The Man Behind The Curtain
Dick Cheney is the most powerful vice president in history. Is that good?
On July 25, 2000, George W. Bush sat in an upstairs room of the governor's mansion in Austin watching Dick Cheney navigate his first television interview as the Republican vice presidential nominee. "Just mark my words," an admiring Bush gushed to an aide. "There will be a crisis in my administration, and Dick Cheney is exactly the man you want at your side in a crisis."
Over the past three difficult years, Richard Bruce Cheney has lived up to all of Bush's expectations. Not only has he served as Bush's right-hand man through the lesser tribulations of the presidency, but he has also been his most important counselor after the 9/11 attacks and during the war in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq. "He is the president's closest, most trusted confidential adviser, and he's also the president's closest and most trusted agent, the person who the president asks to take on various tough assignments," says a senior White House official. "It really is remarkable. I think there has never been a vice president who, [except for] a moment of physical incapacity of a president, has served as broadly and given such a strong assist to a president as Cheney. . . . Most of the relationship is hidden from public view because it is the relationship of a quiet subordinate to a superior."
"Skewed view." Today, however, Cheney is under fire as never before. His appearance last month on Meet the Press, in which he again linked Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks, drew stinging criticism, and even President Bush felt compelled to "clarify" Cheney's remarks. Last week, Cheney was touched by the furor over the leaked name of a CIA operative that has sparked a criminal investigation by the Justice Department (story, Page 18). Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, told CNBC that Bush "has that main responsibility to see this through and see it through quickly, and that would include, if I was president, sitting down with my vice president and asking what he knows about it."
The finger-pointing has intensified because of growing disaffection with the administration's Iraq policy, especially the escalating casualties and financial costs. "The whole Iraq situation was filtered through Cheney, and he gave the president a very skewed view," says a former adviser to Bush's father who remains in close contact with officials in the current administration. A senior White House aide concedes that Cheney often makes policy recommendations based on worst-case scenarios.
The problem, according to some Republican insiders, is that Cheney reinforces the president's conservative instincts, pulling him to the right at a time when voters seem more interested in a centrist approach. A senior adviser to a former Republican president adds: "Cheney is not always right, but he's always certain. He and his allies thought they were invincible, that this would be the American century, that we could reshape the world any way we wanted to. Welcome to the real world."
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who helped strengthen the modern vice presidency under Jimmy Carter, told U.S. News: "Cheney is very able, and he's spent a lot of years in government. . . . Bush has had none of that, and he doesn't seem to be energetically serious about mastering the central subjects. . . . If Bush is not filling those knowledge voids, somebody has to fill the vacuum"--and that appears to be Cheney.