Vice President Dick Cheney said today that anyone who thought the wars waged during the Bush administration were conducted to protect U.S. sources of oil did not understand the problems President Bush faced before launching the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Speaking outside a sausage factory in this eastern Wisconsin town, Cheney addressed for the first time in recent weeks one of the underlying challenges that critics of the war in Iraq have posed to the administration: That Bush sought to remove Saddam Hussein to secure access to Iraqi oil for U.S. companies.
It is one of the most sensitive issues that the administration has faced in defending its decision, and it is particularly sensitive for Cheney, a former chief of Halliburton, an oil supply company.
A member of the audience during a question-and-answer session at the Johnsonville Sausage Co.'s plant said that Democrats "are saying the only reason we're over there is for the oil."
Cheney, denying that oil was a factor in the war decisions, replied: "Anybody who'd suggest oil" was the reason for the military action was missing the challenges the administration faced, in Afghanistan — which Cheney pointed out has no oil — and in Iraq.
He used the question to reiterate what has become his litany of reasons for the war: The refusal of Hussein to obey U.N. Security Council resolutions, the former Iraqi leader's use of chemical weapons against Iraqis, his waging of war against Iran and Kuwait, and the sanctuary the vice president said Hussein had given to Palestinian and Al Qaeda terrorists.
"We don't want to stay a day longer than necessary," he said of the U.S. deployment in Iraq.
"The world is a whale of a lot better off today because Saddam Hussein sits in jail," he added later.
Cheney spoke in the middle of a day-long bus tour down a 120-mile slice of eastern Wisconsin. He began the day in Green Bay and was heading to Milwaukee.
The war continued to form an undercurrent of the vice president's day.
Repeatedly, he was provided with reminders by audience members about the commitment of troops there. A school teacher at the Golden Basket restaurant in Green Bay said he had returned from a 14-month deployment with a civil affairs battalion, and an aging veteran in a white service cap encouraged the administration in the fight against terrorism: "Do not falter."
The territory Cheney covered largely supported George W. Bush's candidacy four years ago. Sheboygan County went for Bush over Al Gore by a margin of 54% to 43%.
The route reflected the campaign's effort to stir up the Republican faithful, in this case with Cheney's oft-repeated muscular warnings about the threat of terrorist attacks, frequent reminders of the dangers Hussein posed, and backward glances in the rearview mirror toward the disappearing taxes that Bush supported.
The centerpiece was the midday stop at Johnsonville Sausage. On the average day, bin after bin carrying 2,000 pounds of meat are brought in from slaughterhouses and turned into roughly 650,000 pounds of sausage and bratwurst.
Allen Nohl, a production line supervisor rattled them off: "Original, beer brats, five flavors of Italian, Polish brat, cheddar brat wieners, baloney in 12-inch diameter rings." Then there are the breakfast sausages: "Original, maple, honey and garlic, hickory, and cheddar."
Cheney toured the factory, where three flavors — New Orleans, smoked brats, and beddar cheddar — were being produced and wrapped in vacuum packages before being frozen.
A number of the workers, however, were outside, awaiting Cheney's talk. Nohl enthusiastically supports Bush, and did in 2000, he said.
But several workers in a back row, in T-shirts and jeans, stood silently when Cheney was introduced, their thumbs hooked in their pockets, refusing to applaud his introduction.
And Nohl, a veteran of the Vietnam War, acknowledged a concern about the fighting in Iraq: "I'm hoping it doesn't drag on like the Vietnam War," he said.
By traveling aboard a bus — albeit a luxury coach outfitted for the campaign with lounge-like seats and White House communications gear — the vice president was able to raise the Bush campaign's flag in an informal setting in small towns and cities.
At the same time, traveling with his wife, Lynne, and two grown daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, Cheney was able to present himself to voters — and local television cameras and news photographers — as something other than the hardest-edge of the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
His popularity ratings regularly fall below those of the president, and the campaign has taken pains to soften his image: He was accompanied at the Republican National Convention in New York last week by two granddaughters, and is routinely introduced by his wife — whose short remarks allowed Cheney to tease her that although they met when they were 14, she wouldn't date him for three years.
The trip took Cheney past the timeless scenes of rural America, and the 21st century signals of change: vast cornfields, bumping up against encroaching subdivisions, a small white church in a roadside hamlet, with cellular telephone towers hovering at the edge of town.
The state itself remains very much up for grabs in November.
Four years ago, Al Gore won in Wisconsin with 5,708 more votes than Bush, out of roughly 2.5 million cast. Recent polls indicate that the state is similarly divided this year.
Cheney began the day at the Golden Basket restaurant in Green Bay, keeping a balding but trim local icon, Bart Starr, the Green Bay Packers' quarterback from 1956 to 1971 at his side, a talisman bequeathing goodwill.
"I think some of you know him," the vice president said, by way of vast understatement.
And Starr, who later gave Cheney a private tour of the Packers' Hall of Fame, gave his blessing.
Referring to the slogan on Cheney's bus, "A Safer World, a More Hopeful America," Starr said: "I couldn't help but think of how privileged we are to be around this wise man.... It's a joy to be in his presence."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times