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Old Iron Ass gets more credit than he deserves

Former President George W. Bush, visiting Washington on Thursday for the unveiling of Dick Cheney’s bust in the Capitol, said he told his 91-year-old father, former President George H.W. Bush, about the occasion.

“Dad perked up, and he said, ‘Send my best regards to old Iron Ass.’ ”

 Many in the audience laughed. Iron Ass, slouched in his seat, forced a smile.

In the important new biography of the elder Bush by Jon Meacham, the ailing 41st president described his son’s vice president as “very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew,” and “just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East.”

The elder Bush ultimately blamed his son for letting Cheney prevail. This week, Bush the younger set out to mitigate the damage of his father’s confession. He showed up at the dedication ceremony for Cheney’s marble bust, and he joined a procession of Republican luminaries in praising Cheney.

It was a bold test of the premise that time heals all wounds. And as Republican officials, former and current, set about rehabilitating the image of a singularly divisive figure in modern politics, they had the assistance of a most valuable collaborator: Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden, the lone Democrat to speak, was a last-minute stand-in, replacing Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who begged off. Biden arrived 20 minutes late, but he effusively praised his predecessor.

"I can say without fear of contradiction there’s not one single time there’s been a harsh word in our relationship,” Biden said. “And that’s what I think is most desperately missing today in Washington, D.C. I don’t remember, Dick, you questioning anybody’s motive.”

No?

Just three months ago, Cheney opined that “the only way to interpret” President Obama’s Middle East policy, “and what his motives were was he really wanted to boost Iran’s position in that part of the world and make them the dominant force at the expense of our allies.”

Cheney earlier this year pronounced that “this president is willfully blind to the impact of his policies,” and that Obama “seems determined to leave office ensuring he has taken America down a notch.”

And, Cheney speculated, “if you had somebody as president who wanted to take America down, who wanted to fundamentally weaken our position in the world . . .it would look exactly like what Barack Obama’s doing.”

For a man who doesn’t question motives, Cheney, in his fiercely partisan post-vice presidency, does like to interpret intent.

Ceremonies such as Thursday’s are typically bipartisan, but at this one there was little pretense. On hand were many former Bush and Cheney aides — Andy Card, Rob Portman, Don Evans, Josh Bolten, Steve Schmidt, Scooter Libby, David Addington — and a smattering of conservative luminaries — Antonin Scalia and Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus — along with a host of Republican lawmakers.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the speakers, thought it on point to mention the freshly revisited racism of the 28th president, a Democrat: “You know, Woodrow Wilson has been involved in some bit of controversy lately.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan took on the challenge of arguing that the dour Cheney is “a really funny guy.” He cited, as evidence, Cheney’s cutting performance in a 2000 campaign debate against Democrat Joe Lieberman.

Bush, as usual, was full of smiles and laughs. He sat back, legs crossed. At his left, Cheney sat stooped, dour, feet crossed at the ankles, occasionally allowing a grin. Bush, in light-hearted remarks, joked that Cheney “didn’t spend much time speaking on the floor. He managed to convey a lot in a few words. Just ask Senator Leahy.”

This was a reference to the time Cheney, on the Senate floor, told the Democrat to fornicate with himself. Leahy (and other Democratic senators) were not in evidence in the hall.

Biden joked about the partisan pallor. “Thank you for letting me crash your family reunion,” he said.

But the sitting vice president was lavish in praising Cheney. “You have been a great asset to this country and the way you have conducted yourself is a model to anyone in high public office,” Biden said, at the end of a lengthy tribute to Cheney.

Old Iron Ass responded with a perfunctory, 24-word thank you to Biden: “He’ll be remembered for 44 years of faithful service in the Senate and the White House and we very much appreciate you being here.”

Biden deserved more from the man in marble. But you can’t get blood from a stone.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter: @Milbank.