An unusual duet

May 03, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The spectacle of Vice President Dick Cheney sharing equal billing with President Bush in their duet before the 9/11 commission, even if it had to be sung under wraps, was a remarkable elevation of the office of presidential stand-in.

Had the first American president been hauled before an investigating committee of his day to testify about his actions, George Washington almost certainly would not have agreed to bring John Adams along, nor would the investigators likely have wanted to ask his vice president anything.

It's a measure of how the office has developed in importance and function that the views and activities of the No. 2 man were being sought at all. The vice presidency was born as an afterthought of the founding fathers, with no vital duty beyond awaiting the death or disability of the No. 1.

With very few exceptions until recent years, presidents regarded their ticket mates with minimum regard, keeping them largely out of sight and out of responsibilities, and certainly not treating them as partners.

Thomas Jefferson, who had suffered as Adams' vice president, had nothing to do as president with his No. 2 man, Aaron Burr, who had tried to do Jefferson out of the top job.

Over the succeeding years, rare was the president who paid much attention to his vice president. Andrew Jackson was an exception because he gave the job in his second term to his campaign manager, Martin Van Buren, and subsequently boosted him as his successor.

It took an uncommonly assertive vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, to assume the Republican Party's heavy campaign duties for President William McKinley in 1900, in days when the top of the ticket customarily stayed home.

Franklin D. Roosevelt would hardly have shared the responsibility of speaking for his stewardship with any of his three vice presidents, nor could one imagine Dwight D. Eisenhower bringing Richard M. Nixon along to explain any of the doings of his eight White House years. Indeed, when Ike was asked at a news conference for "a major idea of his you had adopted," he replied: "If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don't remember."

It would have been equally hard to picture John F. Kennedy bringing Lyndon B. Johnson along, or Mr. Johnson sharing an interrogation with Hubert H. Humphrey, or Mr. Nixon with Spiro T. Agnew, or George H. W. Bush with Dan Quayle.

So it says a lot that the junior George Bush insisted on having Mr. Cheney at his side to face the 9/11 commissioners seeking answers about the inner workings of the White House before, during and after the worst attacks in history on the continental United States.

President Bush, who had declined at an earlier news conference to say why it was necessary that he and Mr. Cheney appear together, explained afterward that "I think it was important for them to see our body language, as well, how we work together." Perhaps he had in mind the chiding school teacher's criticism from presidential aspirant Rep. Richard A. Gephardt during the 2004 Democratic primaries - that the president "does not work well with others."

The White House may have erred in insisting that the meeting be private, because the commission chairman, former Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, said afterward that had the public seen and heard it, "I think they would have had a lot more confidence in our government."

Speaking of confidence, the White House didn't show much toward the trustworthiness of the commissioners, who with the prohibition against taping were permitted to take notes. According to The New York Times, their notebooks were taken from them afterward and "would be returned after being reviewed for classified information."

In any event, the public will have to await the commission's report, due in late July, to get its version of the Bush/Cheney duet, warbled only after months of resisting any appearance, separately or together. The arrangement may have satisfied the commission, but in light of the ground rules, many Americans will continue to wonder what exactly the president knew and when he knew it.

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

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