Unleashing the Cheney factor

Joint 9/11 appearance with Bush highlights debate about V.P.'s role.

When President Bush and Vice President Cheney sit down together on Thursday for their long-anticipated meeting with the 9/11 commission, it will cap a week that has, like no other in Mr. Bush's presidency, been dominated by the White House's No. 2 man.

It was Mr. Cheney who used such red-meat language against Democratic presidential contender John Kerry in a speech Monday that the president of the host college publicly objected to "the content and tone" of the vice president's remarks and offered Senator Kerry a similar speaking engagement.

It is Cheney who is at the center of a long-anticipated Supreme Court case, argued Tuesday, over his energy task force - and the breadth of the zone of privacy in which the executive branch of government may operate. Cheney has long advocated restoration of the White House's powers to pre-Watergate levels.

But it is Cheney's joint appearance with the president Thursday that has reignited most fully the question of exactly how powerful a No. 2 he is. Political observers agree he is, hands down, the most powerful vice president in history, with crucial input in the central issues of the day, including the war on terror and in Iraq.

Democrats have seized on the White House's requirement that the two men talk to the 9/11 commission jointly (rather than separately) as evidence that Cheney is Bush's ventriloquist, and that after three-plus years on the job, Bush is still not up to the task. The issue of Cheney's role - shadow president or just a helpmate with unprecedented influence? - has reached almost metaphysical levels of speculation.

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who knows Cheney from his days on SMU's board of trustees, sees two spheres of opinion on the vice president - the "elite" Washington view and general public opinion. While pundits and the press focus on the wider tableau of the Washington power structure, including Cheney's role, the public is more focused solely on Bush.

The new bestseller on the Bush White House's runup to war with Iraq, "Plan of Attack," by investigative reporter Bob Woodward, characterizes Bush as clearly in charge - no doubt a key reason the Bush campaign website recommends the book. But for those watching events daily, no one account is likely to sway everyone.

"What the Woodward book did was to get rid of the cartoon imagery of how the two of them interact, the idea of the little diminutive Bush sitting on Cheney's knee or being unable to talk while Cheney drinks water," says Professor Jillson. "That caricature is still in the elite mind-set, not so much in the public mind-set. It probably never was in the public mind quite the way it was for the people who follow this thing day to day."

Cheney, in many ways, fulfills the traditional role of vice president. In the reelection campaign, he is the attack dog, going for the jugular against probable opponent Kerry while the president takes the high road. At his appearance Monday at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., Cheney criticized Kerry's national security record at length, concluding: "The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample grounds to doubt the judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security."

Cheney also serves regularly as an emissary to Bush's conservative base, delivering, for example, a pungent speech to abortion foes five days before Sunday's women's march on Washington. He assured the dinner of the National Right to life Committee that the administration would keep fighting on behalf of "the weakest members of our society," referring to the unborn. By having Cheney keep the base happy, Bush can focus on appealing to centrist voters.

On national security, Cheney's place at the table in so-called "principals" meetings is another example of how the vice president has carved out his role as a central adviser. While it has been standard procedure over the past 30 years for the vice president to be the last person in the room with the president after an important meeting, analysts say that with Cheney, the level of influence in unprecedented. This is, in part, because of the decades of experience Cheney brought to the White House in 2001, having served as a member of Congress and in executive branch roles such as White House chief of staff and Defense secretary.

"This is an unusual vice president," says Jim Walsh, an international security expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "We said that about Mondale and Gore, too. But this is Mondale-Gore squared, particularly in issues in national security. He's an independent force in security and military policymaking."

Bush, of course, came to the White House from the Texas governorship and after being a political operative during his father's presidency. He brought little foreign expertise to the table. All of this reinforces the notion of some that Bush needs Cheney at his side when he faces the 9/11 commission Thursday.

SMU's Jillson maintains that while Bush may be perpetuating the image that he needs a "babysitter," logic would say he doesn't. Bush has been in office for three years, plenty of time to climb the learning curve of the president's national security duties, particularly post-9/11. "The conclusion I reach is that they just want to be very certain that they support each other in terms of describing events similarly, remembering them as close to identically as possible, so no one can say, 'See, these guys have contradicted each other and we need to look into it further.' "

Of course, Jillson adds, the average voter's interpretation of the joint appearance will probably track with how he or she views Bush in the first place: If you support him, the joint appearance is fine; if not, it's a sign that Bush isn't up to the job.

Faye Bowers contributed to this story.

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