At a dinner honoring Dick Cheney last week at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, guests were advised at the head of the receiving line that he would remain silent, because he was saving his voice for his remarks later.
"Welcome back to Dallas, Mr. Vice President," people said anyway. His response: an imperceptible nod, maybe. "Cheney is a little Buddha-like already, so his saying nothing seemed true to form," says Cal Jillson, an SMU political scientist who was there.
Nearly 2 1/2 years into his vice presidency, and now firmly on the 2004 Republican ticket, Vice President Cheney has perfected the art of low-key power. By many analysts' estimates, he is the most powerful vice president ever, serving as President Bush's point man on national security and foreign policy, guiding him into war with Iraq, and helping him navigate Capitol Hill.
Cheney and Bush represent the classic insider- outsider pairing. And so Cheney's unprecedented influence stems partly from serving a president who came to office with little Washington experience, and who welcomes the guidance of a man with a 25 years' experience in the Beltway. By all accounts, each man is comfortable in his own skin, and role - Bush as a delegator, Cheney as a delegatee, whose job is to think big and get none of the credit.
"He has a very clear assessment of his own skill set, what he does well, how he exercises influence," says Mr. Jillson, who spent time with Cheney at SMU, where he sat on the board of trustees. "He's not the sort who flies onto carrier decks and strides out with his helmet under his arm. That frees him up to be the ultimate insider and adviser."
Early in the term, it was easy to portray Cheney as the real power behind the throne (along with Bush political guru Karl Rove). But the White House - including Cheney - worked hard to dispel that notion, limiting his public appearances and press interviews. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bush was front and center, rallying the American people and preparing the nation for war. Cheney, in contrast, has spent undisclosed periods of time at an undisclosed location (or locations).
Cheney has also been a focus of financial controversy in this White House - another reason to keep him out of the limelight, especially on money matters. As former CEO of Halliburton Corporation, an oil-services company based in Dallas, he came under scrutiny a year ago when the crisis in corporate governance exploded and his stewardship of the company came into question. He has declined to discuss the matter in public, citing a pending investigation by the SEC.
Still, Cheney's influence continues unabated - even as Bush appears to have come into his own on defense and foreign policy. Cheney's office is just down the hall from the president's and he attends most of Bush's meetings, often staying for a one-on-one post-mortem - and typically keeping the exchange to himself, says a senior official in the vice president's office. "We operate seamlessly with the White House staff, and the vice president and president wanted it that way," the official says. "That's different from prior administrations."
Clout, clarity, and calm
When Al Gore was No. 2 at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he, too, was touted as the most powerful vice president to date, in a line of modern veeps that began with Walter Mondale, who instituted a weekly private lunch with the president. Jokes about the vice presidency are legion, and in earlier eras the position was vacant for long stretches. Abraham Lincoln's first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, spent much of his tenure at home in Maine.
But Mr. Gore can't match Cheney for clout. Gore's signature tasks, such as "reinventing government," were not the central issues of the day. Cheney has been in the thick of the most important decisions of the second Bush presidency - even in its embryonic stages, when he headed the search committee for a running mate and got the job himself. After the 2000 election was finally settled, Cheney ran the transition - putting in place many old friends, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who worked for Cheney when he was Defense secretary.
Cheney spearheaded the administration's task force on energy policy - an effort that led to a protracted legal battle in which he successfully vied to keep meetings' participants a secret. In the wake of 9/11, Cheney laid the groundwork for what became the invasion of Iraq. After the anthrax mailings in the fall of 2001, he was the White House point man on bioterror.
"What strikes me about him, from his days in Congress and in the leadership and the Pentagon and as vice president: He's the best guy you can think of to have around in a crisis - to be clear-thinking and to be able to propose solutions and be totally calm," says Republican strategist Charlie Black. "The demeanor you see in public is what he's like."
As the unannounced Bush reelection effort moves into higher gear, Cheney is also touted as a lead fundraiser - a task that's become routine for veeps. The anti-charismatic Cheney may hardly seem the rah-rah fundraising type. But he's just what the loyal Republican base wants.
"When people are giving huge amounts of money, they want to see someone substantial," says Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and an expert on the vice presidency. "The president's image and time are precious, so he can send Cheney and be above the battle."
Halliburton has returned to the news lately, over contracts to rebuild Iraq. That, along with corporate issues, has hindered Cheney's ability to be a forceful voice on postwar occupation. Democrats are sure to highlight Cheney's past in the campaign.
"He can't be a behind-the-scenes Rasputin character pulling strings," says David Axelrod, a strategist for the presidential campaign of Sen. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina. "He's out there, and he's an issue."