Rosen: Is Obama wondering: What would Cheney do?

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Editor's note: Fox News Chief Washington Correspondent James Rosen's new book “Cheney One on One: A Candid Conversation with America's Most Controversial Statesman” (Regnery, 2015) was released on November 2.

When President Obama dropped in on “The Daily Show” in July, to pay farewell respects to Jon Stewart, the commander-in-chief was busily engaged in selling his signature foreign policy initiative. Unlike the national desire to retire Jon Stewart properly, support for the Iran nuclear deal was hardly unanimous.

Critics of the deal advanced a variety of specific arguments: whether more dismantlement should have been sought; the validity of projected breakout times; the viability of “snap-back” sanctions; the reliability of our negotiating partners; the advisability of sunset provisions; and even whether the accord, as negotiated, violates U.S. law. Although most of these had already been aired, on Stewart’s set the president-- a skilled performer on comedy shows-- used humor to argue that no substantive criticisms had been aired at all.

“Typically,” he said of the deal’s opponents, “they’re vague and they fall back on ‘Well, if you had beat your chest a little more – or if you had brought Dick Cheney to the negotiations, then everything would be fine.’”

President Obama has long been quick to invoke Cheney when pondering national security.

Dick Cheney? What was that about? Not for another three months, in a September address at the American Enterprise Institute, would the former vice president even weigh in on the Iran debate. Maybe Mr. Obama was just playing to the crowd? As reported in its coverage of the show – OBAMA COMPARES IRAN DEAL CRITICS TO DICK CHENEY IN VALEDICTORY JON STEWART INTERVIEW – the former vice president is “one of Stewart’s favorite Boogeymen.”

There was more to it than that. With his invocation of Dick Cheney, Mr. Obama was, in strict rhetorical terms, elevating him: placing the 74-year-old statesman, six years out of the White House, at the center of a contemporary foreign policy debate and framing him as the Undisputed Avatar of Toughness in the national security arena.

Indeed, President Obama has long been quick to invoke Cheney when pondering national security. My new book, “Cheney One on One: A Candid Conversation with America's Most Controversial Statesman,” may help the incumbent commander-in-chief answer a familiar question that seems to have haunted him throughout his presidency: What would Cheney do?

The vivid imagery the president conjured – of Cheney suddenly appearing at the negotiating table in Vienna, as though teleported or Photoshopped there – carried, yes, a comic effect; but one suspects that for every individual who left Stewart’s show concluding Dick Cheney himself could not have negotiated a better deal, some like or greater number derived reassurance from the image of Cheney leading the negotiations, and drew the opposite conclusion.

Nor was the jibe the first of its kind. For President Obama, Dick Cheney is an obsession, of sorts – a vision he conjures frequently for others because it is so frequently lodged in his own mind.

In this vision, Richard B. Cheney – former White House chief of staff, House Republican leader, triumphant defense secretary, two-term vice president, and retired grandfather – is the dark archangel of neo-con warmongering whom the incumbent, a peace-loving champion of enlightened multilateralism, was elected to the White House, indeed put on this earth, to vanquish forever.

Cheney in retirement has been no wilting flower. Widely regarded as the most influential vice president in history, an architect of U.S. policy after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – including the Iraq War – Cheney rose often to object as the Obama administration dismantled much of his architecture. With George W. Bush abstaining from criticizing his successor, Cheney emerged as the chief defender of the Bush-Cheney legacy – and as Barack Obama’s foreign policy Frankenstein.

“I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney,” Mr. Obama told Steve Kroft of CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” two months into the Obama presidency. That May, the two would give dueling speeches, almost in synchronicity, carried live on cable news split-screens. The effect, to any viewer, was a parity the president surely rued.

That resentment was on vivid display throughout the Obama era – in statements by the president and his spokesmen disparaging Cheney by name, in blog posts, all searchable on the White House website – right up through this year. In April 2015, at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, an annual black-tie ritual for Beltway insiders, the president quipped: “A few weeks ago Dick Cheney said he thinks I’m the worst president of his lifetime – which is interesting, because I think Dick Cheney is the worst president of my lifetime.” The audience howled.

The joke was obviously rooted in the myth, long ago discredited, that in the Bush-43 administration, it was Dick Cheney who called the shots, George W. Bush the novice at his knee. This particular myth no one could refute with more firsthand experience than Cheney himself – or possibly Scooter Libby.

Yet here again, Obama was elevating Cheney-- this time to his own level, the presidency -- and revealed the position Cheney occupies at the center of Obama’s intellectual universe.

A day after the “Daily Show” interview, I asked Press Secretary Josh Earnest why Obama had made reference to Cheney in the session with Jon Stewart.

“ I think he was trying to illustrate that there were some critics of this agreement, the vast majority of them Republicans, who suggest that the president…had somehow not pressed the hardest possible bargain,” Earnest said. “And there are many Republicans who have indicated that if they were negotiating the agreement that they would have done so more effectively.”         

But the “Daily Show” comment wasn’t the only mention of Cheney by the president in recent weeks, I countered; does the president see himself as the anti-Dick Cheney? Laughter filled the room as Earnest replied: ”No, I don't think that's the way he would describe himself.”

Mr. Obama’s quip at the WHCA dinner was offered in response to a comment Cheney had made during nearly ten hours of recorded interviews I had conducted with the former vice president, at his home in Northern Virginia, in December 2014.

A tiny sliver of that material – including the widely publicized declaration that Obama is the worst president of Cheney’s lifetime – had appeared a few weeks before the WHCA dinner, as part of “The Playboy Interview with Dick Cheney” in the magazine’s April issue. Playboy’s PR team tabulated 650 million hits for the interview in other media, making the Cheney interview one of the most popular features in the magazine’s history.

Our sessions covered Cheney’s entire life: his personal recollections of childhood, his private beliefs about Christianity and mortality, his candid observations of the presidents, foreign leaders, and cabinet officials he’s worked with, his long experience as a consumer of U.S. intelligence and – of course – his final reckonings, practical and moral, with the carnage and controversy of 9/11 and Iraq, the defining events of the Bush-Cheney era.

In virtually all respects, ours was the most detailed and intimate interview on these subjects ever conducted with Cheney, the ultimate insider who operated, across four decades of American public life, at the highest levels of power. For his participation in our sessions, which extended nearly four hours longer than agreed, Cheney sought no reward; nor did he seek any editorial control, other than to approve, without change, the outline of topics I prepared.

For admirers and haters alike, "Cheney One on One" offers a valuable window into how Dick Cheney’s mind works: how he approached the acquisition and exercise of power; how he analyzed and interpreted intelligence; how his thinking changed as he aged.

It might not narrow the differences between the two men, but I dare say the president would understand Dick Cheney better – and perhaps the architecture that he and Cheney’s true successor, Joe Biden, inherited.