PHILADELPHIA — When I heard Dick Cheney's secretary had called to tell me that he wouldn't be able to meet with the Monitor's breakfast group at the GOP convention, maybe I should have sensed that something big was up. Only a short time before he had let me know that he was eager to be our guest and would soon work out the timing.
Anyway, if I could have put together what was happening - that this second phone call from Mr. Cheney meant that the searcher for the veep job had, himself, been tapped by George W. for his running mate and he, therefore, would be too busy with political activity at the convention to attend this press breakfast - I would have had quite a scoop.
Two days later I heard on TV that Cheney was changing his voting registration from Texas back to Wyoming and that this had sparked rumors that he was "the choice." Within a few more hours it was being reported from "authoritative sources" that President Ford's young chief of staff and President Bush's secretary of defense had been picked for the No. 2 spot on the Republican presidential ticket.
Will Cheney help Bush?
At a Monitor breakfast here in Philadelphia, GOP national chairman Jim Nicholson said pollsters had been calling the race very close just before Cheney was added to the ticket, but that now a new Gallup poll shows Bush leading Gore by 16 percentage points.
"We're calling it the Cheney bounce," Mr. Nicholson added.
In the week since Cheney was selected to run with Bush, he has been dissected thoroughly by the politicians and the press. But I can add a story that tells us something about his political savvy.
When President Ford came to the GOP convention at Kansas City in 1976, he was running some 30 to 35 percentage points behind Jimmy Carter. It was Mr. Ford's young chief of staff, Cheney, who prevailed on the reluctant president to challenge Mr. Carter to debate. He argued that it would ignite Ford's campaign; and it did. It must be remembered that Ford had ruled debating out because of how badly Nixon had fared in his 1960 first debate with Kennedy.
After Ford's convention speech, a fiery one which reached a climax with a ringing debate challenge to Carter, the gap between the president and Carter narrowed immediately. It was a horse race from then on.
One aspect of the Cheney persona that I would like to stress is how likable he is. Did you notice how difficult it was for Democrats in Congress to say negative things about Cheney when asked for their reaction about his veep selection? Like that Democratic leader on TV's "Crossfire" as he struggled to find something critical to say about a man who, quite clearly, he liked and admired.
Reporters like Cheney too; and he likes them. He had a way of arriving at our breakfasts - he has been to 21 - so inconspicuously that we were hardly aware he was with us. He slipped in and mixed with us reporters as though he were one of us.
Then there was the way he answered questions at the breakfasts, first as Ford's top aide at that Kansas City convention and then, later, as a congressman and then defense secretary - over a span of 16 years. You could ask him the toughest questions, even the kind that arouse anger from some politicians, and he wouldn't bat an eye. He never departed from that laid-back, civil way of dealing with everyone he's around.
That's it: Dick Cheney will contribute a large portion of civility to what already is one of the professed goals of a George W. Bush presidency.
Many observers have commented on how smart Cheney is. And he is! But I'm bemused by his flunking out of Yale and how that goes along with George W.'s mediocre record at that same university.
What we've got now, this new GOP team, are two fairly late bloomers, a couple of fellows who have had to find themselves in their post-college years.
My guess is that after a long day of campaigning on those days when they are sharing a platform or an event, Bush and Cheney will get together privately in one of their rooms and kick off their shoes and talk and talk. These guys are going to like each other.
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