Behind the plan, the VP who's everywhere

For clues to Dick Cheney's influence in Washington, consider two things. His lunch schedule. His office space.

Tuesdays, the vice president dines with Senate Republicans on the Hill. Wednesdays, he chews over policy at the Pentagon with the president's national security team. Thursdays, it's a private hour-long lunch with his boss in the West Wing - no staff present.

To accommodate this peripatetic schedule, he has to have a space to park his briefcase. In addition to the ceremonial office in the Old Executive Office Building, he has spacious quarters steps from the Oval Office. But he's also dusted off the vice president's office in the Senate, and moved into a second Capitol Hill hideaway just off the House floor - unprecedented for a vice president.

The point is, Mr. Cheney is ubiquitous. He's not just overlord of the administration's new energy plan; he's everywhere, and into everything. Presidential observers say he's involved in White House business to a degree not seen before, and, because of the uniqueness of the circumstances, not likely to be seen again. In fact, some say Cheney shouldn't be regarded as vice president alone.

"The mistake with Cheney is to treat him as a vice president, when he's operating well beyond the envelope of what a vice president could expect of the job," says Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution here. "I like to think of Cheney as an amalgam of four or five jobs that I don't think we're going to see again anytime soon."

Chief of staff. Vice president. Head lobbyist. Mentor to a commander in chief with very little Washington experience. That's four jobs right there, in which Cheney is serving George W. Bush exceptionally well, analysts say. His ability to assume different roles has been key to getting the administration up and running.

But there is a downside to this ubiquity, and that is the public perception that President Bush is merely mouthing whatever his No. 2 tells him to say. According to an April Gallup poll, 43 percent of Americans believe other people in the administration are making decisions the president should make. That's down from 52 percent in January, but still troublesome, says presidential scholar Martha Kumar.

White House officials, including Cheney himself, are eager to refute this perception. They say Bush is firmly in control.

The vice president "is very wise, but I think that the president is just as intellectual, maybe even a little more attentive to detail," said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in an interview. "The president is the decisive leader. Cheney's very quiet. He listens and makes few comments. They are generally quite salient. But there's no doubt who the president is," he adds.

Still, there's no denying the extent of Cheney's reach. As the head of the transition, the vice president interviewed every cabinet secretary - and succeeded in placing his favorites at the helm of the Defense and Treasury departments. Bush named Cheney to lead the high-visibility energy task force, and now wants him to coordinate the US response to domestic terrorism. Cheney has been instrumental in pushing the president's budget and tax plan on the Hill.

While past vice presidents have had to fight to stay on their bosses' calendars, Cheney's lunches with Bush are almost superfluous. Every day, at 8 a.m., No. 2 is in the Oval Office with No. 1 for an intelligence briefing. The two are also together throughout much of the week - at policy briefings, meetings with foreign heads of state, nominee-review sessions, and Cabinet coffees.

Cheney "knows everything that goes on on a day-to-day basis in the White House," says one administration official. "He is involved in just about everything the White House is involved in."

All the presidents' men

Of course, Bush isn't the only president to rely heavily on a particular individual. Ronald Reagan leaned on Chief of Staff Jim Baker, while Franklin Roosevelt's close friend and adviser Harry Hopkins helped him carry out the New Deal.

"All presidents are needy," says Charles Jones, a presidential expert at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who sees Cheney's power as a positive sign that Bush recognizes his own areas of weakness. "Bill Clinton was very needy, and ... he did not have the help at the beginning that he needed."

Mr. Jones agrees, however, that it's highly unusual for the vice president to be the one with so much influence, and he attributes this in part to Cheney's lack of political ambition.

Most vice presidents are chosen for electoral reasons - to pick up votes in a certain region, or to squash a potential inter-party rivalry. They have presidential ambitions of their own, and once in office, are often kept at arms' length by their bosses.

"The difference in the relationship between President Bush and Vice President Cheney ... is that Dick Cheney does not want to be president," says Mr. Card. "He's ready to be president, but he doesn't want to be."

The other difference is Cheney's resume. From serving as chief of staff in the Ford White House to his tour as Defense secretary during the Gulf War, he brings a rare level of experience to the job.

His style fits well with this White House, too. Humility and loyalty are watchwords for Bush, and the subdued Cheney personifies both. Although he's been unusually visible in recent weeks, touting the energy plan, he doesn't enjoy media appearances.

"The press does not play a big role in his life," says his press secretary Juleanna Glover Weiss. "He's purely process right now. If there's a way [for the media] to help the administration, he's more than happy. But if it's about himself, he's not interested."

An ardent flyfisher, he carries that stillness to meetings, whether on the Hill or at the White House. He doesn't say much, and usually doesn't speak up in the presence of his boss unless asked to.

Ties to Big Oil

Cheney does have his critics. While Republicans on the Hill call him the 51st senator, and say talking to him is the same as talking to the president, Democrats complain their access to him has been limited. "I never see him," says Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington.

In particular, Democrats and environmentalists criticize Cheney for his handling of the energy plan, which they say favors the oil and coal industries. (The energy sector contributed $64 million in last year's election - three-quarters of it to the GOP.)

While Cheney is tight with the president now, the situation could change by 2004. Mr. Light suggests Cheney may choose not to run again with Bush. He might feel he's accomplished his mission, and health and other considerations may come into play. In any case, the relationship could change anyway, as Bush becomes more comfortable as president.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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