Obama, Cheney Duel Over National Security

President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney each presented a vision about how best to keep America safe. The two men gave speeches about a mile and 30 minutes apart Thursday, but at times it seemed as though they were debating. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank talks with Steve Inskeep about what the two had to say.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Let's hear more now about dueling speeches yesterday in Washington, D.C. President Obama and former Vice President Cheney each presented a view of how to keep America safe. They spoke in different venues about a mile apart, one after the other. And at times, it sounded like a debate.

President BARAK OBAMA: I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: All the zeal that has been directed at the interrogations is utterly misplaced. And staying on that path will only lead our government further away from its duty to protect the American people.

INSKEEP: The Washington Post referred back to a famous boxing match known as the Thrilla in Manila and called this confrontation a Thrilla Near the Hilla. Dana Milbank writes the Washington Sketch column for the paper. He joins us now. Welcome.

Mr. DANA MILBANK (Columnist, Washington Post): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we should mention we're also near the hilla. Great headline. Great headline. I don't want to ask you who won this, because that's not really what it's about. But who gained an advantage here between these two?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, on paper, it shouldn't have been a contest at all. You've got President Obama, hugely popular, 60 percent support. Cheney, shall we say, not so popular.

INSKEEP: Not 60 percent.

Mr. MILBANK: Not quite, maybe 25 percent. I think the remarkable thing is that Cheney's been able to stay in the match, if you will, here. And I think that's because when it comes to these issues, fear can trump sort of the cerebral, logical debate that Obama's trying to do.

Cheney said the word 9/11 27 times in his speech. He used the word attack 19 times. And that really gets at the visceral nature of this.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you're being critical of Cheney by saying he's using fear. But it sounds like there's - no. He would say no. I'm using fear. I want you to be afraid.

Mr. MILBANK: Absolutely. Obama in his speech said beware the fear mongers. And I think Cheney was unapologetically mongering fear as he came out there and saying without apology that America is being made less safe. And I think he's sort of laid a predicate for saying, you know, if, God forbid, there is an attack in the future, we'll say hey, we told you so. We knew this guy was, you know, unleashing dangerous terrorists on the city of Cleveland.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about style points here, the different tones between the two people.

Mr. MILBANK: Well, you know, Obama was, as always, very cool, very cerebral. He was a little bit rattled, I think, on the issue on a couple of points. He referred to his defense secretary as William Gates, making him the Microsoft chairman rather than the actual Pentagon secretary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILBANK: Had a little mishap with the teleprompter, got off track there. But he was using, you know, sort of legal phrases like clear and compelling reasons, where Cheney, the visuals were miserable. I was there over at the conservative think tank where he was speaking. And he's, you know, glum and glowering and really growling and having problems, sort of coughing up some phlegm as he's talking. But he was just delivering one angry statement after another, at times even going after - forget about Obama. He's even going after the New York Times.

INSKEEP: You know, Dana Milbank, it seems that if you're the president of the United States and someone is going after you the way that Cheney has been criticizing the Obama administration, you have a number of choices, one of which would be to simply loftily ignore the other guy and expect and hope that he eventually goes away or shoots himself in the foot.

Why do you think the administration decided to take him on directly? The president knew Cheney was giving this speech. They went and scheduled their own speech the same morning on the same topic.

Mr. MILBANK: Right. There are two schools of thought on that, and one is that he should've ignored it. It would've been a much lesser issue in the public view. But they want to say why are we giving this guy a free ride? Let's use the president's popularity to take him on directly.

Mr. MILBANK: But, you know, it certainly was good theater. In fact, I think they could, you know, have a couple of rematches like Ali-Frazier, sell tickets and we'll retire the federal debt while we're at it.

INSKEEP: Seems you're kind of enjoying the fact that Dick Cheney is back.

Mr. MILBANK: Oh, absolutely. I think they should rent out the Verizon Center for the next one.

INSKEEP: Dana Milbank, thanks very much.

Mr. MILBANK: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He reports for the Washington Post.

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