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Vice President Dick Cheney Friday called departing Donald Rumsfeld "the greatest Secretary of Defense in history."
Honest. That’s what the man said. Standing on the podium in a lavish going-away ceremony that seemed more like a coronation, Cheney heaped so much praise on Rumsfeld that I thought maybe I had missed the outgoing defense secretary’s ascension to sainthood.
Which raises an immediate question: If Rumsfeld is so damn good, why did Bush fire him the day after the election? If this man is the "greatest Secretary of Defense in history," then why did the President of the United States sack him in the middle of a war that Bush calls so important?
On the one hand, you could say Cheney is just playing nice at a going-away party and saying laudatory things about the man who just lost his job, but Cheney’s message goes much deeper. His comments were aimed not so much at the American people (Cheney doesn’t much give a damn about the American people anyway) but at a President who stopped listening to him and who has decided that he can run things on his own without a puppeteer called the Vice President.
The November mid-term elections did much more than just cost Republicans control of Congress or send Bush a message that he needs to find a way out of the morass called Iraq. It sent a divisional spike between Bush and Cheney that White House insiders say may never heal and one that could mushroom into a full-blown uncivil war.
Both Cheney and Rumsfeld are old-school politicians, joined at the hip since the Nixon and Ford days. Neither respect Bush. They consider him a political and mental lightweight but were content to live with such shortcomings as long as he left them alone to craft policy in Iraq, drive billion-dollar no-bid contracts to Halliburton and run things pretty much as they wanted.
But Bush needed a scapegoat after the November election debacle and Rumsfeld, the public face for most of the failures in Iraq, took the fall.
Cheney, by most accounts, went ballistic and fought in vain to save his friend. Bush refused to budge. Cheney tried political arguments, saying Republicans would be pissed because of the timing. Bush still refused to listen. Since the firing, White House sources say the two men speak to each other mainly through memos, carry on very little conversation in cabinet meetings and appear together in public only when necessary.
The test of whether or not Cheney has any influence remaining in the White House inner circle will come in January when Bush finally gets around to announcing his plans for change, if any, in Iraq. Cheney continues to push for more troops on the ground and a sustained effort in the failed war.
At this point, no one – including those closest to Bush – is sure what the President will do. Few expect him to follow any of the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. No one really expects him to announce any realistic timetable for withdrawal.
But others say he is cool to sending more troops into Iraq, a move that even he realizes will cement public opposition to the war.
Whatever happens, it may mark the first time in the Bush presidency that he will make a decision on his own. Yes, "the decider," the commander in chief who all too often mistakes stubbornness for resoluteness, will now have to see if his failing mental capacities are up to the job.