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Bush and Cheney Mosey Off Into the Sunset, Cowboys Till the End

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Dick Cheney appears to be the last man standing firm.

Maybe a CIA operative slipped the Vice President a covert goody bag of blue pills but, given the pressures of his job and the risk of another heart incident, it's still an impressive rigidity.

I watched Mr. Cheney, resolute and completely unrepentant, telling Wolf Blitzer Sunday that he would not hesitate to recommend water boarding again as a method of interrogation if he had the chance. He didn't mention Christopher Hitchens by name, but Hitch might be on the Veep's list just for his video criticism that simulated drowning does constitute torture. Which was also John McCain's position.

"John's wrong" about that, Mr. Cheney told Wolf Blitzer, without equivocation. Not: well, reasonable people disagree. But: Senator McCain is just plain WRONG, (you moron!).

There's something almost refreshing and bracing about that level of certitude, sustained for so long under occasionally inconvenient facts. Like a splash of freezing trout-filled stream water or a full muzzle of buckshot right in the face.

You have to admit, eight years away from his Wyoming ranch have not taken a single kerchief stitch of the cowboy out of Dick Cheney. Only Rod Blagojevich and Bernard Madoff can match him for sheer chutzpah, or "gumption" as they might call it on the Western frontier, and one of those guys is in an ankle cuff (still) under house arrest while the other faces impeachment and possibly jail.

Dick Cheney is free and now retired, able to step out of the bunker, write a book and, apparently, not feel a single second of hesitation about his life in public service.

Well, also high up on the cultural gumption scale Joe the Not-Plumber, whose latest video from his new career as a self-hating war correspondent has taken him to heights of incomprehensibility neither Sarah Palin nor, you know, Caroline Kennedy will ever know. He's pretty out there. Watch for his invite to the next White House Correspondents' Dinner from some snooty magazine looking to appear edgy.

But the Vice President has outlasted even his boss in staying tough and resisting any possibility of doubt or silly, hippy navel-gazing self-contemplation. He even took a parting shot at former counter-intelligence chief and Administration critic Richard Clarke: "If Dick Clarke was such an expert," Mr. Cheney sneered, "how come he didn't have all this information about al Qaeda" when he was in that job. (Sound of shell being chambered).

For most everyone else, the last few days has been a time for reflection and farewells as the pulse quickens toward the Barack Obama inauguration.

After watching President Bush's final press conference, I found myself feeling for him as he tried his darndest to concede some shortcomings and mistakes - always hard for him - and stand up for himself at the same time. He was petulant, reflective, irritated, assertive and even wacky, giving his own imitation of a whiner politico that was a kind of odd dramatic rendering we haven't seen since John Burton, in his under-the-weather period, pantomimed an entire speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Eight years away from Texas clearly had taken a little starch out of this cowboy's checkered shirt. It's a tough job, but despite recognizing the "writers and opiners (who) don't like me", smacking the foreign "elites" who don't respect the US and wading into what has always been awkward territory of press conference joke-making, Mr. Bush was clearly speaking from the heart when he talked about Barack Obama's family and the love they have for each other.

Overall, he showed some bitterness but not the tell-tale signs of someone truly embittered by his time in office.

I remember being in on an interview with the then-Texas Governor during his first run for the Presidency. He bounded down the stairs at his office in Austin, tanned, beaming and hyper-confident, bear-hugging several editors in the room and basically making the charismatic Bill Clinton seem like a wallflower by comparison. "You think I can get a single vote in San Francisco?" he asked me, smiling. I think I said probably not.

But he got agitated after a few tough questions and you could tell that this was someone who could be worn down by controversy and criticism, even as he did not flinch in the face of it.

Until, really, today at his press conference.

Mr. Bush is right: history will judge him more completely than his 25 percent approval rating or comparisons-in-advance to the incoming president (or even to his dad, who new polls show is more popular as an ex-President, just like Jimmy Carter.) But for all the frat boy smirking and righteous indignation about policies that even he now admits could have used a little more work, this is not someone unmarked by his own presidency.

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