Captain of industry

July 19, 2002

USED TO BE, the vice presidency wasn't worth a bucket of warm spit. John Nance Garner came up with that lovely image after two terms served under Franklin D. Roosevelt, during which he did what vice presidents do -- went to funerals, dedicated lesser federal monuments, cast the rare tie-breaking vote in the Senate, and generally stood by waiting for something to happen.

So why, back in the summer of 2000, did another Texan, Dick Cheney, ever agree to step down as CEO of Halliburton to take the least prestigious job in Washington? Why did Dick Cheney, described by President Bush as "a fine business leader and a fine, experienced man," even consider such an inconsequential post? Why did Dick Cheney walk away from a job that paid $2 million a year, and that had allowed him to accumulate stock options that by the time he quit amounted to $40 million?

Surely it wasn't because Mr. Cheney knew something that no one else knew, because his defenders now argue that as CEO of Halliburton he knew very little indeed. Tricky accounting? That was for the minions to worry about. An asbestos liability problem that was about to blow up in Halliburton's face, thanks to the takeover of Dresser Industries that Mr. Cheney engineered? Not on the radar screen, at least not for a busy man whose primary job was to put the arm on Middle Eastern potentates for new oil equipment contracts.

And maybe that's why we still haven't heard from him; maybe he still doesn't know anything.

But just think back to the late spring of 2000 -- remember how Dick Cheney's first job for candidate George W. Bush was to find a running mate? He went all over the country, and he couldn't find anyone suitable. He had the entire Republican Party to choose from, and in the end the choice was -- Dick Cheney! It's beginning to look as though he really wanted that warm bucket.

Ethics dictated that the veep-to-be cash in his Halliburton holdings. So what ethics demanded, Mr. Cheney fulfilled. All those stocks and options -- surrendered to a greater good. All that cash -- to take their place.

Ethics, ethics, ethics. What a burden. Not too long after he left, Halliburton stock took up residence somewhere below the waterline. Now the Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into a Cheney-era accounting change by which the company projected that it would tally up millions of dollars of cost-overruns on its contracts, which it pre-emptively declared to be income. (Don't tell your electrician about that one; you'd like him at least to pretend that he's trying to hold costs down.)

Mr. Cheney was CEO of Halliburton from 1995 to 2000. Under his command, the company was like one of those old sailing ships running tea from China, pushed beyond its limits in high winds, springing leaks and snapping spars. All neglected for the sake of profit.

It didn't work, and today the ship is in serious trouble. But don't look to the captain; he jumped off two years ago. And then he -- wait just a minute -- he took all the tea!

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