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In 2005, the Iraq War debacle weakens Cheney’s influence in the White House, but in and out of office, he continued to help create conditions for far-right control of the Republican Party – says Larry Wilkerson, depicted in the film VICE and former Chief of Staff to Sec. State Colin Powell – a REPLAY of a 2010 interview by Paul Jay

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington, and we’re talking about Dick Cheney with Larry Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell’s chief of staff and now teaches national security policy in Washington. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So let’s move ahead in Cheney’s career. We get—2004, George Bush is reelected; the Iraq war is spinning more or less out of control in ’04-05; Rumsfeld gets fired. What happens to Cheney?

WILKERSON: It’d be difficult for me at this point to prove this in a historical sense—and I’m still researching, and I’m sure others are, too. And as archives are opened and as papers come out and as memoirs are written and so forth, perhaps there will be more evidence, as we discover e-mails that were lost. But I think the president begins to understand in late 2005 how ill-served he’s been on several key issues, Iraq being one of them, if not the most prominent one. And who’s at the center of that ill service? The vice president. I don’t think it was a moment of epiphany for the president; I think it was a gradual thing. And I think he probably was in a position of incredulity, and also a position of indecisiveness; that is, to say, which is unlike him, “What do I do now? I mean, I’ve really got a problem here.” After all, he had people like Brent Scowcroft, his father’s national security adviser and very close to his father, I’m convinced, carrying a message from his father to him. He had others doing the same thing. He’d had to out-call with Colin Powell on 13 January, when Powell had essentially read him the riot act and told him he had card-carrying members of the Likud Party serving in the Pentagon, had told him that the tension between the secdef and their secstate [secretary of defense/state] and their two entities was just palpable and was ruinous, to which Bush responded, oh, come on, you’ve come from Cap Weinberger-George Schultz days; it can’t be any worse than that. And Powell fixed him and said, it is orders of magnitude worse than that, Mr. President. And so he’d had this out-call with his number one cabinet officer for four years, Colin Powell, who essentially told him his administration was wrecked, that he had no national security decision making process worth a damn. So there were a number of things. And as you pointed out, the Iraq situation was looking pretty grim. Even a president who was fed oatmeal every morning and given, you know, the yes-man type answer that he was looking for by everyone from DC-ite [George] Tenet to Condi Rice at Foggy Bottom, he had to be getting some of this.

JAY: Well, he must have been hearing, ’cause we were certainly reading it in the press from serious people, that this was the most significant strategic defeat in the history of the United States, probably.

WILKERSON: I’m told, though, that he did not read at all; that occasionally he would read this or that book, as he often testified to, he would read this or that magazine, but that he really did not read very much at all. And the American people are sometimes—they stun me when I talk across the country and I get questions or anything how much they think our president knows. The president knows what people tell him; the president knows what the principal people around him tell him. And if those people are in lockstep with someone, that is to say, their allegiance is more to the vice president than it is to others, or if they see the bread is buttered on the vice president’s side and not the president’s side, then the message getting to the president is going to be skewed. So it’s very difficult for the president. That’s the reason I—.

JAY: And this was a group around him that had a clear-cut agenda [inaudible] a document in ’99 called Project for a New American Century, which laid out exactly what they wanted to do.

WILKERSON: Yeah. And, frankly, nice people, some of them, but not all that competent. Andy Card, chief of staff, for example. I don’t think Andy Card could lead a hungry mule to a barbecue. There were others. And Dick Cheney had arrayed around him people who were absolutely superb. They were bureaucratic entrepreneurs. They were bureaucratic masters. Scooter Libby was one. David Addington was another. John Hannah was another. And he had people placed on the NSC [National Security Council] staff itself who were that way, like Robert Joseph.

JAY: But this starts to change.

WILKERSON: This starts to change, I think, because the president begins to distance himself a bit. I think we saw it come to its ultimate conclusion in a rather insignificant matter, but nonetheless significant for Cheney. I’m told Cheney was furious when he found out, and went back to the president to get him to revisit it, but the president wouldn’t. And that was the ultimate pardoning of Scooter Libby. The vice president did not win on that one. And I think the president did that because the president realized that he had been lied to, and that he had been lied to even potentially by the vice president of the United States. And that probably didn’t set too well with [inaudible]

JAY: Lied to over the whole [Valerie] Plame affair.

WILKERSON: Yeah. Yeah.

