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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

James Rosen on “Cheney One On One”

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HH: I have been saving this for a while. If you’ll recall two weeks ago, former Vice President Cheney came by my studio at Colorado Christian University and sat down for a long interview. And then I interviewed him in front of a packed house of a thousand-plus people over at the CCU auditorium. And on my desk at that moment was James Rosen’s brand new book, Cheney One On One: A Candid Conversation With America’s Most Controversial Statesman. I didn’t want to read it before I interviewed the Vice President, because I always try not to read other interviews of people before I interview them. But I have been since, and it’s wonderful. James Rosen, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to talk to you.

JR: An honor to be back with you, Hugh, thank you.

HH: Now James, I want to, I don’t want to give away a lot of this book. I do want to talk with you, because surprisingly, in the public event I did with the former Vice President, the last question came from one of my students who asked him about his faith. And the Vice President answered I’m a born again, I had a religious experience. I mean, he did everything he did with you. Were you as surprised as I was by that?

JR: This is the first I’m hearing of it, but you know, I did a lot of research for this book, Cheney One On One, and basically inhaled Cheneyana for, you know, about two months. That means, of course, relying not only on my own experiences having covered the Bush-Cheney White House for Fox News in real time, but also buying on eBay and Amazon the vast literature that now exists for the Bush-Cheney era, all the memoirs, all the Bob Woodward books, the James Risen book and so on. And then of course, very carefully personally reviewing Cheney’s memoir on its own and a few other very important books. And my experience was that I did not see that he ever really spoke in any depth about his spirituality or his faith. And to sit in Dick Cheney’s study in his own home in Northern Virginia as I did one year ago at this time, shortly before he was to turn 74 years of age, and having survived five heart attacks and a heart transplant, to hear this man tell me I’m a Christian, I believe in a life hereafter, it was very intimate stuff.

HH: It was. I was not surprised by it, because I was not surprised, I mean, I wasn’t surprised by your interview after I was surprised by the student’s question and the Vice President’s answer, because I’ve interviewed him probably eight times at length in his home, in his West Wing office, on the air, just like I’ve never been in his McLean home. The intimacy, I’ve had a lot of conversations. He’s never brought that up before. And so for him to bring it up sua sponte to you, and then to answer to bluntly to the student’s question, you do wonder whether that heart transplant didn’t change his view of mortality and of Divine guidance.

JR: In the preparations for our interview session, there was only one subject that the former Vice President indicated he doesn’t like to pursue in any depth with his interviewers, and that was religion. And when you ask him why, he says it’s private. But even there, I interviewed, I should sort of give the broad outlay first, Hugh.

HH: Please do. We’ve got two segments. I want people to know how this came to pass, because it’s such an interesting concept.

JR: So I interviewed former Vice President, as I say, in the study of his Northern Virginia home a year ago for ten hours over three days. And it was structured as an oral history, and we covered his entire life in great depth, in each segment of his life, starting with his childhood relationships with his parents, his spiritual faith. We talked about his early Sunday School memories from his Methodist church in Casper, Wyoming, where he was raised, his denominational migrations over the years, and as I say, his innermost beliefs about his faith, that he is a Christian and believes in a life hereafter. We covered all the presidents that he’s worked for or with. And in the book, Cheney One On One, when you get it, you’ll see that, your listeners will see that he describes watching Ronald Reagan operate behind closed doors with lawmakers, and telling specific anecdotes about how he would turn around lawmakers who opposed what he wanted to do. And these are anecdotes about Reagan that are not even in Cheney’s own memoir. All the foreign leader that he sat down behind closed doors with, from Chairman Mao to Margaret Thatcher and Vladimir Putin, and of course, 9/11 and Iraq.

HH: Now the audience will not be surprised to hear me say this. If I could make one person president of the United States, I’d make Dick Cheney the president of the United States right now to deal with the world that we have, because when I sat down with him both on record, off, or in front of the audience, we were talking about King Abdullah, King Salman, and he knows everybody in the world, James Rosen.

JR: Sure.

HH: Isn’t that remarkable? He just knows everybody.

