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Voices

The new tricky Dick

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / June 5, 2009
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I love Dick Cheney, mainly because he represents everything liberals despise. He is secondhand smoke, "24", God-fearing (as opposed to God-tolerating) Christianity, and global-warming denial all rolled into one. I don't think Cheney brakes for small animals, and I don't think he cares much about saving the whales.

Who is Dick Cheney? He is the trickster of world mythology, the wily coyote of Indian - sorry, Native American - tales, the clever and dissembling monkey or jaguar of African folklore. The trickster is "smaller in stature and strength than his opponents," according to Encyclopedia Britannica, "but much cleverer and always well in control of the situation. He is ruthless, greedy, and a glutton and often outwits his opponent through a calculating suaveness combined with sheer lack of scruples."

The trickster is a disturber, a questioner and, yes, a liar, who refuses to play by the rules. The rules say that Cheney, the cashiered vice president of an unpopular former regime, should be puttering around a golf course, or holed up with a right-thinking hack from the Washington Times penning a self-exculpating memoir. But no. Cheney is speaking truthiness to power. And power's discomfiture is showing.

Last month witnessed the battle of the Thursday speeches, when both Cheney and President Obama expatiated on national security. Speaking inside the National Archives, Obama took a swing at Cheney the torturer: "There are those who think that America's safety and success requires us to walk away from the sacred principles enshrined in this building." Not far away, at the American Enterprise Institute, Cheney waxed unrepentant: "In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists."

Game on!

The battle recommenced this week when Cheney addressed the National Press Club. I have watched the tape twice, and it is clear that Cheney was simply having too good a time. He was smiling, chuckling, lashing out at his favorite targets - the Obama administration, Richard Clarke, The New York Times, our "allies," whom he clearly regards as pusillanimous wimps - all the while rewriting history in front of our very eyes. "They wouldn't call me Darth Vader for nothing," he told the audience with a glint in his eye.

The cynics, "who are often right," in Russell Baker's memorable phrase, point out that Cheney's polemics are far from disinterested. There is serious interest on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in trying him and other Bushies for war crimes, for authorizing the use of torture. "I don't believe we engaged in torture," Cheney says, adding: "If I had it to do it all over again, I would do exactly the same thing. I'd be just as tough and aggressive as I could to make certain that those individuals . . . who were prepared to kill thousands of Americans to achieve a political objective got what they had coming to them."

So rather than wait for the subpoenas, Cheney is taking the fight to the enemy, meaning the commander in chief of his own country. What about the bogus attempt to tie Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks, he was asked at the Press Club? That was George Tenet's idea, he now says. Both the CIA director and the State Department said Saddam was in the terrorism game, according to Cheney. "That's not something I made up."

Cheney especially delights in the administration's difficulties in closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison, "a fine facility," the former vice president calls it. After promising to shutter the prison, Cheney observes, they "didn't have a clue as to how to proceed, and now they're having trouble because they're having to come up with a plan of some kind." A former congressman, he knows that elected officials are taking a dixie on relocating Guantanamo prisoners. As for our nominal allies, "our friends overseas, who oftentimes have been critical of us for having Guantanamo, holler at us to close Guantanamo, but not in my backyard."

Every time Cheney yaps, Obama feels compelled to respond. Wrong on the facts, the president told National Public Radio after Cheney's latest outing. Wrong on some of the facts, but not on all of the facts. That's the unsettling power of the trickster, who is far from finished with his mischief. I suspect he's just getting started.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.