Cheney's vice-presidential load is heaviest yet

As job rises in stature, so does public's interest in his health.

Dick Cheney's vast influence within the Bush administration is likely the result of both personal qualities and a rise in the stature of the vice presidency itself.

Only weeks into the Bush team's term in office, Mr. Cheney is routinely described as the most involved No. 2 in US history - as was Al Gore before him, and George Herbert Walker Bush before that, and Walter Mondale in the late 1970s.

No longer is the personality - or physical health - of the vice president unimportant in political terms. Increasingly, the nation's second-in-command is a president's key project leader and adviser-in-chief.

"Cheney is a senior adviser and counselor to the president in every possible way - building on a trend that has been growing in past years," says Alvin Felzenberg, a presidential scholar at the Heritage Foundation.

Cheney's activities and importance seem unlikely to be curtailed by his latest health problems. He was released from George Washington University Hospital yesterday, a day after he underwent surgery intended to repair a damaged artery in his heart. His doctors said the discomfort that led him to seek help is a common complication of medical procedures he has undergone in the past.

Doctors said there's nothing in the vice president's condition that would indicate an inability to serve out his term in a vigorous manner. "No work restrictions have been placed on the vice president, who intends to resume his schedule later this week," said Mary Matalin, counselor to the vice president, in a statement.

Still, this latest health episode, following his November hospitalization for a mild heart attack, his fourth, is likely to ensure that questions about Cheney's physical fitness for top-level government service will endure throughout his tenure.

This is a reflection not just of the vice president's personal history, but also of his personal importance. Cheney's boss so far has appeared to want him involved in virtually all issues that reach the Oval Office.

Cheney's portfolio

Energy? Cheney heads an administration task force that is developing a comprehensive national energy policy for release in November.

Foreign policy? Cheney chairs meetings of the National Security Council that don't involve President Bush himself. As a participant in the 1991 Gulf War, Cheney's advice was crucial in regard to Mr. Bush's decision to make air strikes against Iraq the first military action of his presidency.

The budget? Cheney was superviser of a "budget review board" that made the decision on appeals for more cash from Cabinet secretaries and other important administration officials.

Cheney's ability to influence Congress may be unprecedented. Any vice president serves as president of the Senate, able to break tie votes. But that power takes a particular importance when the Senate is balanced 50-50 between the parties, as it is today. And Cheney is a liaison to the House, as well. A former US representative from Wyoming, he has been allocated choice office space on the House side of the Capitol building.

"Gore was undoubtedly the most involved vice president up to his time. What's been impressive is the way Cheney has just lapped him," says Joel Goldstein, a law professor at the University of Saint Louis who has written extensively on the vice presidency.

Cheney's broad experience is one reason for his efficiency in office, say experts. He has been both an elected lawmaker, a top administration staff member (President Ford's chief of staff), and a Cabinet member (Secretary of Defense for George Herbert Walker Bush). That means he's seen the flow of power and policy from just about every angle.

Unusually, Cheney has already abjured any higher ambition. He's told staff and friends he won't run for president himself after the Bush administration is over. That means Washington power players with presidential ambitions - which is, well, everybody - do not have to warily regard the vice president as a possible future rival.

A job of stature

But another big part of Cheney's important government role stems from the fact that Americans no longer regard the vice presidency as a fit place to stash genial, party-serving hacks.

His influence reflects "the increase in power and influence the vice presidency has taken on in the last 50 years," says Alvin Felzenberg of Heritage, author of a recent journal article entitled "The Vice Presidency Grows Up."

The criticism heaped on Dan Quayle shows, if nothing else, that Americans now have relatively high standards for their second-in-commands. The phrases "Bush-Quayle" or "Clinton-Gore" were standard items of political discourse, in their time. But years ago no one ever spoke of Harry Truman and his vice president,, Alben Barkley, as "Truman-Barkley," says Mr. Felzenberg.

Television, among other things, has made the vice presidency more important by personalizing it. The demands on presidents' time have grown, leading them to welcome an important aide who can handle big jobs on their own.

Furthermore, Americans increasingly see the vice presidency as a presidential training ground. This is true both because of politics - Cheney aside, many veeps hunger after the top job - and the succession issue. As John Kennedy's assassination, and subsequent gun attacks, have tragically shown, the US vice president is truly only a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

If Cheney himself felt it necessary to step down, Bush would nominate a new vice president, who would then be confirmed by both the House and Senate.

Staff writers Dante Chinni and Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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