JR: And he’s still traveling. And he’s still plugged in. And he’s still dealing with our allies who express some grave reservations about the Obama administration to him. But in all of these areas of his life, I felt that he was more candid than I’ve seen him be before, and I think it’s, as you mentioned, it’s partly his health challenges that he’s dealt with that made him willing, with an interviewer like myself, who he knew was not going to proceed from an point of hostility but a point of respect, but nonetheless, someone who would be well-briefed, and who would press him where warranted. We were only supposed to do two hours a day for three days, for a total of six hours. And in the end, we went ten hours. And as you know well, Hugh, Dick Cheney’s not a man who wastes words or his own time very much. And so the fact that he extended the sessions by an additional four hours really was because he understood that we were creating a unique document of our times, and one that was contributing in an important way to his legacy and the legacy of the Bush-Cheney era.

HH: Yeah, well, I loved the way that you were very dogged. I go to Page 216 of James Rosen’s new book, Cheney One On One. “Is it true that you contacts Tom Keane shortly before the publication of the 9/11 Commission’s final report to complain to him about the report’s treatment of the shootdown order? Not that I recall. There’s an actual question attributed to you from that call-in. In the report? In Peter Baker’s book. Hmm, he says. That you said this is not fair. I’ve read Peter’s book. I don’t remember part of it.” And then you went back and read it to him. It’s just so Cheney. He’s so dry. He’s not like arguing with you. He just doesn’t remember it.

JR: You know, part of my, one of my chief aims in writing this book, Hugh, was to rescue this man from the realm of caricature, the caricature of Darth Vader. Although I’m very happy to benefit from the cross-promotional opportunities that surround us in this particular week, with the Force Awakens being out now, but Dick Cheney’s too important for caricature. This is a man who in a singular way stood at or near the center of American power for four decades, from the Watergate era right up through 9/11 and Iraq and beyond. And the fact is he is a flesh and blood human being. He enjoys a good joke. He’ll have a drink with you, and he will start talking if you know how to get him talking. But his career, his impact on the way we live our lives as Americans is too profound for us to consign him to the realm of caricature.

HH: Before we walk, just to remind people quickly why they want to read Cheney One On One, I want to ask you a personal thing. He brought Nelson along to my studio. Nelson was shedding. I’m still carrying Nelson with me wherever I am. Was Nelson the dog around when you were doing the interview?

JR: Yes, yes. Nelson is a gorgeous yellow Labrador. He sat in for several of the ten hours, and in fact, on the recordings from my interviews, you can actually hear the dog heavy panting from time to time.

HH: Okay, now I thought he was named for Nelson Rockefeller. In fact, he’s named for Lord Nelson. But it led me to ask him about Rocky. And it illustrates the point that you just made about he’s been plugged in for four decades. He regaled me with why Rocky hated him.

JR: Yes.

HH: And it, I don’t know if you covered that in this book, I don’t recall it.

JR: In the book, yes.

HH: The fact that Rocky hated him is interesting. It just is. It just is interesting. The guy is the vice president that’s known for fighting the war against al Qaeda, but he goes back all the way to the selection of the vice president in 1974.

JR: Well, and, it’s interesting on its own terms, but it also has a very substantive point to it, which is that when he was chief of staff under Gerald R. Ford, Dick Cheney was able to observe how the staff of the president and the staff of the vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, were largely estranged from each other. And that led to all kinds of problems, political problems, PR problems, not really a problem between Ford and Rockefeller, but nonetheless, at the end of the day, Ford did opt for a new running mate in 1976. When Dick Cheney himself becomes vice president in 2001, he’s determined to avoid that estrangement, and so he takes an unprecedented step, and he has key advisors on his staff, people like Scooter Libby, Mary Matalin and others, wear dual hats. They serve officially on the staff of the vice president, and on the staff of President George W. Bush. That was an effort at integrating the two staffs. And if it were true, as George H.W. Bush recently alleged to Jon Meacham, that Dick Cheney was engaged in empire building when he was vice president, then he wouldn’t have done that. He would not have afforded the president’s staff that kind of visibility into the operations of his own key staff members. So I think that that criticism by George H.W. Bush doesn’t withstand factual scrutiny.

HH: We’ll come back with James Rosen after the break. The brand new book by James is Cheney One On One: A Candid Conversation With America’s Most Controversial Statesman. But a question before the break, James, when Dick Cheney is introduced in Cleveland, what do you expect the delegates to do?

