Rupert Cornwell: The bruiser back from the political dead and spoiling for another fight

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The venues, the demeanours, spoke louder even than the words. There in the National Archives, home of the 200-year-old founding documents that enshrine a nation's ideals, stood a young and newly minted President – forceful and limpidly eloquent, fixed on the future yet determined to cleanse his country of the shameful recent past inflicted on it by his predecessors.

Hardly though had Barack Obama sat down than the man widely regarded as the chief architect of that past began to speak.

Dick Cheney's forum was less grand, an upper floor auditorium of a think-tank barely a mile away. But the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is a potent symbol of the past too, the spiritual home of the neo-conservative movement that once seemed to run the country, where true believers theorised about a preventive attack on Iraq well before the second George Bush came to power.

If the 44th President is an optimist, who believes in compromise and the middle ground, and that good sense will ultimately conquer all, Cheney is the polar opposite.

And yesterday his bleak, Hobbesian view of the human condition was on full and familiar display.

If Obama has gravitas, Cheney is made of granite. For 40 minutes or so, he made the argument that in the war against terror, "there is no middle ground, there can be no compromise". Half measures," the former vice-president intoned, gravelly and sonorous,"keep you half exposed." There were no jokes, only caustic asides. A Cheney smile is another man's snarl.

Never, surely, have one American administration and its predecessor clashed as fiercely and explicitly as those of Obama and of George Bush and Dick Cheney. But then, never has one administration so utterly repudiated its predecessor.

For the moment, the man who actually sat in the Oval Office between January 2001 and January 2009 maintains virtual silence. In his one major speech since leaving the White House, Bush served notice that he would maintain the tradition that a president does not attack his successor, at least until a decent interval has elapsed. Instead, No "43" is to be found at his new home in an upmarket rock-Republican neighbourhood of Dallas, as usual keeping company only with true believers and embarking on the memoirs he hopes will set his reputation on the path to recovery.

But Cheney – arguably the most powerful vice president in US history, and the man who many believe was the real president in much of Bush's first term – has no such inhibitions. For weeks, he has been doing the rounds of mainly, but not solely, right-wing television talk shows, and giving speeches to suitably conservative audiences.

Suddenly the man from the dark side, the éminence grise who when in power was almost never to be seen, ensconced in that "undisclosed secure location" of his, has been everywhere, and in broad daylight to boot. Even more remarkably, the security-obsessed politician who wanted to keep the humblest report classified has turned into an apostle of openness: let the CIA and the government bring forth their most secret documents for all to see, showing that torture (or rather "enhanced interrogation techniques') worked, and had saved the country from other 9/11s.

Rebuttals are standard fare in American politics. After every State of the Union, indeed after every routine presidential weekly radio address on Saturday morning, the opposing party wheels out one of its own to present the other point of view. But usually the job is performed by a run of the mill, working politician. Yesterday, it was different.

Cheney's appearance at AEI (of which he is on the board of trustees) was scheduled well in advance. But when it emerged this week that Obama would make a major speech on the same morning, on why he was seeking to close Guantanamo Bay and to reverse the anti-terrorism policies so dear to the former vice-president's heart, it was plain this would be a rebuttal like few others.

Cheney put back his speech until the President had spoken. In the event, not a single cable TV pundit had time to utter a single word on Obama's words before a growling Cheney was at the AEI podium tearing his words to shreds. "My career is behind me," he said disarmingly, ignoring the fact that right now he is the nearest thing to a leader of the opposition that the Republicans possess. As vice-president, he been unusual in that he nurtured no higher ambitions, but "today I am an even freer man."

And few presidents or vice-presidents have lashed out so freely and so soon. Naturally, he and his former boss wished Obama's young administration success. But that was just a disclaimer. In the next breath he laid into the "phoney moralising" of his critics, and their "recklessness cloaked in righteousness," when they came out against torture. Obama's proclaimed intention of closing Guantanamo Bay was no better. He sneered at the notion of such liberal vanities as South Africa-style truth commissions to get to the bottom of the "torture" controversy. The work of the CIA agents who performed waterboarding had been "lawful, skillful and entirely honourable".

The question is why Dick Cheney has so suddenly and so uncharacteristically broken cover. One reason of course, is a reviled politician's yearning to "put the record straight". Cheney is even more unpopular than Bush; for most Americans he is a reminder of a recent and unlamented past. "Frankly, he makes me wince," said one senior Republican the other day, wondering how his party would ever regain power.

But Cheney absolutely and utterly believes his policies were right; their success, he argues, should be measured not by what happened, but by what did not happen – the fact that since 9/11, and contrary to almost all predictions, there has been no terrorist attack on US soil. In the process, he is causing more bother for Obama than any serving Republican.

Time on their hands: What next for the Bush neo-cons?

George Bush Now writing his memoirs, the former president is getting used to having time on his hands: he recently invited Jake Vilbig, 13, to his Texas home as a thank you for donating $1 to his 2000 campaign.

Donald Rumsfeld Though also penning a book, the former defence secretary has shied from publicity. Back in the spotlight this week after Iraq memos were leaked in which he used Biblical quotations.

Karl Rove As a TV political analyst, Rove remains an influential voice. But he is seen as a dinosaur by some young Republicans: John McCain's daughter Meghan said it was "creepy" that he followed her Twitter updates.

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