Remember him? He was the 43rd president of the United States. Folksy kinda guy.
Some people might have forgotten that Bush once ran the White House. Between President Obama's still-sky-high poll numbers, Dick Cheney's inability/refusal to get off the stage -- and the steel-cage death match the two staged last week over Guantanamo Bay and terrorist interrogation -- you'd be forgiven if you started thinking that Obama succeeded Cheney back in January.
And so, the man who rather magnanimously said that Obama "deserves my silence," has ended up partly breaking that vow by giving a speech on Thursday. To be exact, Bush broke it during the Q&A after his address at the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan. Asked specifically about interrogation techniques, also known as torture,
During the address Bush talked in general terms about his thought process after the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in March 2003.
"The first thing you do is ask, what's legal?" he said. "What do the lawyers say is possible? I made the decision, within the law, to get information so I can say to myself, 'I've done what it takes to do my duty to protect the American people.' I can tell you that the information we got saved lives."
But in defending his policy, he sounded nothing like his No. 2. Where Cheney speeches have been filled with vitriol and ire, Bush took pains not to disparage Obama
"Nothing I am saying is meant to criticize my successor," Bush said. "There are plenty of people who have weighed in. Trust me, having seen it firsthand. I didn't like it when a former president criticized me, so therefore I am not going to criticize my successor. I wish him all the best."
Bush could have further demurred on the question -- even cited his previous statement on keeping his "silence." However, in responding, he accomplished two things: 1) He provided a defense of his policies, but in a non-aggressive manner to his successor (while whetting people's appetite for the book he's still writing). 2) He issued a mild slap to his own vice-president. He notes that "plenty of people" have made their opinions known -- but being attacked by one of the top people from the previous administration is never exactly appreciated.
Of course, some of those who served in the Bush administration might assert that Obama has been rather "liberal" with blame on the "mess" that he's inherited. Even so, George W. Bush isn't the sort the sort of man to step out of the bounds of propriety and launch his own war of words with the current president.
Still the contrast between Bush and Cheney couldn't be more vivid. Bush is happy to be settling into a role of elder statesman in the public sphere. His former vice president sees an importance in remaining engaged in the ring. Now normally it could be said that this difference grows out of the traditionally different roles that a president and a vice president have. However, in the Bush White House, it's pretty clear that tradition kind of went out the window. Cheney was both granted and assumed more power than just about any veep in history.
And so, while Cheney may claim that he is drawn to staying in the public eye out of a desire to keep the country safe (there's some truth to that), it's also the case that he is fighting for his legacy as much as he is that of "Bush-Cheney."
Bush, ironically, doesn't feel the need to wage that fight. Or at least not in either the tone or the multimedia formats that his former No. 2 has adopted.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.