JAY: Bush presidency ends, Cheney leaves, and it ain’t very long before he’s all over television. He’s on Fox practically as a regular commentator. He’s positioning himself as a player in today’s politics. Talk about Cheney and what he represents within the Republican Party.

WILKERSON: He represents a group that I think is taking the Republican Party like a group of lemmings over the cliff. You can say, as one congressman did who served with him for a long time—asked me out to lunch himself one day, and I’d never met him before, and he was from a state that I don’t have much knowledge of, so I couldn’t figure out why he was asking me to lunch. He wanted to talk to me about Dick Cheney. He wanted to tell me that Dick Cheney had always been what I thought Dick Cheney was as vice president; it was just that he had been kept from exhibiting it completely. And he based this on his experience with him in the Congress for several years when he was serving with him. And I said—to this congressman I said, well, why are you telling me this? And he said, because I’m trying to convince you that Dick Cheney’s a dangerous person. And I think that’s true about this particular segment of my party. My father used to put it this way—my father was a lifelong Republican. My father would say, “You know, you need to be more leery of the far right than the far left. The far left will bankrupt you. You can recover. The far right will kill you.” And that’s what I’m talking about. There is this strand in my party, there is this strand that finds its his home in my party right now that—it’ll kill you.

JAY: Who do you put in that group?

WILKERSON: Well, as the extreme end of that group I put people like Sarah Palin. I watched the animosity that she generated with John McCain. I think John McCain was even appalled by it on several occasions when I was watching the campaign rallies. I watched the animosity in the periphery, the almost blatant racism, the things that she was playing to, much the way George Wallace used to play to, much the way the early Strom Thurmond used to play to, much the way, for example, people today play to when they’re just straightforward about their situation and their beliefs. I’m not confident this is the case, but I think it is, that part of this is what caused Colin Powell to come out and endorse President Obama, because he saw what was happening in the periphery of those campaign rallies and he saw the fearful prospect of another Martin Luther King Jr., of another Bobby Kennedy, of another John Kennedy, he saw the prospect of another president going down under the right-wing fears, hatreds, phobias of America. Sociologists will tell you that in any society like ours there is probably somewhere between 6 and 11 percent of people who are maladjusted, you could say, people who are nuts. Do the numbers there: 304 million people; 7 percent. That’s a lot of nuts. And it’s unfortunate that many of those people are being attracted to because of the virulent rhetoric of, because of the inherent racism of, because of the hatred of this group of right-wingers, many of whom identify with the Republican Party. It’s arguable that that’s part of that craziness that’s part of America’s heritage.

JAY: You’ve got this kind of unholy alliance, in a way, of these hardcore corporate commercial interests represented by Cheney. But then if you look at the tea party, who, you know, a piece of it is anticorporate—like, if you talk to a lot of ordinary—

WILKERSON: How did they get together?

JAY: Yeah, you’re talking to ordinary tea party people, and why do you trust big corporate America more than government, and they say, oh, we don’t; you know, it’s all the same kind of thing. But there’s this weird alliance that they’ve been able to create with the Cheney-esque forces and this populism.

WILKERSON: Well, they take the hot-button issues, they take the hot-button issues that resonate with all these groups—abortion, for example; homosexuals, for example. I’m waiting for the “don’t ask, don’t tell” group to come up now that we’ve gone public. I think this morning the Obama administration has said that it’s moving swiftly to do away with “don’t ask, don’t tell”. We’ll see if that has the kind of resonance with people like Palin and others that perhaps—. Cheney’s, of course, caught, hoisted on his own petard there: he has a lesbian daughter. And, frankly, I think that’s what it’s all about with Cheney. If Cheney did not have that family situation, Cheney would be as homophobic as anyone else in that group. So you’ve got politicians who are smart enough to say, “That, that, that, and that resonates with all these nuts, and so let’s grab onto that, that, that, and that,” and you very seldom get an opportunity to come into a complex discussion of issues, to where you identify what you just identified: Hey, do you really think big pharma ought to be running the country? Do you really think we should have shifted so much wealth from you, the American taxpayer, to these banks, $700 billion by Bush and Paulson and then another $700, $750, $800 billion by [Timothy] Geithner, [Lawrence] Summers, and Obama? Do you really think we should have done that? That’s his story. That’s the greatest shift of wealth from the middle class to these 1 percent financial investment banks and insurance companies in history. Do you think we should have done that? “Oh, no, we shouldn’t have done that!” they’ll say. Well, you’re aligned with the people who helped that happen. They don’t understand. It’s too complex.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.


JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.