Interviewing Dick Cheney

Vice President Dick Cheney smiles as he leaves George Washington University hospital in Washington, Saturday, July 28, 2007 after minor surgery to replace the battery that powers a device monitoring his heart rhythms. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
By CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller
As I was escorted into his office in the West Wing of the White House, Vice President Cheney was seated behind a big desk cluttered with papers. It was very unlike the president's desk in the Oval Office, which is always swept clean of everything when reporters enter.

Cheney was in shirt sleeves. His suit jacket was draped on the back of the chair facing him from the left side of his desk. He didn't put the jacket on because this was a radio interview and no one would see how he looked.

On first glance, he seemed pale but he assured me he was feeling fine. Of course, two days earlier, he underwent "minor surgery" to replace the cardio-defibrillator in his chest. The device monitors his heart rhythm and dispenses a shock should it stop or develop and irregular beat.

Otherwise he seemed in good spirits and ready to engage in a hard-news interview.

It was a target-rich environment. Cheney hadn't done an interview in a couple of months — and much had happened to ask him about.

There were, among other issues:

  • the matter of the embattled attorney general,
  • the commutation — but not the pardon — of his former top aide, "Scooter" Libby,
  • the claim that he was not really part of the executive branch,
  • and those two hours and five minutes he spent a couple Saturdays ago as Acting President of the United States.

    Something about that last item was irresistible. It was a source of much idle speculation: What actions would Cheney take with the power of the presidency in his hands?

    President Bush transferred presidential authority by invoking the 25th amendment for the time he was sedated and undergoing a colonoscopy.

    "Did you take any presidential actions during that time?" I asked Cheney.

    "No," he said, but added, "I basically wrote a letter to my grandkids."

    He said he thought it would be a nice "souvenir" for them to have: a letter from their grandfather which he briefly served as the nation's Acting President.

    But was he tempted to take any official actions during that time?

    "No, I was not," he said simply.

    Of course, I asked him about the situation in Iraq and the U.S. strategy there, and got familiar answers about how it was "absolutely essential" that the U.S. and its allies succeed there.

    He couldn't say how long the surge in American forces would last. It would depend, he said, on the report in mid-September from the top U.S. commander there, Gen. David Petraeus.

    Would the president's strategy be any different if he were running for re-election next year? Cheney said he didn't believe it would be.

    Further, he conceded that the conduct of the war "may well" affect how Republicans fare in their efforts next year to retain the White House and win back control of Congress.

    And though both he and President Bush have been vilified for their handling of the war, Cheney insisted that was not a factor in the strategy.

    "He's made decisions because he thinks it's the right thing to do for the nation," he said of Mr. Bush. "He has not worried about the polls or what his critics may be saying about him."

    The one question that got a laugh out of Cheney concerned the squabble among the two top Democratic presidential candidates.

    Sen. Barack Obama last week ridiculed Sen. Hillary Clinton by calling her "Bush-Cheney Lite" for saying she would not be willing to meet in her first year in office with the leaders of North Korea, Iran, Cuba, or other rogue states.

    "I didn't think that was meant to be a compliment," said Cheney, "but it was an interesting line of attack."

    Cheney, like President Bush, leaves office in less than 18 months. He told me he has no second thoughts about deciding not to run for president himself. And he'll have no regrets about leaving public office in January 2009.

    He said he's been involved in Washington for upwards of 40 years — and "that's long enough."

    By Mark Knoller

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      Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.