WASHINGTON — Facing his lowest approval ratings ever and increasing scrutiny about the secrecy with which he operates, Vice President Dick Cheney is making the media rounds this week unapologetically backing some of the White House's more controversial actions.
In interviews Tuesday on CNN's "Larry King Live" and Monday on CBS Radio, Cheney backed embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He defended President Bush's commutation of former vice presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence for perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice. And he said invading Iraq was "the right decision."
"Al is a good man, a good friend, in a difficult assignment," Cheney said of Gonzales, who's been faulted increasingly by senators of both parties as incompetent and untrustworthy.
Cheney took aim at critics of Bush's handling of the Iraq war and the war on terrorism, telling King that time will prove them wrong.
"I think when the history is written that, in fact, it will reflect credit upon this president and his administration," he said.
Cheney's office described this week's interviews as part of a regular White House effort to highlight Bush's Iraq war strategy, noting that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates also have been doing interviews.
But Cheney' sessions struck some independent experts as unusual because he typically reserves lengthy interviews for conservative talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and other media outlets that his office considers friendly.
"The appearances may be an initiative on their part to appeal to a more mainstream audience, which once upon a time he was good at," said Joel K Goldstein, a Saint Louis University law professor and the author of "The Modern Vice Presidency." "He either wants to say something to an audience other than the base or he wants to be able to say he's reaching out to beyond the usual suspects."
The interviews come as Cheney's popularity has reached its lowest point since he entered the White House. A Gallup Poll earlier this month found that only 30 percent of Americans approve of how he's handling his job, down from 34 percent in March. His job-approval rating among Republicans was 57 percent, also the lowest of his vice presidency. Only 12 percent of Democrats approve of him.
Experts attribute the decline to a recent spate of bad publicity over the commutation of Libby's sentence, Cheney's assertion that he's exempt from a 2003 presidential executive order on classified materials because he's not part of the executive branch and congressional probes into whether the White House exerted influence to alter scientific findings to support its policies.
Cheney shrugged off his fading popularity Tuesday, saying it goes with being in the political arena.
"But if you wanted to be liked, I should never have gotten involved in politics in the first place," Cheney told King. "Remember, success for a politician is 50 percent plus one; you don't have to have everybody on board."
Hours before the King interview aired, Democrats on the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing to find out whether Cheney's office had secretly intervened five years ago to prevent irrigation water from being shut off for farmers in California and Oregon. The shutoff had been an effort to protect endangered fish.
The Washington Post reported last month that Cheney had had a clandestine hand in the Klamath River basin crisis, and that his interference may have contributed to the die-off of 70,000 salmon, causing a fishery disaster from Portland, Ore., to Morro Bay on California's Central Coast.
"This committee invited the vice president to appear today," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. "I will not pretend to be surprised that he declined our invitation. But I am obliged to express disappointment at the difficulty we have in trying to learn the truth and conduct oversight over an agency and an administration that have made secrecy and lack of accountability hallmarks of their tenure."
Lea Anne McBride, Cheney's spokeswoman, declined to comment in response, saying she hadn't seen any materials or heard any testimony from the hearing.