Cheney busy but invisible to public

Vice president stays in background since attacks of Sept. 11

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

October 06, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As the Bush administration grapples with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney is busier than ever.

He's plotting military strategy in White House war councils, twisting arms on Capitol Hill and serving as a reassuring presence at the president's side in meetings with foreign leaders, aides say.

One place Cheney is spending almost no time, however, is in the public eye.

Alone among senior administration figures, the vice president has been virtually invisible to the public as the government tries to shore up a sinking economy and rally support at home and overseas for a long campaign against terrorism. President Bush, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill have kept up a daily stream of public appearances in recent weeks.

Cheney has stayed far behind the scenes. By all accounts the most consequential vice president in history, he now also appears to be redefining what it means to be low-profile.

He has made no speeches and held no news conferences since Sept. 11. His lone television appearance, nearly three weeks ago, drew widespread attention to key decisions Cheney made in the minutes and hours after the attacks - and also produced reports, heatedly denied by the White House, that senior Bush aides felt Cheney was once again in danger of overshadowing his boss.

The man known as "the Sphinx" during his years in Congress professes to be amused by the new round of "Where's Cheney?" questions.

"Mystery man," Cheney growled good-naturedly to an adviser. "I like this."

Aides said the vice president has been engaged in constant planning since the moment the first jetliner hit the World Trade Center, though unlike Bush's office, Cheney's declines to provide routine information about his activities.

Occasionally, a detail slips out, such as his recent meeting with a group of outside economists about measures to revive the economy.

"His office hours have clearly lengthened," says Juleanna Weiss, the vice president's press secretary. "He's exercising regularly. He's still watching his diet."

His day begins with a whirl of White House meetings, where Bush and his top advisers plot their latest moves in a "war cabinet" that includes Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, among others.

A senior staff member says Cheney has been lobbying members of Congress, in person and on the phone, trying to gain support for anti-terrorism and other measures introduced by the administration since the attack. He has made unpublicized visits to the CIA and the Pentagon, where he served as defense secretary during the Persian Gulf war, meeting privately with rescue workers and with employees.

Beyond such spare details, a cone of silence descends, particularly when it comes to Cheney's decision-making role over the past 3 1/2 weeks.

According to a Cheney aide, Bush accepted Cheney's recommendation to name Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as the head of a new Office of Homeland Security. Cheney had been working on civil defense before the terrorist attack, though little progress had been made.

More important, several sources with ties to the administration say that Cheney, along with Powell, deserves credit for persuading Bush to choose a more cautious, and less sweeping, mili- tary response to the terror attacks, at least for now.

"Cheney is very careful about the use of force," says Brent Scowcroft, who worked closely with both men as national security adviser to Bush's father during the gulf war. "Here I think [Cheney and Powell are] probably together, and that's what I would have anticipated from their behavior in the past."

Analysts say the administration's decision to keep the public focused squarely on the president is a wise approach in times of national crisis.

"A crisis this immense seeks leadership, and that's got to go to the president and not the vice president," says Charles O. Jones, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, where Cheney did graduate work in political science.

If recent events have underscored Cheney's assets as Bush's No. 2 - such as his experience in national security matters and his reputation for steely calmness in a crisis - they have reopened old questions as well.

Concerns about his health re-surfaced after the Secret Service spirited the vice president away to Camp David, in the Maryland mountains, for several days as a security precaution. But those who have observed him at close range in recent days say Cheney seems energized.

His disappearing act has also prompted speculation that Cheney is being kept under wraps because of his performance during an hourlong interview on NBC's Meet the Press the weekend after the attack.

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