WASHINGTON — The criminal indictment of the vice president's chief of staff, a rare moment in White House history, does not appear to have derailed Dick Cheney's career - or even his routine.
The vice president has replaced the aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, with two other longtime assistants and seems prepared to continue his role as a central player in the Bush presidency, particularly on foreign policy and the Iraq war. Late last month, even as the CIA leak probe crescendoed toward a deadline, the vice president was reportedly lobbying actively for a plan that would exempt CIA employees from a bill banning abuse of prisoners.
As a political actor, his value as a campaigner for Republican candidates in tight races has diminished, analysts say. A Gallup Poll taken after last Friday's indictment of Mr. Libby shows for the first time that a majority of the public (51 percent) views Cheney unfavorably. But as a shaper of policy, Cheney remains central, observers say. Whether his credibility has suffered a blow in the Oval Office is not likely to be known for some time.
Since the indictment, the tight-lipped team in the vice president's office has behaved true to form. Cheney's longtime friends and former associates can't imagine that he is conducting himself any differently from usual. The word that comes up most often is "even-keeled."
"Even his daughter once mentioned that she had never seen him upset in his whole life," says former Rep. Bob McEwen (R) of Ohio, who served in the House with Cheney. "He went through Watergate as chief of staff of the White House, and shortly thereafter he had to put together a presidency. He went through a war as secretary of Defense. He has such a wealth of experience."
On a personal level, the indictment was hard on Cheney's office. "People were very upset," says Charles Black, a Washington lawyer and veteran of Republican presidential politics. "They all felt close to Scooter personally, but I think by [Monday] afternoon, they were going about their jobs, doing what they had to do."
The longer-term impact on Cheney and his office remains to be seen. It's possible, if Libby's case goes to trial, that the vice president will be called to testify as a witness, since he and Libby had allegedly discussed the core issue: the employment of Valerie Plame at the CIA, and the emergence of her husband, Joe Wilson, as a vocal critic of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. In 2002, former Ambassador Wilson traveled to Africa at the behest of the CIA to investigate whether Iraq had tried to buy uranium, presumably for nuclear weapons, and concluded it had not. But the claim appeared in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address anyway.
Libby has been charged with obstructing justice, perjury, and making false statements to FBI agents, but not the underlying allegation of knowingly exposing the identity of an undercover CIA employee. The indictment alleges that Cheney himself had discussed Wilson's trip and Ms. Plame's employment with Libby, as had other officials in the vice president's office. Though Cheney himself is mentioned only three times in the 22-page indictment, the document presents a picture of the vice president's office as the hub of activity in dealing with Wilson's criticism. Aside from Libby and Cheney himself, other Cheney staff members were called to testify in the case, including the two men who have replaced Libby, David Addington and John Hannah.
Mr. Black does not expect a Libby trial to damage Cheney, but he notes, trials can be unpredictable. "No one's accusing [Cheney] of doing anything wrong," says Black. "Who knows how long it will be before a trial takes place. Meantime, people will be fair-minded."
The latest Gallup Poll shows the indictment has not eroded Mr. Bush's already-low approval rating, still at 41 percent. A majority of the public (56 percent) says the Libby controversy is an "isolated incident" rather than a "sign of low ethical standards" in the Bush White House. Fewer than half of Americans believe Libby did anything illegal.
As the 2008 presidential election nears, Cheney's status in the White House may come under greater scrutiny. Republicans typically have an "heir apparent" in mind well before primary season, and with Cheney off the table as a '08 contender, the GOP is in the unusual position of facing a wide-open nomination race. Given Bush's premium on loyalty, it would be uncharacteristic for him to ask Cheney to step down early to establish a clear heir for '08. Still, Cheney's controversial and active role in pushing for an invasion of Iraq, now an unpopular war, could raise questions about his future.
"He's a survivor, that's for sure," says Paul Light, a scholar at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. "He was intimately involved with the decision that dumped Nelson Rockefeller from the ticket under [President] Ford, and he ought to be thinking a little about that these days. I don't think he's anywhere near that kind of crisis, but Cheney's greatest vulnerability is hubris."
The vice president is a smart man, and not vulnerable to the loss of one staff aide, Professor Light adds. "At the same time, he's not invulnerable, he's not Superman. He has to be cautious about where these trails lead."
Without a presidential contender operating from inside the administration, will the way the White House positions itself for the rest of term be affected? Observers tend to think not.
"Even a sitting president who has a vice president running for office doesn't have a great impact on the way the administration behaves," says Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican aide and now a political independent at the Democratic Leadership Council. "The goal of the next three years is to repair the president's popularity and resolve the situation in Iraq to some decent outcome. ... If Bush leaves office in January 2009 with Iraq in chaos, nothing else will matter."
And that, Mr. Wittmann adds, is a large part of Cheney's portfolio.