A vice president-elect with 'Big Time' clout

Perhaps one good measure of a man is the nicknames bestowed on him. If so, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney is soaring high.

In the 1970s, Mr. Cheney's Secret Service-assigned handle - "Backseat" - captured the below-the-radar style of the young White House chief of staff. Now, President-elect George W. Bush's sobriquet for him - "Big Time" - refers partly to a campaign gaffe, but also to Cheney's evolution into a major Washington player and a key influence on the Bush team.

Indeed, some in Washington are whispering that Big Time is upstaging his boss - and that his unusual degree of power could scramble White House lines of authority, sowing confusion among presidential staff.

Yet it's understandable, say others, that the five-time White House transition veteran would shine during this period. But when it comes to domestic policy and the campaignlike part of governing - using the bully pulpit and making a hard sell to the public - he may well revert to his "backseat" role.

For now, though, his Washington connections are key. "Fortunately for Bush, Cheney has an exceptionally thick and full Rolodex," says American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein.

Indeed, Cheney's connections and influence are seen everywhere these days - giving rise to talk that he's CEO to Bush's Chairman of the Board. Most people around Cheney probably suffer from something like Rolodex-envy.

Take, for instance, his ties to congressional leaders. He is a longtime friend of House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. He was a fellow House leader with Trent Lott of Mississippi, who's now Senate majority leader. And, perhaps more important in this era of forced bipartisanship, he has ties to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

He's also close to the three men rumored to be up for Defense secretary. Paul Wolfowitz had a strong working relationship with Cheney at the Pentagon. Gov. Tom Ridge (R) of Pennsylvania and former Sen. Daniel Coats (R) of Indiana served with Cheney in the House of Representatives.

All these connections have netted Cheney major influence, especially during the setting-up-a-government period. "He's very important in the process of it all," says Martha Joynt Kumar, head of the White House 2001 Project, which studies transitions. "He's very important in setting up the process - and making sure the president is protected."

In fact, it was Cheney who recommended that his fishing buddy, former Secretary of State James Baker, lead the Florida recount effort. Bush agreed with Cheney, despite the Bush clan's distrust of Baker, whom they partly blame for the elder Bush's 1992 defeat.

Cheney was reportedly a big voice in sinking the candidacy of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia for Defense secretary. As a senator, Mr. Nunn torpedoed confirmation of the elder Bush's nominee for Defense secretary, John Tower. Perhaps more important, Nunn was a strong voice against the Gulf War, during which Cheney was Defense secretary.

Cheney even arguably had an indirect role in his boss's rise to power. As President Gerald Ford's chief of staff, he recommended then-Republican Party chair George Bush for CIA director. That post was a key stepping stone in the elder Bush's rise to the presidency. And the father's name helped the son succeed.

Some observers say there's a danger Cheney will become so powerful that he'll disrupt the regular White House power flow, making for a disorganized executive branch.

Recent history offers relevant lessons. In the early Clinton White House, with Vice President Al Gore being so powerful - and with Hillary Clinton taking an office in the West Wing - there were, many say, too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen.

The prospect of a super-powerful Cheney worries some Democrats, too, who remember his ultra-conservative voting record in Congress. Likewise, journalists recall chafing under his ultra-strict management of the media during the Gulf War.

But some think he'll settle into a role as a quiet fixer for the new president. Several things hint at an important - but lower-profile - role.

* He's widely considered to have no political ambitions of his own - and will perhaps be the first vice president since Nelson Rockefeller not seeking to replace his boss.

* Having been in so many key positions - chief of staff, Cabinet secretary, and a congressman - he knows how to avoid getting entangled with people in those power centers.

* He'll be the first vice president in decades to actually use his designated office on Capitol Hill. As president of an evenly divided Senate, he'll likely be kept very busy there, which could trim his face time - and thus power - at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

* Much of today's presidency has to do with using the bully pulpit to build public support. It's essentially a full-time campaign. That's not a role Cheney relishes. "He's just plain uncomfortable with campaigning," says a former staffer, who asked not to be named.

In the end, Cheney's widely acknowledged political acumen, and his Tonto-like loyalty to those he serves, augurs well for him being one of history's most-powerful vice presidents - yet one who isn't marching into the spotlight. In the end, he may well strike a balance between being "Backseat" and "Big Time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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