The Man Behind The Curtain
Dick Cheney is the most powerful vice president in history. Is that good?
Yet in some ways they are an odd couple, with Bush playing Oscar to Cheney's Felix. "They're not best buddies, but they have great respect for each other," says a senior administration official. Cheney is reserved. Bush is gregarious. Cheney, a pudgy 62-year-old who suffers from a serious heart ailment, would never strike the public as an athlete (although he once was). Bush, a 57-year-old jogger, is a fitness buff. Cheney keeps the TV news switched on all day, mostly watching the Fox network. Bush disdains TV news.
Cheney also has an intellectual bent that Bush seems to abjure. When Cheney was defense secretary, Gribben recalls, he hosted regular Saturday morning meetings in his Pentagon suite to discuss issues he wanted to know more about, at one point organizing a "rolling graduate class on Russia," according to one participant. As vice president, he has done the same thing at his official residence on the Naval Observatory grounds, bringing in experts like Fouad Ajami and Michael Beschloss to learn more about the Mideast, terrorism, and other issues.
Most significantly, it was Cheney, a favorite of Bush's father (whom he served as defense secretary), to whom Bush turned after the terrorist attacks two years ago. "He was Bush's go-to man on the ground on September 11," says a senior official who accompanied Bush aboard Air Force One that day. Calling on a secure phone, Bush talked first to Cheney, back in Washington, to coordinate the emergency response. For the rest of that day they were on the phone discussing everything from whether the president should return immediately to the White House (he didn't, to protect his safety, at Cheney's insistence) to whether to authorize the shoot-down of commercial airliners if they appeared to be threatening more targets (Bush gave the go-ahead, again on Cheney's recommendation).
Such reliance, evidently, has its pluses and minuses. "Bush wasn't sure of himself on foreign affairs. Cheney was," says a Bush family insider. "If Cheney were not vice president, it would've been different. The Iraq war situation would've been handled differently. There was a rush to judgment to go to war, all filtered through Cheney. If Cheney had not been there, there may have been a second chance for the weapons inspectors, we would've been slower to move to war, and, maybe, we would have organized a bigger coalition."
In White House meetings, Cheney's routine is to sit silently, hands folded or taking notes. He reserves his advice for his private sessions with Bush and is deferential to his boss, calling him "Mr. President" in public settings and almost always standing in the background or walking a step or two behind him.
Down time. He hates to talk about himself, especially the health problems that have led to several heart attacks and the placement of a pacemaker in his chest. But not even someone as private as Cheney can hide every aspect of his life. "Today," a friend says, "he's disciplined about exercise." He loves fly-fishing and, as with most everything else, he takes it very seriously. He'll interrupt a fishing trip to take a phone call from only two people: President Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. On a brilliant afternoon in mid-August, while vacationing at his retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Cheney floated on a drift boat along the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. His guide tried to explain why the trout weren't biting, and Cheney joked, "You sound like a damn politician, with all these excuses."