Cheney's two hats

March 31, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Whether from an "undisclosed secret location" or on the campaign stump, Vice President Dick Cheney has developed into probably the busiest, and possibly the most influential, occupant of his office in the country's history.

That is particularly so now that he has added to his hat as President Bush's chief policy counsel the traditional vice presidential bonnet as political hatchet man. In the White House's orchestrated character assassination of its talkative former chief counterterrorism expert, Richard A. Clarke, the usually shadowy Mr. Cheney has been out front and center.

The man who, in effect, nominated himself for the vice presidency in conducting the running-mate vetting process for Mr. Bush in 2000 has from the start of the administration been its strongman. He played a key role in assembling the Bush Cabinet and appeared so influential in the early days of the administration that when he suffered a mild heart attack, the gag around Washington was that if he died, George W. Bush would become president.

Mr. Cheney was not only a central figure in pushing for the invasion of Iraq but also the one who spoke with greatest certitude about the existence and readiness of weapons of mass destruction and ties between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Cheney's commanding role could be seen immediately in the wake of 9/11 in his direction of the administration's response, including his controversial order dispatching the president to the safety of Air Force bases in Louisiana and then Nebraska.

The vice president's own importance was likewise reflected in the subsequent decision to have him disappear to various secret locations for long periods of time, from which he took part in the highest-level White House deliberations via video communications. Once the 2004 re-election campaign began in earnest, Mr. Cheney also took on the time-honored -- or, in some cases, dishonored -- role of political attacker of the opposition, essentially and properly on matters of issue differences. But the Clarke eruption against the heart of Mr. Bush's claim to be an effective "wartime president" dictated a harder-hitting assault by the No. 2 man.

Two previous Republican presidential running mates, Richard Nixon with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and Spiro T. Agnew with Mr. Nixon in 1968, campaigned so negatively that some other Republicans tried, unsuccessfully, to have them removed from the GOP tickets in 1956 and 1972.

The efforts failed, and Mr. Nixon and Mr. Agnew went on to embellish their hatchet man reputations.

In 1976, Republican vice presidential nominee Bob Dole also earned the label in his slashing characterization of World Wars I and II as "Democrat wars." He never was able to live it down entirely despite reforming somewhat in later campaigns.

In the 2000 election, Mr. Cheney avoided the same rap. Indeed, after his civil and witty debate with Democratic nominee Joseph I. Lieberman, more than one editorialist wrote that it was too bad the candidates' objectives weren't switched, making them the presidential nominees.

As a result, no effort to bar Mr. Cheney from seeking re-election ever was considered, and Mr. Bush early on said he wanted Mr. Cheney to run with him again in 2004. Other Republicans with presidential ambitions for 2008 haven't worried very much about a second Cheney vice presidential term becoming a steppingstone to that presidential nomination in light of the veep's history of heart trouble, if not his age. He would be 67 as a candidate in 2008.

However, Mr. Cheney's reputation as a benign and soft-spoken politician, nurtured over more than 35 years in Washington as a White House aide, congressman and Cabinet member, has taken some tarnishing as he has emerged as power-wielder and campaign point man.

While it is not unusual for a vice president to serve as a lightning rod on the stump, to draw bolts to himself and away from the president, doing so this year is not likely to work. So intense is the anger and personal dislike of Democrats toward the president that there's enough of both to target Mr. Bush as well as his ticket mate between now and November.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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