WASHINGTON — Some days, there’s just no forgetting that Dick Cheney is still the vice president of the United States. We’ve had a few of these recently, with Cheney traveling to Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East on what might be called a goodwill mission, if the person making the trip were not Dick Cheney.

Many startling comments tumbled from the vice president’s lips. His verbal jousting with ABC’s Martha Raddatz over the recent National Intelligence Estimate conclusion that Iran had stopped trying to build a nuclear weapon around 2003 is one scary discussion. Examining this back-and-forth, you cannot help but conclude that Cheney does not put much stock in the NIE, and considers there to be little, if any, difference between the ongoing Iranian uranium enrichment program and a weapons program. It is all eerily reminiscent of the lack of distinction Cheney made between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the band of Afghanistan-based terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. Of course, Cheney uses the interview to deliver the obligatory shake of his saber in Iran’s direction: “The president has made it clear that our objective is to make certain they do not acquire the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.”

Cheney also declared that it didn’t really matter that two-thirds of Americans think the Iraq war wasn’t worth fighting — “So?” the vice president responded. After all, real leaders in a democracy don’t give a hoot about what the people think and don’t follow those cursed opinion polls. Given a second chance a few days later to elaborate on his point, Cheney likened President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq with Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.

It takes one to know one, sort of.

Cheney is the most Nixonian figure in American politics since — well, since Nixon. You could say that he speaks with some authority about that era, marked as it was by abuse of presidential power, an obsession with secrecy and the continuation of a disastrous war in Vietnam that cost thousands of American lives and cleaved the nation into political factions that have never fully reconciled.

But it is not the discredited Nixon administration to which Cheney compares the current Bush tenure. He compares it to the brief presidency of the decent Ford. Cheney, who served as Ford’s White House chief of staff, correctly points out that Ford paid a political price for ignoring public opinion and granting Nixon a pardon for his Watergate crimes in the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation.

“The country was better off for what Gerry Ford did that day. And 30 years later, everybody recognized it,” Cheney told Raddatz. “I have the same strong conviction” that history will assess the Bush decision to invade and occupy Iraq in a similarly favorable light. In 30 years, Cheney said of Bush, “it will be clear that he made the right decisions.”

Some foreign policy scholars already view the Iraq misadventure as the single most costly foreign policy blunder in contemporary American history. Perhaps three decades from now the consensus will be different.

But that is not what strikes hard and deep in the jarring, even contemptible analogy that Cheney makes. The Nixon pardon was an entirely political decision, made for purely political reasons, and which cost Ford nothing but political support. No geopolitical catastrophe was set in motion when Ford decided that in order to govern, he had to remove the stain of Watergate from the front pages and the television screens.

No historical hindsight is needed to see that, unlike in Iraq, no lives were lost or bodies shattered by the Watergate pardon. No families were ruined emotionally and financially. No civilians were forced to flee their own country, or to become refugees within it. No thousands of prisoners were incarcerated without hope of charge or trial, and none were tortured.

Ford unquestionably had the power, as president, to pardon Nixon. No such right exists for Bush’s unconstitutional overreaching in Iraq and in the larger war on terror. No president has the unilateral power to imprison and detain people indefinitely — the Supreme Court already has said so. No president has the authority to conduct warrantless surveillance of Americans engaged in communications with people overseas; there was a law against this very sort of thing when Bush began his surveillance program.

In fact, the only similarity between Nixon’s Watergate era and the present one — a similarity Cheney inadvertently drew too well — is the cynicism and dishonesty at the heart of each.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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