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Obama, Cheney Speeches Reframe Debate on Security Policy

After dueling speeches from President Obama and former Vice President Cheney on security policy, columnists and analysts weigh the shape of the debate on detainees and other issues.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Judy Woodruff takes the story from there.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    For some analysis of today's two speeches, we're joined by Steve Coll, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy institute in Washington, he's also a staff writer for the New Yorker; Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus; presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, scholar-in-residence at George Mason University; and Byron York, chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner.

    Richard Norton Smith, to you first. I don't remember anything like this. How unusual is it to have a just-stepped-down vice president challenging a president to have dueling speeches like this?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University:

    Well, it's highly unusual, not so much in the criticism itself as in the timing of the criticism. Your point about just-stepped-down goes to the heart of this.

    Fifty years ago, when the Bay of Pigs disaster took place, a 100 years — 100 days — it may have seemed like 100 years — into the Kennedy presidency, former Vice President Richard Nixon stepped forward and praised the president, lent support, as did his boss.

    There is a sort of gentleman's code that exists in which former presidents and vice presidents withhold their fire for a certain indeterminate period of time.

    On the other hand, that code works both ways. The incoming administration is also expected to hold its fire, in effect, regarding its predecessors. And so, in the case of Dick Cheney, who's always been a unique vice president — this was a vice president from the day he was chosen when he made it clear he would not be a candidate for the presidency himself and was therefore liberated in many ways from the political constraints and restraints that ordinarily govern a vice president, it's hardly surprising that, as a former vice president, Dick Cheney would be breaking some of the rules that he broke politically as a vice president.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, Steve Coll, what we've figured out today — or went back and looked at — is that the vice president's speech was scheduled first and it was only a few days after that the president scheduled his speech. I mean, it's almost as if the White House thought it might benefit from a contrast.

  • STEVE COLL, New America Foundation:

    I think you're right. I think they do welcome the contrast. And the president, though not directly, implied why in his speech.

    He pointed out, for example, that the last nominee of the Republicans, John McCain, disagrees with the vice president about these enhanced interrogation techniques, as the vice president calls them and John McCain referred to them as torture.

    I think, in general, the White House regards the former vice president as isolated from the mainstream of his own party, never mind from the electorate, and that the president benefits from the tonal as well as the substantive contrast.