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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Long executive reach distinguishes Cheney

WASHINGTON -- Dick Cheney occupies an unprecedented position in American history. There has never been such a powerful vice president. There has never been anyone other than a president as powerful as Cheney.

Cheney hides his influence behind a low public profile. Seen darting between meetings, he signals his all-business approach by carrying his own notebooks. Even Jimmy Carter had someone else drag his briefcase.

Cheney also shields his clout behind President Bush's determination to show that he himself is in charge. At times, Bush has even pointed a finger at his own chest and praised his own ''tough decisions," while Cheney stands quietly in the wings.

In recent weeks, however, the astonishing range of Cheney's influence has been on display in virtually every controversy involving the administration. The chain of events drew Cheney out of the shadows even before he created a ruckus by lobbing an obscenity at his slightly thinner twin, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

First came the 9/11 Commission reports showing Cheney's take-command attitude on Sept. 11, 2001, ordering the shootdown of any hijacked plane and then warning the president of an alleged threat to Air Force One, which sent Bush to a bunker in Nebraska.

Cheney claims that he got Bush's approval for the shootdown order, but notes taken at the time made no reference to it, and the commission found discrepancies in the accounts of those present.

Then came the commission's rejection of ''collaboration" between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. This trope was one of the pillars of the case Cheney built for war in Iraq, and the administration can't afford to lose it. Cheney reasserted the link, hinting he had more information but not providing any.

Then, last week, came the Supreme Court's decision to return to a lower court the question of whether Cheney must reveal details of his Energy Task Force, followed by his confrontation with Leahy. Cheney later said his expletive was a response to Leahy's insinuations about no-bid contracts awarded to Halliburton, the company Cheney headed in the 1990s.

Since the vice president's influence is already embedded in the administration through his numerous friends appointed to high positions -- including his mentor, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- Cheney's character and motivations ought to be fair game for the media as the campaign heats up. So should efforts to connect the dots on his unusual ascent.

It began with a move that was, in retrospect, perfectly illustrative of his approach to power: Charged with heading the committee to choose Bush's running mate, Cheney quietly shifted his voter registration from Texas (the presidential nominee's state, and thus ineligible) to Wyoming and appointed himself to the job.

Cheney achieved this maneuver with so little friction that almost no one saw it as a power grab. The media simply assumed someone, probably Bush's father, thought it would be a good idea to have an old Washington hand on the ticket to assist Bush, who was neither worldly nor knowledgeable about policy.

Now, in office, Cheney utilizes the old maxim that there's no limit to what people can achieve if they don't care who gets the credit. He can shun accolades because, unlike all vice presidents going back to Alben Barkley, he has no higher ambitions. He would be an old 68 at the end of a second Bush term, with four heart attacks behind him, and voters wouldn't trust his health.

Thus, Cheney can channel all his ambition into this administration. Without having to accumulate debts for a future campaign, he's beyond the normal political controls: No one can ward him off by threatening to embarrass him politically. And he can offer the president unwavering loyalty.

In the past, when administrations sailed through rocky seas, the vice president would grab the first lifeboat and paddle furiously: Al Gore stood behind Bill Clinton in public during impeachment, but aides quickly leaked stories of his private disgust over Clinton's conduct; George H. W. Bush did everything but hide under a sofa to claim he was ''out of the loop" on the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal.

Since no one has used the vice presidency as a power base for anything but running for president, Cheney could invent his own job.

He followed models perfected by others. There have been powerful first ladies (Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Reagan), powerful chiefs of staff (Donald Regan), and powerful Svengali-like advisers (Henry Kissinger, Edward House during the Wilson administration).

Cheney combined all three. Like a first lady, his stature is unique. Unlike a staff member, he can't be fired. Like Regan, Cheney, a former chief of staff to President Ford, is clearly the chief operating officer of the White House, overshadowing the titular chief, Andrew Card, like an elephant over a mouse. And he's made himself the president's prime policy adviser, supplanting Cabinet chiefs like Secretary of State Colin L. Powell or Attorney General John D. Ashcroft.

As a result, Cheney looms larger than Hillary Rodham Clinton in the '90s, with about a tenth as much scrutiny, even during a campaign. So far, Cheney has stuck to the traditional vice-presidential role of raising funds and tending to the party's base. But he's been anything but a traditional vice president.

Peter S. Canellos can be reached at canellos@globe.com. 

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