Putting Rep. Richard Cheney of Wyoming in charge of the Pentagon was an inspired move by President Bush. The speed with which the President acted runs a close second for both artful politics and sound leadership.
Once Bush made the announcement, the 48-year-old Cheney seemed so obvious, so clearly the only choice, but, in fact, his name was never even mentioned in speculation about who Bush would turn to if the Senate rejected former Texas Sen. John Tower.
That is just one of several reasons that the nomination is a natural. Bush gets a bright, thoughtful conservative as secretary of defense, a former White House chief of staff with experience at coaxing what he needs out of the nooks and crannies of Washington. He gets an early start on a healing of wounds opened during the bitter and often brutal Tower debate. And partly because of the surprise, Bush gets a second chance at being President in a city so demanding that it gives tennis players second serves only grudgingly. Washington has been gossiping for weeks that the Bush Administration was adrift. He will silence that, for a while at least, with the way he took charge of clearing the battlefield after Tower’s personal Alamo.
During his six terms in the House, Cheney has been an aggressive partisan on many issues without provoking rancor and has a reputation for probity. Thus he could go from nomination to confirmation in record time.
Important as the side effects may be to the powers in the capital, the Cheney nomination itself is likely to be all most Americans would ask for. One Democrat who has worked closely with Cheney said he is “so bright, reasonable, hard-working and anxious to hear all of the facts” that it always surprised him to find Cheney voting the other way.
Cheney will not bring to his new job the accumulated years of familiarity with the Pentagon that Tower could claim, but as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee in the House of Representatives, he is no stranger to defense issues. “Obviously, there are areas I’ll have to work hard to master,” he said, “but I feel I have a depth of understanding now.”
Because the Tower troubles blocked many final decisions, Cheney will need a running start. Pentagon issues still hanging fire include how deeply to cut the budget, how many nuclear weapons and what kind are enough, and what to do about Star Wars, the plan to build defenses against nuclear missiles.
As Tower discovered during the tortuous early weeks of this year, Washington is a cruel city. It cheers winners, but even as it does so, it looks around for losers to run out of town. The President is a clear winner on the Cheney nomination, so much so that he can share the good feelings with Congress. The Cheney appointment will give the Democrats in the Senate an opportunity to show that their post-Tower protestations of peace were genuine. They should stage that demonstration promptly and let the President and his Pentagon get on with the serious business of shaping defense forces to fit their time. That would be the best way of cheering two winners, the President and his new secretary of defense.