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Bush considered dropping Cheney from 2004 ticket, says new memoir

Peter Baker
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President George W. Bush considered dropping Vice-President Dick Cheney from his 2004 re-election ticket to dispel the myths about Mr. Cheney's power in the White House and “demonstrate that I was in charge,” the former President says in a new memoir.

The idea came from Mr. Cheney, who offered to drop out of the race as the two men ate lunch one day in mid-2003. “I did consider the offer,” Mr. Bush writes, and spent several weeks exploring the possibility of replacing Mr. Cheney with Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, then the majority leader, before opting against the switch.

“While Dick helped with important parts of our base, he had become a lightning rod for criticism from the media and the left,” Mr. Bush writes. “He was seen as dark and heartless — the Darth Vader of the administration.” The President suggested that he resented the caricature that Mr. Cheney really controlled the White House. “Accepting Dick's offer would be one way to demonstrate that I was in charge,” he writes.

But in the end, Mr. Bush writes, “the more I thought about it, the more strongly I felt Dick should stay. I hadn't picked him to be a political asset; I had chosen him to help me do the job. That was exactly what he had done.” Mr. Bush wrote that he trusted Mr. Cheney, valued his steadiness and considered him a good friend. So, “at one of our lunches a few weeks later, I asked Dick to stay and he agreed.”

To be published next week

Mr. Bush discloses the episode in a new book, “Decision Points,” to be published next week by Crown and obtained on Tuesday (November 2) by The New York Times. The book and the accompanying media tour will be Mr. Bush's first major foray into the public arena after nearly two years of public silence. His re-emergence coincides with the political resurgence of Republicans who were poised to make substantial gains in Tuesday's (November 2) midterm elections.

The book could help Mr. Bush define his legacy in more favourable terms after leaving office with some of the lowest approval ratings in modern times. With his successor, President Barack Obama, now mired in his own troubles and facing voter repudiation, Mr. Bush's circle hopes the public will come to view the former president more sympathetically over time. But in keeping with his desire not to complicate Mr. Obama's stewardship, Mr. Bush says almost nothing about his successor's actions other than to praise him for sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Like his father, Mr. Bush chose not to write a traditional birth-to-Oval Office autobiography but instead selected 14 major decisions, or clusters of decisions, that shaped his life and presidency, like the moment he quit drinking and his handling of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

For the most part, Mr. Bush offers a strong defence of his presidency, declaring that his decision to invade Iraq was the right one because “America is safer without a homicidal dictator pursuing” biological or chemical weapons and “the Iraqi people are better off with a government that answers to them instead of torturing and murdering them.”

At the same time, he offers a more expansive self-critique than he did while in office, expressing regrets for his slow response to Hurricane Katrina, his acquiescence to reducing troops in Iraq after the initial invasion and his decision to nominate his friend and lawyer, Harriet E. Miers, to the Supreme Court. He had “a sickening feeling” when he learned there were no banned chemical or biological weapons in Iraq and said “cutting troop levels too quickly was the most important failure of execution in the war.”

He also provides his first extended account of the internal debates that shaped his time in office. He recounts that intelligence reports in mid-2002 suggested that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, had a biological weapons laboratory in northern Iraq and prompted a sharp debate about whether to bomb it immediately. Mr. Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urged him to attack, while Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, convinced him to wait.

On his father and Mr. Cheney

But it is his relationships with two men, his father and Mr. Cheney, that come through in intriguing slices. For all the speculation about the elder Bush's view of his son's handling of Iraq and other matters, Mr. Bush reports that the 41st President advised him at Christmas 2002 that if Saddam Hussein would not comply with U.N. disarmament resolutions, “you don't have any other choice.” The two also exchanged faxed letters of support on the day the younger Bush ordered the invasion in 2003.

Mr. Cheney clearly pushed Mr. Bush toward war. The former President writes that his Vice-President “had gotten out in front of my position” with an August 2002 speech dismissing the prospect of further inspections and says he ordered Ms. Rice to call Mr. Cheney to rein him back in.

At one point during their private weekly lunch, Mr. Cheney questioned whether Mr. Bush would follow through on the threats against Mr. Hussein. “Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?” Mr. Cheney demanded.

The Vice-President also disagreed with Mr. Bush's decision to fire Mr. Rumsfeld after the 2006 mid-term elections with the Iraq war going badly and pushed the President to pardon I. Lewis Libby, the Vice-President's former chief of staff who was convicted of lying in the CIA leak case.

While he had earlier commuted Mr. Libby's sentence, Mr. Bush, in his final days in office, asked two lawyers to review the case and meet with Mr. Libby. Both reported back that they could not justify overturning the conviction. The President wrestled so much with the decision in his final weekend at Camp David that his wife, Laura, finally told him: “Just make up your mind. You're ruining this for everyone.”

When he decided against a pardon, Mr. Cheney lashed out at him in private. “I can't believe you're going to leave a soldier on the battlefield,” the Vice-President told him.

“The comment stung,” Mr. Bush writes. “In eight years, I had never seen Dick like this, or even close to it.” He worried their friendship was fractured but writes that it eventually survived the dispute. — © New York Times News Service

The book and the accompanying media tour will be George W. Bush's first major foray into the public arena after nearly two years of silence.


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