You see, looking back at those supposedly halcyonic days, we imagine a world in which former leaders did not criticize current leaders for the rest of the world to hear. They did it behind closed doors or to the current leaders' faces instead. The mantra was 'politics stops at the water's edge'.
Now, I don't seek to excuse Mr. Cheney's remarks, since I think they were honest, but ill-advised. I must, however, view them in through the modern lens. I wish that former leaders didn't criticize current leaders. Presidents have enough on their plates to worry about--they should be seeking advice from those who came before, not covering their butts in fear of them. However, Dick Cheney is not even close to the first to break the established tradition.
Knocking current leaders has been happening for years.
Doing some research finds that some presidents are better than others at keeping their opinions to themselves in public. Truman and Eisenhower notably were subdued in knocking their successors (though poor, poor Truman lived to see Richard Nixon--whom he loathed--elected twice). Nixon and Ford kept their mouths shut, both privately advising other presidents until they passed away. The one who really broke the mold to all hell? Jimmy Carter.
Say what you will about his humanitarian work (which is certainly noble), but if there is one person who has disgraced the office of 'former president' by mouthing off to the press about everything he thinks the current White House occupant is doing wrong, it would be former president Carter. You'll notice that most of my links are about him. It's not because I particularly dislike him (he was long gone by the time I was even born), but in searching for examples of ex-presidents criticizing the current one, he showed up constantly. Some--Reagan and George H.W. Bush most notably--seemed to disappear. Bush disliked Clinton's Monica deal, but he didn't go wailing to the Times about it. They both understood that the job is difficult and that you only can understand it when you've done it and, most importantly, that you deserve to be left alone, at the very least, by those who experienced it, too. Carter still doesn't get that.
It's a shame that Mr. Cheney couldn't keep what he thought in private. What is great, however, is what George W. Bush said when prepped to criticize Obama:
“He deserves my silence. I love my country a lot more than I love politics. I think it is essential that he be helped in office.”
I hope that this is a sign that 'The Fraternity' will continue. As long as ex-presidents Carter and Clinton (who I failed to mention but is obviously guilty of it, too--the guy wouldn't avoid cameras if Hillary's life depended on it) keep their mouths shut, it may turn out okay. In the future, their successors will call on former presidents Bush and (hopefully) Obama, knowing that even if in private they are excoriated, in public, they will earn a reprieve.
UPDATE: Condi Rice is, and has always been, a class act. On Jay Leno last night, she said that:
"I know what it's like to have people chirping at you when they perhaps don't know what's going on inside. These [in the Obama administration] are quality people. I know them. They love the country. And they won't make the same decisions, perhaps, that we did. But I believe they'll do what they think is best for the country and I'll give my advice privately and keep it to myself."