George W. Bush speaks at unveiling of marble bust of Dick Cheney
WASHINGTON — Before making a rare return visit to the nation’s capital on Thursday, former President George W. Bush said he mentioned to his father that he would be attending a ceremony honoring his vice president,Dick Cheney.
“Dad perked up,” the younger Mr. Bush recalled, “and he said, ‘Send my best regards to Old Iron Ass.’ ”
Mr. Cheney and a roomful of admirers at the Capitol on Thursday laughed at the joke, a knowing reference to a new biography of the elder George Bush that quoted him criticizing his son’s vice president for being too hard-line. The younger Mr. Bush grinned at Mr. Cheney and then added, “That is indeed a badge of honor.”
Mr. Bush joined Republican congressional leaders, veterans of his administration and hundreds of others on Thursday to pay tribute to Mr. Cheney as his official bust was unveiled at the Capitol. Under the Constitution, the vice president serves as president of the Senate and since 1885 Congress has cast in marble the likenesses of those who held the position.
Mr. Bush used the occasion to embrace his former vice president despite the distance between them after leaving office amid various disagreements. The two have appeared in public together only a few times in the last seven years — at the groundbreaking and later opening of the Bush presidential library and at a party Mr. Bush threw last year for Mr. Cheney’s wife, Lynne Cheney, when she published a biography of James Madison.
Mr. Bush heaped praise on Mr. Cheney on Thursday. “For eight years, Dick stood by my side and always did what was right for our nation,” he said. “I could not have asked for a better vice president than Dick Cheney. He’s a good man who loves his country and really loves his family.”
Mr. Cheney returned the sentiment. “I worked for someone who I respected and liked without reservation,” he said. “He’s a man of great strength and also great gentleness. He has integrity, a sense of humor and utter lack of pretense.”
The former vice president also offered kind words for the elder Mr. Bush despite the criticism in “Destiny and Power,” the biography by Jon Meacham. “If you had to design an individual to serve as commander in chief during those times, it would look a lot like George H.W. Bush,” said Mr. Cheney, who was his defense secretary. “I was proud and honored to serve under him.”
No mention was made of Mr. Cheney’s controversial positions on waterboarding and the Iraq war, but then, it was something of a one-sided affair because Democrats stayed away. Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, was listed in the program as a speaker alongside Republicans like Senators Mitch McConnell and Roy Blunt and Speaker Paul D. Ryan. But Mr. Reid canceled after scheduling a Democratic caucus meeting for the same time.
The only prominent elected Democrat on hand was Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“I actually like Dick Cheney,” Mr. Biden said. “I have nothing but inordinate respect for you, Dick, and I mean that sincerely.”
Mr. Biden noted that after his son Beau died this year, the Cheney family reached out with condolences and contributed money to a memorial. Washington should not personalize political differences, Mr. Biden said.
“Dick and I can argue like hell about everything from foreign policy to domestic policy,” he said. “But if we went at each other in personal ways, questioning motives, there would be no possibility of reaching resolution.”
In addition to Mrs. Cheney and the Cheneys’ daughters, Liz and Mary, the event brought together well-known figures of the past administration. Mr. Biden jokingly thanked his predecessor “for letting me crash your family reunion.”
Beyond Mr. Biden, one of the few Democrats was Robert Barnett, the Washington lawyer who played Mr. Cheney in debate preparations for the Democrats in 2000 and 2004 before representing him in selling his memoir.
The bust, sculpted by William Behrends of North Carolina, captures the former vice president’s famously serious visage with just a hint of his tight-lipped crooked smile. Mr. Cheney pronounced it “superb” and told Mr. Biden, “You see, Joe? There’s something to look forward to.”
Mr. Bush said the bust would be “prominently displayed in an undisclosed location” and that his own “looked like Alfred E. Neuman” of Mad magazine. He said he never worried that Mr. Cheney could step in as president “if I were to get hurt by a bus or choke on a pretzel.”
He also teased Mr. Cheney about the time he cursed Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Democratic critic. “Although he didn’t spend much time speaking on the floor, he managed to convey a lot in a few words,” Mr. Bush said. “Just ask Senator Leahy.”
Referring to the unveiling of his official portrait at the White House, Mr. Bush said returning to Washington had its worries: “The last time I showed up here I was hanged in the White House. This time, I return to find my vice president getting busted in the Capitol.”