Dick Cheney was already going down in history as one of the most influential vice presidents ever. Now he’s taking flak for being one of the most vocal ex-VPs, too. Since leaving office, Cheney has gone from White House booster No. 2 to White House critic No. 1. Agree with him or not, however, he’s hardly an outlier: There’s nothing more American than ex-presidents and VPs slamming their successors.
While accepting a prize on Wednesday from the Center for Security Policy, Cheney criticized President Obama for “dithering” over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. “President Obama now seems afraid to make a decision and unable to provide his commander on the ground with the troops he needs to complete his mission,” he said. The White House quickly pushed back. “What Vice President Cheney calls ‘dithering,’ President Obama calls his solemn responsibility to the men and women in uniform and to the American public,” said press secretary Robert Gibbs. “I think we’ve all seen what happens when somebody doesn’t take that responsibility seriously.”
Cheney’s quickness in criticizing Obama—it was only March when he told CNN that the new president was “making some choices that, in my mind, will in fact raise the risk” of another terrorist attack—has drawn fire. White House adviser David Axelrod accused Cheney in April of not behaving like a “statesman.” Rep. Mike McMahon of New York deemed Cheney’s most recent comments “inappropriate. … For a former vice president to use that type of word [’dithering’] and criticize the president in that type of forum is certainly in my opinion unpatriotic.”
If that makes Cheney unpatriotic, he’s in good company. There’s a proud tradition of former executive-branch leaders disparaging sitting presidents. The most notorious example—the ur-ex-presidential critic—is Herbert Hoover. After losing the presidency to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, Hoover spent the next nine years railing on him. Like Cheney, Hoover was a conservative Republican. He thus believed that the New Deal insulted American values and that the Roosevelt administration “violated the principles that reach the very foundation of our nation and race.” Hoover quieted down after Pearl Harbor, when the country rallied around the president. But he returned to form under John F. Kennedy, whom Hoover called a socialist.
But Hoover wasn’t even the first. Presidential and vice presidential disputes stretch back to the founders. During the election of 1800, sitting veep Thomas Jefferson slammed sitting president John Adams—his own boss—as a monarchist. Adams, in turn, painted Jefferson as a revolutionary and atheist who would destroy the churches. (That was before 1804, when the 12th Amendment was passed, putting both president and vice president on a single ticket.) After losing the presidency in 1828, John Quincy Adams made a second career out of criticizing Andrew Jackson and pro-slavery Democrats from his post-presidential perch as a congressman from Massachusetts.
Some former White House denizens have despised their successors so much, they sought to oust them—even when the successor was their hand-picked choice. Teddy Roosevelt handed off the presidency to William Howard Taft, his secretary of war, in 1909, only to run against him in 1912. (That would be like George W. Bush coming back to campaign against John McCain in 2012, if McCain had won in 2008.) Roosevelt had soured on Taft, who he saw leading the GOP in a conservative direction. Roosevelt thus formed the progressive Bull Moose Party and ended up winning more votes than Taft—27 percent to Taft’s 24 percent—thereby swinging the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. “Roosevelt was my closest friend,” Taft tearfully recalled, according to a reporter’s account.
Jimmy Carter bears the mantle for most critical ex-White Houser of modern times. (A title he may soon share with Cheney.) From peanut farmer to peanut gallery, Carter has systematically undermined every president since leaving office. Soon after losing to Ronald Reagan, Carter criticized him for not actively pursuing the Camp David agreements between Israel and Egypt, over which Carter had presided. In 1987, both Carter and former president Ford condemned Reagan for his handling of the Iran-Contra affair. In 1990, Carter publicly opposed George H.W. Bush’s decision to use force against Iraq and personally urged United Nations member states not to authorize military action. Carter irked Bill Clinton before Clinton was even president: Clinton partly blames Carter for his failed gubernatorial re-election bid in 1980, after Carter decided to house 20,000 Cuban refugees at an Arkansas military installation. Both Carter and Bush spoke out against Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. And during the 2008 election, Carter declared that Clinton had “hurt his wife’s candidacy.” He saved his choicest words, however, for George W. Bush, whose administration Carter called the “worst in history.”
Vice presidents have been just as critical of their successor administrations—maybe even more so. Richard Nixon slammed President Johnson over Vietnam in the 1960s, only to mire himself further while in the Oval Office. FDR’s vice president, Henry Wallace, was so critical of Harry Truman that he ran against him on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. Former veep Walter Mondale spoke out against Reagan before challenging him for the presidency in 1984. Al Gore kept mum on Bush for seven years before penning an entire book ripping into him. Indeed, carping is often seen as part of the job of ex-vice presidents—after all, they may have presidential ambitions of their own.
Which is what makes Cheney’s bomb-throwing so confusing for many. It would be one thing if he wanted to be president, the thinking goes. But since he doesn’t, he should keep quiet and be a “statesman.” The lack of presidential ambition (unless there’s something he’s not telling us) leaves two possible motivations: A desire to preserve his own legacy and good-old-fashioned conviction. Given the tone and content of his statements—for example, he insists that water-boarding is not torture—many Democrats find this last explanation the most disturbing of all.
But the fact is, completely statesmanlike behavior is the exception more than the rule. Few modern ex-presidents and ex-veeps have kept entirely silent. Johnson didn’t talk much. George H.W. Bush mostly kept his thoughts to himself. And George W. Bush, perhaps the most criticized president in history, has been the epitome of post-presidential rectitude. His restraint may be the strongest sign that, after eight years, Cheney is no longer calling the shots.