Listening to President Obama and former vice president Dick Cheney give their respective national security speeches Thursday put me in mind of John Gray, author of "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus."
Different men, different planets. Or are they?
Obama, standing before the U.S. Constitution and speaking to members of the Judge Advocate General's Corps, was the calm voice of confidence, redeemer of reason. He spoke loftily of American ideals and invoked our better angels.
Reiterating his case for closing Guantanamo, voted down by the Senate a day earlier, he also said there's no guarantee that terrorists won't attack again or that Americans won't die as a result. But, we'll win anyway. How?
By being good people.
"Because the terrorists can only succeed if they swell their ranks and alienate America from our allies, and they will never be able to do that if we stay true to who we are; if we forge tough and durable approaches to fighting terrorism that are anchored in our timeless ideals."
Thus spake Venus.
And I thought: What a good man. This is what America needs.
Then came Cheney. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, he pulled no punches in his criticism of the Obama administration's security policies or in defending the Bush administration's.
His voice was also calm and reasonable, his remarks simultaneously sharp and blunt. Cheney said that he remains a strong proponent of enhanced interrogation techniques, which he said were used only on "hardened terrorists after other efforts had failed." The interrogations "were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do."
Cheney was especially forceful in criticizing Obama's "selective release" of documents on the interrogation program without also releasing the intelligence those interrogations produced.
"The public was given less than half the truth," he said. "The released memos were carefully redacted to leave out references to what our government learned through the methods in question."
Hail, Mars! I'm thinking: This is just what the nation needs. Someone who shoots straight (well, figuratively speaking).
So: Soaring, inspiring rhetoric on the one hand and gritty determination on the other. Two very different men, worlds apart in nearly every way. The old-timer with decades of experience and a shiv for a smile vs. the newcomer with a moonbeam in his eye. Which one is right? Is the answer only a matter of ideology or is there some larger truth therein?
Perhaps both are right in their own time and place, given their experiences and perspectives. From the relative security of hindsight, it is easier to say what we might have done differently. As Cheney put it: "Watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities."
It may be that Obama was simply wiser than all those other Americans who supported the invasion of Iraq. Maybe he is a man of greater moral character than those in the CIA and Justice Department who determined that enhanced interrogations were justified to prevent another attack.
Obama said it best: "There are no neat or easy answers here."
But it is also true that seven years ago, the burden of protecting the nation from another attack did not fall on Obama's shoulders. Since taking office, he has discovered the weight of that burden and tweaked his promises and policies accordingly.
Transparency isn't always in the national interest, he said Thursday. Obama sounded like George W. Bush or Cheney when he reversed himself on releasing photos of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that their release would inflame anti-American sentiment and further endanger American troops.
Likewise, Obama has reserved the right to order enhanced interrogation techniques should circumstances warrant. What would those be, one wonders? Perhaps a massive terrorist attack on American soil? Bloody right.
Yet, as Cheney said, Obama's team speaks "as if they have resolved some great moral dilemma" in how to get terrorists to talk. In reality, they've postponed the decision "while assigning a presumption of moral superiority to any decision they might make in the future."
Nobody ever said that Obama wasn't artful.
Whether Obama's worldview is the right one and Cheney's wrong may become clearer with time. We can all pray that Obama doesn't have to experience the revelations that occur in the White House bunker. But if he does, we might also pray that the man from Venus indulges his inner Martian just a little.