The Cheney Factor
How the scars of public life shaped the vice president's unyielding view of executive power
Late last year, Cheney tried to persuade Congress and other administration policymakers not to impose more restrictive rules on the handling of terrorist suspects, despite the black eye suffered by the United States over abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Cheney's campaign failed after he was portrayed as supporting torture in some cases.
But administration insiders say the vice president, often working in tandem with his former mentor, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, still wins far more victories than he loses. Both men are veterans of the Ford White House, the corporate world, and the Pentagon who believe the military is often the best executor of U.S. foreign policy. But Cheney has no interest in calling attention to personal successes. Sources tell U.S. News that Cheney remains deeply involved in policymaking on North Korea. He blocked a proposal by the lead U.S. negotiator, Chris Hill, to visit Pyongyang recently in an effort to jump-start talks on ending the suspected North Korean nuclear weapons program. Cheney insisted that North Korea first had to shut down its reactor at Yongbyon. The Pyongyang government refused, so the trip never happened. Cheney also is Bush's chief attack dog, which endears him to his boss. This is a traditional role of vice presidents, and Cheney performs it with unusual vigor. On Nov. 16, 2005, he said, "The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone, but we're not going to sit by and let them rewrite history."
A good fit. In some ways, Cheney is the perfect wartime consigliere for Bush. He brings to the table precisely the skills and background that Bush lacks. Cheney has an encyclopedic knowledge of national security policy and the federal government while Bush delegates many details to his subordinates. This gives the VP a huge opportunity to work his will. In some ways, they are an odd couple. Cheney (who turns 65 on January 30) is overweight, has suffered several heart attacks--the most recent in November of 2000--and has undergone bypass surgery, while Bush is a fitness nut. Cheney's political handlers long ago resigned themselves to his disdain for mixing and mingling; Bush loves to wade into crowds. While he is a voracious reader of history and biographies, Cheney doesn't follow popular culture. Early in his first term, he had never seen the caricatures of him on TV, including an impression by Darrell Hammond on Saturday Night Live. Ron Christie, a young Cheney adviser and author of Black in the White House: Life Inside George W. Bush's West Wing, made a tape of SNL episodes portraying Cheney as living in a cave or calling the shots from various "secure undisclosed locations" and gave it to the veep. Cheney got back to Christie with a reaction: "hilarious." Last month, Cheney invited Hammond to one of his holiday parties.
Cheney doesn't want to upstage his boss and never has. He generally shuns publicity because, unlike most other recent vice presidents, he has no plans to run for the top job himself. In fact, projecting a positive image is the last thing that the rotund, bespectacled, balding VP cares about.