecture," with Liz suggesting that the media's "main reaction" to their return has actually been quite welcoming -- "outside the mainstream media," that is. (Indeed, when you only grant interviews to fawning hawks like Jennifer Rubin, you're going to escape some of the more difficult lines of questioning.)

The Cheneys, like practiced politicians, were able to quickly pivot to reiterating talking points from their latest op-ed, a lengthy piece in the neoconservative Weekly Standard re-litigating their argument that invading Iraq was the right call and laying out the direction in which they'd like to see U.S. foreign policy go. (Spoiler: more active militarily, and with a much bigger army ready for constant deployment.)

The Weekly Standard piece is even more stunning than the WSJ op-ed. (For a a thorough, comprehensive summary, we direct you to Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post.) In only one instance do Liz and Dick Cheney come close to admitting fault. "As we know now, Saddam did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction." This is the space where decent human beings might insert an apology. "However," they continue, "it requires a willing suspension of disbelief and a desire to put politics above safety to assert that the absence of stockpiles meant the absence of a threat to the United States. David Kay, who led the international Iraq Survey Group tasked with finding Saddam’s stockpiles, said this: 'I actually think that what we learned during the inspections made Iraq a more dangerous place, potentially, than in fact we had thought before the war.'" In other words, there were no weapons of mass destruction, but the unsuccessful search for said weapons proved that Iraq was more dangerous than ever imagined. Got it?

The Cheneys go to such lengths to justify the original invasion of Iraq that they're willing, in 2014, to offer a defense of one of the most shameful rationales from the time: Saddam Hussein's allegedly close ties to al-Qaeda.

This argument has been so discredited and called out for the fearmongering that it was, in fact, that other staunch defenders of the war now pretend it was never shopped to the American public. In "The Unknown Known," filmmaker Errol Morris' recent documentary starring Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense tells Morris that neither he nor anyone else in high-levels of the administration ever led the American public to believe that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with al-Qaeda. "It was very clear that the direct planning for 9/11 was done by Osama bin Laden’s people, al Qaeda, and in Afghanistan. I don’t think the American people were confused about that.” (Morris ably follows this with a February 2003 clip of Rumsfeld laughing off suggestions that Saddam and al-Qaida weren't connected.) And just last week, Huffington Post reporter Zach Carter was widely panned for his "ignorant" understanding of the build-up to the Iraq war during an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. Hewitt, playing the supposedly well-read expert, repeatedly rejected Carter's claim that the Bush administration tried to bind Saddam to al-Qaeda in its selling of the war.

ZC: Oh, but their case for the war, right, was I mean, that Saddam Hussein had been cooperating or collaborating with al Qaeda…

HH: No, no, no.

ZC: That he had access to chemical weapons, that he had…

HH: No, no, no,

ZC: …weapons of mass destruction…

HH: No.

ZC: …and that he was looking to build a nuclear weapon.

HH: Actually, no.

ZC: I mean, Dick Cheney said all of those things.

HH: They never said al Qaeda.

But they did say it. Rumsfeld said it. And Cheney said it -- on "Meet the Press" in 2003, for example: "We know he’s out trying once again to produce nuclear weapons and we know that he has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda organization." Eleven years later, and Dick and Liz Cheney are making nearly the identical claim in their Weekly Standard piece: "It is undisputed, and has been confirmed repeatedly in Iraqi government documents captured after the invasion, that Saddam had deep, longstanding, far-reaching relationships with terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and its affiliates."

If you parse their language closely, as they'd like you to do, Rumsfeld and Cheney can claim that they were in agreement then and remain in agreement now. When Rumsfeld, a clever bureaucrat, is asked about the false links between Saddam and al-Qaeda made by the administration, his denial is is that "[i]t was very clear that the direct planning for 9/11 was done by Osama bin Laden’s people, al Qaeda, and in Afghanistan." Similarly, Dick and Liz Cheney write that "We are not saying Saddam was responsible for 9/11. What we are saying is that in the aftermath of 9/11, when we saw thousands of our fellow citizens slaughtered by terrorists armed with airline tickets and box cutters, our leaders had an obligation to do everything possible to prevent terrorists from gaining access to even worse weapons. Saddam’s Iraq was the most likely nexus for such an exchange." In other words, they'd argue that the administration correctly suggested Saddam had ties to the group, but never said he had direct ties to the planners of 9/11.

And this is offensive. Their PR campaign to link Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda in the build-up to the war was explicitly to channel the rage the American people felt over Osama bin Laden towards Saddam Hussein. Polls leading up to the war showed that strong majorities of the country believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the planning of the 9/11 attacks. Even in 2007, 33% and 41% of the country felt that way, depending on which poll you looked at. Did you ever see Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld go out in public to throw cold water on those theories? Of course not. How would that have been useful to them?

Mike Allen didn't press the Three Cheneys about the relationship Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. He did, however, spend a lot of time asking Cheney if he thought Mitt Romney or Rick Perry or Rand Paul or whoever should run for president in 2016, or whether he likes Bill or Hillary Clinton or Condi Rice or Colin Powell better, et cetera. Cheney refused to say anything suggesting he might favor one candidate over another. He did, however, go on at length about the "isolationist strain" that's taken root in his party, and confirmed that he and his daughter were starting their non-profit to serve as a war-loving counterweight within the party.

"Isolationism" is a term that Republican hawks use to refer directly to Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator has been vocal in his criticism of Cheney during this episode, the latter's latest reemergence from the Wyoming underground. Paul is able to do this because it's politically popular to attack Dick Cheney's foreign policy, which is politically unpopular.

What's strange is that, as far as what to do in Iraq right now, there doesn't at first seem to be much daylight between Rand Paul's or Dick Cheney's or Rick Perry's or Barack Obama's positions. Cheney and, randomly, Perry, have been running around trashing Paul for his "isolationism." As Paul writes today in response to Perry's strange attack, though, Perry's suggestions and Paul's "isolationism" seem to align when it comes to options in Iraq:

He writes in the Washington Post, “the president can and must do more with our military and intelligence communities to help cripple the Islamic State. Meaningful assistance can include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sharing and airstrikes.”

The United States is actually doing all of this now. President Obama has said he might use airstrikes in the future. I have also been open to the same option if it makes sense.

Cheney's advice on Iraq, according to the Weekly Standard piece, doesn't appear to be dissimilar from that of the so-called isolationists: "In Iraq, we should provide military support in the form of trainers, special operations forces, an intelligence architecture and airpower to aid the Iraqi military in its counteroffensive against ISIS."

The difference between the Cheney/Perry and Paul/Obama wings, respectively, is, "[Blah blah blah] with airstrikes right now" vs. "[Blah blah blah] with airstrikes as a possibility." And Cheney wouldn't want to limit those airstrikes to the territorial boundaries of Iraq. During the lunch, he noted that national borders within the Middle East no longer really matter, and ISIS should be taken on militarily wherever they seek to establish their Caliphate: Iraq, Syria, Jordan, the Sinai, wherever, whenever. If we're to understand what "isolationism" means to Cheney, then, it's the mindset that military action shouldn't be taken up in several countries, without batting an eyelash, whenever some new transnational bad actors appear.

If that's the criterion, then Americans are firmly on the side of "isolationism." And it will take a few more lunches, even standing-room only POLITICO PLAYBOOK lunches, to change that.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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