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Cheney Defines the Bush Administration, Again

Vice President Dick Cheney, left, makes a point during an interview with NBC's Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert, Sept. 10, 2006. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

Vice President Dick Cheney, left, makes a point during an interview with NBC's Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert, Sept. 10, 2006.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

At critical moments through the history of the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney has stepped out to set the theme and the tone. And despite all the talk of his diminished influence, he has just done it again.

On NBC's Meet the Press the day before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the vice president's performance was preamble for the actual day of commemoration, for President Bush's own Sept. 11 speech and for much more.

Refusing to back down about the invasion of Iraq, Cheney said he would do it again with nary a look back. He said yes, it was the right thing to do even if Saddam Hussein had neither weapons of mass destruction nor connections to Sept. 11 or al-Qaida.

Cheney did not dispute either of these crucial points. He simply said the administration had been misinformed on the weapons. The CIA director had told the president those weapons were there. "Slam dunk," he said. So the CIA director turned out to be wrong. So what? According to Cheney, the invasion was still the right thing to do. Never back down, never apologize.

In Cheney's almost casual response to the issue, the war's discredited justifications were shrugged off as irrelevant. In retrospect, Cheney said, the war was still justified because Iraq was "a clear threat." Never mind that the elements that supposedly proved it "a clear threat" in 2002 and 2003 were no longer evidence in the case.

With his customary sense of sang-froid, the vice president went on to say the world was better off without Saddam Hussein anyway. This he apparently considered obvious, despite the desperate situation in Iraq today — as described by U.S. military intelligence and even by generals in open congressional testimony. Cheney also seemed unperturbed in his judgment by the rapid ascendance of Iran, which has moved aggressively to fill the power vacuum in the Persian Gulf region.

Tim Russert, the matchless moderator of Meet the Press, is as tough an interrogator as there is on TV. But when he confronted Cheney with his own statements at odds with the facts, the vice president remained unflappable.

"I beg to differ," he would blithely say. Or, "Tim, I disagree." And once or twice, as Russert grew exasperated, Cheney could not suppress that signature smile that some would call a smirk.

It's not enough to say Cheney is the most powerful or most important vice president ever. The attitude he strikes is not just a part of this White House, it is definitional. Watching him with Russert on Sunday morning told you all you needed to know about the tack President Bush would take on Monday night.

And sure enough, the president sat in the Oval Office at the end of this dramatic day of national mourning on Sept. 11 and served up a speechwriter's gentler version of the same defiance Cheney laid out in plain language the day before.

Cheney's remarkable role began even before George W. Bush was elected in 2000. Not long after the relatively young governor from Texas had sewn up the Republican nomination, he entrusted to Cheney the process of choosing a running mate. The result was a seasoned, savvy Washington operator with years of high-level experience in Congress and the corporate boardroom. It was Cheney himself.

On the day of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Cheney was the man in the situation room in the White House, when President Bush was in Florida and, later, airborne for hours. Cheney was the man who gave the order to military pilots to shoot down hijacked airliners if they could. The president was in command, but Cheney was on site and in control.

A year later, in the summer and fall of 2002, Cheney was the first to articulate the administration's charge that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction he might share with terrorists. Cheney led the rhetorical charge that forced an either/or choice on Congress: Vote to authorize virtually any action against Iraq, or look weak in the face of international terror and weapons of mass destruction. Although the invasion of Iraq would not come for five more months, the White House insisted on a vote on its war authority in the fall of 2002, just before midterm elections.

It was a role the vice president would reprise in the fall of 2004. And lest anyone should think he would shrink from the task in this fall of 2006, he played his part again in full voice — just at the moment it counted.

Ron Elving co-hosts It's All Politics, a weekly podcast, with NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.