JR: Well, I think they’ll clap. I think Dick Cheney stands tall.

HH: I think he’ll get a long, standing, sustained ovation.

JR: Listen, Dick Cheney stands tall as someone who has been out there defending the Bush-Cheney legacy when George W. Bush has followed his father’s practice and abstained from criticizing his successors in the Oval Office. He headlines things like the National Republican Campaign Committee all the time. He’s very much in demand as a speaker and as a fundraiser, and I think I agree with you. I think he’s going to get a very positive reaction.

HH: And if there is one word that communicates Cheney’s history, legacy and embodies his presence, what is it?

JR: That word is believer, a believer in the United States of America. That’s how he himself said he wants people to see him when they pass his marble bust, which was just unveiled at the Capitol about two weeks ago, and that’s what he said on the occasion.

HH: I’ll be right back with James Rosen.

— – – – –

HH: Tell people why I played Old Friends there, James.

JR: I’m glad it wasn’t a coincidence, Hugh.

HH: It wasn’t.

JR: So very early on in the interviews, I was asking the former Vice President just about aging itself. When I interviewed William F. Buckley many years ago for his 75th birthday, I asked if, I talk about this sometimes when you’re interviewing folks who are getting on in years. And I cited Dick Cheney, and I’m the only person I the world who’s going to bring up Simon and Garfunkel to Dick Cheney. I said there’s that song, Old Friends, it’s about two old friends who are sitting on a park bench, and one says to the other how terribly strange to be 70. I said does it feel strange to you, sir, to be in your early 70s now? Or are you perpetually, in your own mind, like Jack Benny, 39 years old? And he said in essence, hey, after you’ve been through what I’ve been through with all those heart attacks and a heart transplant, no, it doesn’t feel strange to be 70. I feel very lucky to be alive.

HH: It’s a great question, by the way. It’s an out of left field question, and you cite Simon and Garfunkel, it doesn’t threaten, it’s just a very good interview. Here’s another great question. You know, I consider myself pretty good at this, Rosen, and so I read interviews very closely. On Page 228, you ask him Colin Powell again seems overly-concerned with public opinion and his image in the press. These were complaints that you were lodging in your book about him without necessarily dwelling too much on whether there was a similarity to the problems from one administration to the next with him and you. Perhaps I should simply ask you why you think the relationship wasn’t as effective, wasn’t as good, wasn’t as congenial, wasn’t the optimal the second time around. Cheney responds, I’m not sure, I’ve thought about it a lot over the years. And then you asked was it because he was in a different role as Secretary of State, and there follows a fascinating answer. That is a good question, Rosen.

JR: Thank you, Hugh.

HH: That’s really good.

JR: Hugh, I’ll tell you one quick, so now that we did three days, we ended the first day with me asking a question and him saying to me you know what, let’s save that for tomorrow. I want to think about that.

HH: Yup.

JR: We reconvened the second day. I didn’t go straight to it. I got around to it. Here was the question. Did Vice President Dick Cheney approach the business of presidential decision making in the Bush 43 administration in terms of the proper flow of paper and ideas to the president in ways that chief of staff Dick Cheney would have found unacceptable? And in essence, he then basically pleaded guilty to the charge that is made at great length in the most hostile Cheney book, Angler, basically saying were there times where I used my direct access to President George W. Bush in a time-sensitive way to get certain things done, and I basically short-circuited the system? Yes. And in essence, he said welcome to the NFL. It was remarkable, and he was basically admitting that he treated the presidential process the way that memos and ideas and people are supposed to get inside the Oval Office, there’s supposed to be a structure to that. And he’s saying, in essence, I treated, I used my access in a way to short-circuit that whole system in ways that when I was chief of staff, I wouldn’t have stood for.

HH: Now the, it’s a grim day today. Six American troops were killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber, James Rosen. The Vice President has been around war for a lot, and he takes his job very, very serious. I think he’s a serious man because of the fact he’s always dealt with issues of war and peace, and he will grieve the loss of those soldiers. He cares about the people that he served not as commander-in-chief, but as SecDef very much, as I’m sure he told you at length. He loved his time at the Department of Defense and being in the chain of command. The Vice President isn’t in the chain of command. But in terms of where the world is right now, I don’t think he’s surprised by where we are. He is very clear-eyed about evil in the world.

