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The Long, Hard Autumn of Dick Cheney

5 minute read
Mike Allen

The signs, apparent to insiders for months, surfaced at a quick clip. Vice President Dick Cheney, once viewed as training wheels for a President who was a novice on the world stage, was becoming less essential. He disappeared to a new weekend place in Maryland, and friends fretted about his weight. Katrina hit, and he tarried at his home in Wyoming, checking in by videoconference. Harriet Miers was picked for the Supreme Court, and he found out secondhand. On Capitol Hill last week, the Republican Party was coping with an impasse over spending cuts and the fallout from an embarrassing loss in the Virginia Governor’s race, and he was in South Dakota for a week of pheasant hunting. “I just haven’t seen him around as much lately,” said Sam Brownback, the conservative Republican Senator from Kansas.

Friends say Cheney is well aware that his unique bond with the President, while not broken, is diminished. “He has become,” said a former aide still close to the White House, “one adviser among many.” Renewing his relationship with a troubled President, the friends say, has become a more urgent mission for the 64-year-old Vice President than bolstering his own sagging public image. The President’s poll ratings remain at a five-year low, and two of the big reasons are a discouraging war for which Cheney served as head hawk, and the indictment of Cheney’s chief of staff in an investigation that sprang from a heavy-handed White House effort to discredit an annoying critic. The prosecutor’s narrative makes tantalizing reference to one or more conversations Cheney had about the matter with the aide, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, which raises the possibility of a fight for the Vice President’s testimony.

Cheney, according to friends and subordinates, sees himself as an über-staffer whose mission is to shape and promote the President’s agenda, even at the expense of his own popularity. Lately, with the Vice President making a signature issue out of opposing new restrictions on the treatment of suspected terrorists, the price has been steep. In one poll, Cheney’s approval rating slipped into the 20s, and a former White House nemesis has gained traction on the issue. Republican John McCain, the Senate’s most famous prisoner of war, has won strong bipartisan support for a ban on inhumane treatment of suspected terrorists and other detainees, and is fighting Cheney’s push for an exemption for the CIA. With the issue in the headlines, McCain raised just over $1 million last week for his probable presidential campaign.

A former Administration official sees Cheney’s lack of interest in running for President as a liability. “It liberates him to risk his own standing on behalf of the policy and the President,” the official said. “But it can be a real problem when that approach starts to affect the President’s standing.” And while the Vice President’s partisans remain convinced that most conservatives still love him, even some of those bedrock fans are expressing growing doubts. “Cheney’s war is swallowing Bush’s presidency,” said a conservative leader who is an ally of the Vice President’s. “The cost of Iraq is everything else Bush wanted to do.” Cheney’s office argues, of course, that the partnership continues on the same keel. “Obviously,” said Steve Schmidt, Cheney’s counselor, “the Vice President works tirelessly every day on behalf of the American people, alongside President Bush.”

One problem, according to former staff members, is the tightness of the Veep’s circle. He relies heavily on his wife Lynne and two daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, for advice on media and internal politics. Insiders took his decision to replace Libby with counsel David S. Addington as a sign that Cheney was circling the wagons rather than making peace with his detractors inside the government. They reason that Addington is a hard-liner who has made enemies around the West Wing with his unwillingness to cooperate or yield on troublesome issues like a court fight for access to records of Cheney’s energy task force.

In the end, it’s Cheney’s steely certainty, a quality the President has so appreciated in the past, that may be most damaging to him now in this season of political reinvention, say people who have worked closely with the Vice President. While Bush has shown an ability to reverse himself in the face of heavy headwinds, suddenly embracing the 9/11 commission or campaign-finance reform, Cheney takes pride in not backing down. In March 2004, when Cheney was about to walk onstage to deliver his first formal excoriation of Senator John Kerry as being soft on Saddam, a frantic aide telephoned to urge him to tone it down. A suicide car bomber had just torn the front off a hotel in central Baghdad. Cable news was going crazy, and aides had nightmares of Cheney speaking in split screen with smoldering rubble. According to a person familiar with the incident, Cheney raised his right eyebrow, gave a quarter grin and shook off the advice. “The guy cannot be unnerved,” the person said. A former Administration official put it this way: “If the VP isn’t proven right until after he has kicked off, he’s fine with that. The idea of being proved right before the end of his life is a false deadline in his mind. Right is right.”

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