“No Q and A.” That’s what Chris DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, said to me on the elevator at his think tank on Monday morning. I knew what he meant. Dick Cheney was coming to AEI, the prowar, neocon headquarters, to give yet another speech on the Iraq war. Last week, Cheney blasted critics who claim Bush misled the nation into war, calling these accusations the most “dishonest” and “reprehensible” statements he’s ever encountered in Washington. (And he’s been around a long time.) But Cheney, as is his custom, refused at AEI to take questions from reporters on this or any other subject. Presumably, if he held a press conference, he’d be asked to explain his prewar claims about Iraq’s supposed WMDs and its supposed contacts with al Qaeda that were not supported by the existing intelligence. (I came prepared to inquire if Cheney thought it had been “dishonest” of him to point to a Czech intelligence report that claimed 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before September 11, even though the CIA and FBI had discounted this report.) Cheney also might have been asked about the recent news that executives from four large oil companies did meet with his energy task force in 2001, even though CEOs from these firms testified to Congress this month their executives had not. So many Qs for Cheney. But no As.
When Cheney finished his speech–which consumed only one-third of the hour that AEI had scheduled for the event–he quickly darted off. He didn’t even stay to greet the AEI policy wonks who had been seeded in the first rows of seats (thus pushing journalists toward the back) and who had applauded enthusiastically for their man in the White House. MSNBC’s David Shuster approached me and remarked, “I thought you were going to shout out a question at Cheney.” I had thought about doing so. But before I could close my notebook, Cheney was gone.
His speech was both defiant and yielding. He opened with a White House retreat that George W, Bush began the previous day. Noting that the headlines last week said he had called critics of the war “dishonest and reprehensible,” Cheney stated,
I do not believe it is wrong to criticize the war on terror or any aspect thereof. Disagreement, argument, and debate are the essence of democracy, and none of us should want it any other way.
He also praised Representative Jack Murtha, the conservative and hawkish Democrat who last week called for a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Murtha’s proposal was initially met by hooting from a White House that didn’t address Murtha’s policy criticisms but that instead derided him as having been captured by Michael Moore and fringe elements of the Democratic Party. Days later, a Republican congresswoman implied that Murtha, a former Marine, was a coward for advocating disengagement. For his part, Murtha fought back by observing that he was not going to fret about attacks from folks who had ducked the Vietnam War by obtaining multiple deferments–a direct reference to Cheney. At AEI, Cheney, following Bush’s lead, hailed Murtha as a “good man” and “a patriot,” who “is taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion.” Clearly, the White House (maybe after polling) had concluded that it could not win a ground war against Murtha. It was waving a white flag.