NEW ORLEANS — Not retirement, not a recent heart transplant, not even a trip to the Big Easy could persuade former Vice President Dick Cheney to lighten up for an evening.
Instead, Cheney used his speech Tuesday at a fundraiser in New Orleans to elaborate on a deeply pessimistic interpretation of recent world events, warning in grave terms that the confluence of rogue states, nuclear proliferation and Islamic radicalism will pose an ever-increasing risk to the United States.
During his remarks at the National World War II Museum, Cheney never mentioned President Barack Obama by name, but leveled more or less the same critique that he has in recent interviews, criticizing the president for cutting the military budget and pulling back in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The danger of the connection developing between the terrorists, on the one hand, and the providers, the possessors of nuclear technology, grows day by day,” Cheney said, addressing a group of local dignitaries that included former Sen. John Breaux, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Mary Matalin, a conservative pundit and former Cheney aide.
The potential for nuclear war with Soviet Russia, Cheney said, has been replaced with the “likelihood that at some point, one of those terrorist organizations will get their hands on a deadlier weapon than has ever before been used against the United States, and when they do, 9/11 will seem like a relatively small event.”
Cheney’s assessment capped the evening at a $10,000-a-couple fundraiser to benefit the museum and the Wounded Warriors Project, a group that helps injured veterans readjust to civilian life.
Matalin, who once served as Cheney’s spokeswoman and legal counsel, introduced him with a string of anecdotes meant to soften the “Darth Vader” image that has stuck with him since he left office.
She recalled talking with Cheney after his famous shooting accident in 2006, getting confused by the hunting jargon and thinking it sounded like a plumbing problem.
“Well, I flushed a cubby and I sprayed Harry and I peppered him pretty good,” she remembered him saying, but added that Cheney intentionally left out the “exonerating detail” that his friend had walked into his path.
Still, Cheney offered no indication that the fierce criticism he has attracted over the past decade for his role in America’s recent wars has altered his thinking, or that his health struggles have kept him from remaining deeply engaged with the types of foreign policy issues that defined the presidency of his former boss, President George W. Bush.
The evening turned on recollections of Sept. 11, 2001, often portrayed as the moment that launched Cheney into his controversial advocacy of expansive presidential powers and an aggressive approach to heading off potential security threats abroad.
Before Cheney spoke, Navy Lt. Kevin Shaeffer, of the Wounded Warrior Project, described the moment when he was “slammed to the ground by a thunderous shock wave” inside the Pentagon on 9/11, badly burned over more than half of his body and given a 50/50 chance of surviving by one of the nurses at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Cheney recalled the same surreal hours, being whisked from his office to a bunker beneath the East Wing of the White House and then on to the first of several “undisclosed locations,” which turned out to be the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland.
More than a decade later, Cheney warned, “We must not lose sight of the fact that it’s still a very dangerous world.”
“I hear people talking about, well, Iraq has gone on too long, Afghanistan has gone on too long, we’re going to bring the boys home and stop all this foreign adventure stuff,” he continued.
“Terrible, terrible idea.”
He mentioned the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in North African states, North Korea’s unpredictable new leader and the expanding real estate available in unstable countries for terrorist training camps of the kind that spawned the 9/11 attacks.
“There was a time certainly back in the ’30s when America could sit safely behind its oceans and you had something of a decision to make about whether or not you got involved,” he said.
“That is an illusion now.”