Cheney plans full day's work

Cardiologist plays down worries about latest heart scare

March 07, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In Dick Cheney's well-ordered universe, Wednesdays are reserved for plotting national security with a trio of top administration officials. But not today.

The vice president was forced to cancel his regular weekly lunch with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice - not so that he could recuperate from his latest heart problem but because he is meeting with the visiting president of South Korea instead.

Cheney, who was released from the hospital yesterday after a procedure to clear a partially blocked artery, plans to return to work this morning and resume his full schedule as if nothing had happened, said Juleanna Glover Weiss, his press secretary.

Unlike President Bush, who has adopted a far more relaxed lifestyle than Bill Clinton, his immediate predecessor, Cheney is putting in long six- and seven-day work weeks at the White House.

Bush told reporters yesterday that Cheney shouldn't cut back on his workload "because he's needed. This country needs his wisdom and judgment."

Cheney's cardiologist has played down concerns about the vice president's condition, predicting that he will very likely "finish out his term in his extremely vigorous capacity."

But the latest health scare has put the spotlight where Cheney least wants it: on his role as the administration's indispensable man.

Hardly a day has passed in the last three months in which his hand hasn't been glimpsed in some key decision. Bush's willingness to delegate authority, coupled with Cheney's eagerness to grab it, has allowed critics to question who is really in charge.

"Broadly speaking, I'm not aware of any" more influential presidential adviser in recent history, says Haley Barbour, a former Republican national chairman.

"With Cheney around, Bush doesn't have to get involved in a whole lot of minutiae," added Barbour, a Washington lobbyist. "He's got more time to focus on important decisions than presidents like Clinton and Carter and former President Bush," who were more hands-on.

And yet, the precise nature of Cheney's influence - the way he exercises it and the extent of his reach - remains something of a puzzle.

Eager to dispel what he calls the "silly" notion that he is pulling all the strings at the White House, Cheney has gone out of his way to avoid publicity - something practically unheard of for someone in his job. His daily schedule, for example, has not routinely been made public, a departure from past vice-presidential practice.

Unplanned glimpses

Still, unscripted moments have provided a few glimpses behind the public-relations facade that every administration tries to erect.

One potentially revealing peek came last week, when the major network TV anchors and talk-show hosts were invited to a White House lunch several hours before the president spoke to a joint session of Congress.

Among those attending was CNN's Bernard Shaw, who was seated beside Bush and across from Cheney. As questions were put to the president, the veteran newsman observed that Cheney seemed to be providing cues to Bush.

"I noticed that the president kept looking at you," Shaw told Cheney in an on-air interview the next day. "And you were indicating your attitude, your feelings, about questions being asked," using body language, facial expressions and "your eyes."

Apparently caught off-guard, Cheney stammered that "we're - we're both Westerners. I know he's from Texas. I'm from Wyoming. There can be some connection there."

The vice president quickly added that he and Bush had been working on so many issues together that "I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't respond in similar ways to the same kinds of questions."

Cheney, a former White House chief of staff (under President Gerald Ford), functions as the most powerful member of the president's staff, say administration officials and others. (Cheney likes to refer to himself as the oldest staffer in the West Wing.)

Many specialties

At the same time, his background as a former defense secretary (under Bush's father) adds to his influence over military matters and international affairs, while his experience in running a major oil services firm during the 1990s gives him entree to the administration's allies in big business.

His experience as a leader of House Republicans, during his years as a congressman from Wyoming, has earned Cheney respect on Capitol Hill (he is the first vice president with offices outside both the House and Senate chambers). With the Senate divided evenly between the two parties, his tie-breaking vote - the only real power the Constitution gives the vice president - could turn out to be unusually important.

Around Washington, lobbyists say that a "go-to-Cheney component" has become essential to any campaign aimed at swaying administration policy. For members of Congress, a Cheney connection means added cachet with colleagues.

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