WASHINGTON — As I read that Vice President Cheney had told Iraqi opposition leaders that the Bush administration was determined to oust Saddam Hussein from power, I asked myself: Have we ever had a vice president so influential?
I don't think so. Vice President Al Gore used to sit across a lunch table at the White House once a week at a get-together with President Clinton when the two discussed policy. I was told that with the voluble Bill Clinton carrying the conversation there were few opportunities for Mr. Gore to get a word in edgewise.
But Gore was an active vice president, pushing his environmental agenda wherever he could and working to bring about more efficiency in the federal government.
Indeed, it's been a long time since Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president, John N. Garner disparaged his job with a remark widely quoted as: "It's not worth a bucket of spit." Garner, like all vice presidents before him and for years after him, too, looked upon their position as a nothing job. They were there, as they saw it, just to be available should the president die.
The story one usually reads is how the newly nominated Democratic presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, finally consented to his father's wishes to pick as his running mate Sen. Lyndon Johnson, a man whom he disliked and who was detested by brother Robert. But Johnson once told the Monitor's William Stringer that with Kennedy's call and his acceptance, Johnson felt he was sinking into oblivion.
Johnson was right. Kennedy kept Johnson traveling, doing secondary ceremonial activity. He was seldom invited into inner circle policy discussions when Kennedy met with his cabinet and top aides. And when he was he was ignored.
Actually, I think it was President Carter who first gave his vice president a truly useful advisory role. That was Walter Mondale whose experience as a senator and top Democratic political leader was truly leaned upon by Mr. Carter.
Since then, all presidents have, at least at times, brought their vice presidents into conversations on policy and planning. Also, since then, vice presidents like Mr. Mondale have usefully assisted the presidents they serve.
But, I cannot think of any other vice president who has been permitted to speak out on such a delicate, war-or-peace subject (one where usually only a president speaks out) as Mr. Cheney did the other day. Further, and this is important, Cheney's voice carries the power of a vice president who is being increasingly perceived by the public as a man who is President Bush's closest day-to-day adviser, particularly on the question of how to deal with the terrorists and Iraq.
There are even some critics, among Democrats and in the media, who are saying that Cheney has become or is becoming more of a president than a vice president. I don't think so. I think that a young president has simply been smart enough to know he needs, at least during his early years in the presidency, a man at his side who has had long experience at the top levels of government.
So in Cheney, he has President Ford's former chief of staff, who, after a distinguished career as a member of Congress, also served as the earlier President Bush's defense secretary during the Gulf War.
It is widely said that Mr. Bush is fortunate to have a man like Cheney at his side. True. But I must add: Any president would be fortunate to have a man like Cheney at his side.
Oh, yes, I'm quite aware of the question about whether Cheney had made millions from inside information as CEO of Halliburton when he sold his stock. Well, business writing is not my field. But Cheney wasn't dumping his stock. Indeed, he didn't want to sell his stock. But, against his desires, he had to divest himself of this stock to avoid, as vice president, any appearances of aconflict of interest.
The Dick Cheney I have known for years is an honorable man. Also, among the journalists I met with for years at the Monitor's breakfasts, Cheney was always looked upon with high regard. So as he came in to talk to the group 22 times over the years, he unvaryingly drew a big audience of reporters who knew that this was a wise man who would have something worthwhile to say.