Dick Cheney Recalls Knowing His Heart Was 'At an End'

With a new heart, Dick Cheney is back.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Cheney reflects on the "miracle" that a heart transplant promises to give him years of added life. And Cheney shows he is as confrontational as ever, taking on President Obama - and even Sarah Palin.

Cheney, 71, details how far back he has come. He remembers waking from weeks of heavy sedation after having a pump installed in his heart in 2010, a grueling operation that left him seeing his own mortality in the mirror.

"Two years ago this time I was on a respirator, heavily sedated. Just had a pump… installed on my heart because my heart had gotten so weak after six heart attacks and 30-some years of heart disease that it was, you know, it was at the end," he said.

"I lost 40 pounds. I was heavily sedated in the intensive care unit for weeks afterwards. I had pneumonia while I was in recovering from the surgery. And by the time I came out from under I looked in a mirror and what I saw was my dad shortly before he died. He was in his 80s," Cheney said.

That is why Cheney, in his first interview since his heart transplant four months ago, calls his recovery "nothing short of a miracle."

"I haven't felt this good in years," he said.

He doesn't know who gave him his new heart because protocol is to maintain anonymity, but the former vice president said there is a program that allows an intermediary to reach out to the donor family to see if they want contact with the recipient.

"At some point I would be, you know, certainly amenable to contact with the family. But we have not at this point exchanged any information," Cheney said.

If contact was made, Cheney said he would "express my gratitude for what's a magnificent gift. I can't think of a more magnificent gift than to be given additional years of life."

Healthy again, Cheney has resumed his love of fishing and his frank evaluations of politicians, including himself.

Cheney left office as one of the most unpopular vice presidents in the country's history, but the man known for his defiance of public opinion is vintage Cheney.

"I'm very comfortable with what I did, and why I did it, and how I did it," he said.

When asked if he had any regrets, Cheney replied, "Not really."

"You can't be judged, and shouldn't judge, people in those senior levels by the polls," he told ABC News.

He does not spare his fellow Republicans, calling Sen. John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his vice president running mate a "mistake."

Cheney said Palin had been governor of Alaska for two years at the time and "did not pass the test" of being ready to be president.

He also wryly described how the list of vice presidential candidates is used by officials up for reelection.

"I had a couple of calls from politicians who'd say, 'You know, it'd really help me in my race back home, Dick, if I was on the list.' Done. You're on the list," said Cheney. "Then somebody could go leak the fact that they were on the list."

Cheney helped vet candidates for Gerald Ford in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2000 that ultimately settled on Cheney.

"But that was the big list. It was easy to get on the big list. The tough part is the small list, the one that's really under active consideration," he said.

Cheney's harshest criticism, however, was for President Obama.

"I obviously am not a big fan of President Obama. I think he's been one of our weakest presidents. I just fundamentally disagree with him philosophically. I'd be hard put to find any Democratic president that I've disagreed with more," he said.

When asked if he thought Obama was "worse than Jimmy Carter," Cheney replied, "Yes."

Cheney gave Obama credited for killing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but added that "a lot of that intelligence that laid the groundwork for what ultimately led to the capture of Bin Laden [was] as a result of programs we had in place in the Bush administration."

He was sharply critical, however, of Obama's plans to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We should not be running for the exits. We should not be turning our backs on our friends in that part of the world," he said.