Cheney is more than No. 2

March 12, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's vice president, once said his job was "to ring the White House bell every morning and ask what is the state of the health of the president."

Nobody cared about the health of the vice president. The first vice president, John Adams, called his position "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

How times have changed. When Dick Cheney was hospitalized with a heart problem, the news hit this town with near the force it might have been had President Bush himself checked in. The obvious reason is the unprecedented role Cheney has played in the new administration, from the transition to the present.

Democrats who question not only Mr. Bush's legitimacy but also his capacity to govern have seized upon Mr. Cheney's openly acknowledged role as the new president's leading adviser to suggest he is the "real" chief of state.

That impression was reinforced by the speed with which Mr. Cheney returned after what was said to be a "non-emergency procedure" for a man who had suffered four heart attacks. Mr. Bush was quoted as urging Mr. Cheney to resume his duties because he was needed.

Making more use of the vice president was a development a long time coming. The office for more than 160 years was regarded basically as a gold watch for loyal party service, its occupant reduced to ceremonial duties.

But that began to change with Richard Nixon and his globe-trotting assignments from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. President Jimmy Carter made his veep, Walter Mondale, a near partner in his administration, and that has been the case, more or less, since. (The more was Al Gore in the Clinton years and the less was Dan Quayle under the senior Mr. Bush).

Even if the junior Mr. Bush had not made the experienced Mr. Cheney the No. 2 man in his administration, in fact as well as in protocol, the office today is a far cry from the ticket to political oblivion it once was.

Ambitious politicians hid from it, but they generally regard it now as the prime stepping-stone to the presidency, or at least to their party's presidential nomination. Mr. Gore was the most recent example, but over the last 11 national elections, seven Republican presidential nominees and four Democratic presidential nominees first served as vice president.

Unfortunately for Mr. Cheney, because of his medical history he is not likely to join that company, even if he serves two successful terms as vice president, as he hinted the other day he would be ready to do if Mr. Bush chose to keep him on his ticket in 2004. He would be 68 by then, when his health would likely be even more of a question in voters' minds.

The increasing importance of the vice presidency confirms the wisdom of the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, providing for filling any vacancy in the office. Up to that time, seven vice presidents had died in office and one, John C. Calhoun, had resigned to return to the U.S. Senate.

In each case, the vice presidency remained vacant until the next presidential election. Nobody seemed to mind, with the office regarded with such little esteem and its occupant given so little of any consequence to do. Even after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, making Harry S Truman president with no prior knowledge of the development of the atomic bomb, 22 years passed before Congress acted to fill the vice presidency when vacant.

Since then, the 25th Amendment has been used twice. In 1973, Nixon nominated Gerald Ford to replace Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned rather than face impeachment on charges of accepting payoffs. In 1974, when Mr. Ford became president upon Nixon's resignation in the Watergate coverup he nominated Nelson Rockefeller as his replacement.

In light of Mr. Cheney's latest hospitalization, his health will remain a matter of press and public interest, especially if he continues to play the conspicuous leadership role Mr. Bush has assigned to him, and not only as it pertains to the conduct of policy.

With the vice presidency the obvious gateway to later presidential nominations that it has proved to be, Republican politicians with presidential ambitions can be counted on from time to time - discreetly, of course - to "ask what is the state of the health" of the vice president

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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