JR: Yes, and he regards that President Obama has presided over a retreat from American leadership that is seeing, that is being repaid in the wages of Benghazi, Ukraine, Yemen, Syria. And he feels as though Barack Obama in a variety of ways, including the sequester and the downsizing of our troops, our troop strength, is leaving future presidents badly ill-equipped, badly equipped to confront future crises. And as he told me in the interview, he said Barack Obama is the worst president in my lifetime. That got a lot of attention when it was first published, I published a small sliver of the transcripts in Playboy Magazine in April, and I was there in the audience, Hugh, at the White House Correspondents Association dinner when President Obama struck back at the contents of my interview with Dick Cheney. He said I see where Dick Cheney says I’m the worst president of his lifetime, which is interesting, because I see Dick Cheney as the worst president of my lifetime. Now there’s a joke there, but it also speaks to A) the enduring importance of Dick Cheney…

HH: Yeah.

JR: And B) how central a role Dick Cheney occupies in the intellectual universe of Barack Obama.

HH: Very much so. Last couple of questions, did you film these, James, or just tape them?

JR: I just did audio, state of the art digital recordings, and I think that enhanced the intimacy of the conversation.

HH: What will you do with them now?

JR: I’m in some discussions to sell them to a university library.

HH: Because it seems to me that Cheney, there’s going to be a Cheney center somewhere. Is it going to be at the University of Wyoming?

JR: That’s a good question. He has not decided, from what I understand, what to do with his vice presidential papers. But his papers from other presidencies are scattered around the country. There’s papers from DOD era at the Bush Library in Texas. There’s his Congressional papers. And that’s, by the way, when people come to study Dick Cheney, there is the neglected period of his life, the ten years he served as a Congressman and a member of GOP leadership.

HH: Sure.

JR: That’s when Dick Cheney wasn’t working for anyone else as a boss. That’s when he was free to act and vote his own conscience, and that’s where you see the essence of Dick Cheney in many respects.

HH: They’ll also have to get Lynne Cheney’s papers. Now I served briefly as her general counsel when she was at the National Endowment for the Humanities, so I always declare my conflict of interest. I greatly admire and respect the former second lady. Did you talk with her at all in the course of these interviews?

JR: Only, she came in and out of the room for one reason or another, but no, she wasn’t part of the interview process. However, I did interview her in the Year 2000 for an oral history of Dick Cheney’s life that I published in the late, great Talk Magazine, edited by Tina Brown. And I remember asking Mrs. Cheney at that time, first of all, that’s when she told me the actual correct pronunciation of the family name is Cheney, not Cheney.

HH: Right.

JR: But they’ve given up on policing that. I said Mrs. Cheney, it’s been suggested that of the two of you, you are the brains of the operation. Is that so? And she said well, I am the more assiduous academic.

HH: (laughing) You know, he’s got his doctorate. That must grind a little bit. And then finally, the girls, I think I may, you might be the only other person beside me, I’ve interviewed every Cheney, because Liz has had books out, she’s been on a few times, Mary had her book out, I had Mary on about her book. Have you interviewed all of the Cheney’s?

JR: No, no. I mean, I have a friendship with Liz Cheney. She was instrumental in helping this project along. I’ve had no dealings with Mary Cheney, but I am told from people who are friends of hers that she thinks highly of the book.

HH: And so how is Cheney One On One doing?

JR: It’s doing great. It sold out early on from Amazon. I think it’s in the top ten in terms of politics and the executive branch and the presidency and so forth. And I can just tell our listeners, Hugh, if you love Dick Cheney, or you hate Dick Cheney, and we know they’re out there, or if you’re younger, you’re a millennial, and you’re just starting to learn about 9/11 and Iraq and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, this book, Cheney One On One, will show you how this man operated at the supreme level he did for four decades in American life, how his mind works, and how profound has been his influence on our times.

HH: Don’t miss the opportunity. James Rosen, congratulations, Cheney One On One: A Candid Conversation With America’s Most Controversial Statesman, just in time for Christmas, in bookstores and via Amazon overnight delivery for two days. Go and get it, Cheney One On One by James Rosen. Stay tuned, America.

End of interview.

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