Cheney Still ‘Warming Up’ to New Role


His sex appeal has been compared on television to cold French fries. He gives new meaning to the term “low key.” And ever since George W. Bush picked him to be the Republican nominee for vice president, Dick Cheney has had journalists scrambling to find gentle synonyms for the word “dull.”

“Professorial,” “avuncular,” “staid” come to mind. “Laconic,” “stolid” and “calm” also work. “Serious” is the former secretary of Defense’s own personal favorite to describe Dick Cheney, political speaker.

“I’m not a tub-thumping, stump-kicking speaker,” Cheney acknowledged in a recent interview. “I’m a fairly serious person, talking about serious issues, and I don’t expect to do anything out of character here.”


So far, Cheney has kept that promise. But then again, so has everyone else who’s vying to lead America today. Campaign 2000 has done little to take the country to soaring heights of political oratory. If the race were a movie, it would likely be called “Stiff and Stiffer.”

In Cheney’s first few weeks on the campaign trail, he has played second fiddle to his more vibrant running mate, himself a vastly improved but imperfect campaigner. He has deferred to his wife, insisting that she be the one to read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” aloud at an elementary school.

He has rarely spoken for more than five minutes at a crack--even when stumping without Bush. Cameras, he told children at a homeless shelter this week, “make me nervous.”

Campaigning in St. Louis on Wednesday, Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) offered a blunt introduction: “When they arrived at the airport, I think more people wanted to have their picture taken with Lynne Cheney than Dick Cheney.”

Rhetorically speaking, the Bush-Cheney ticket “is not a nightmare, but I didn’t think this was a great choice,” said John Murphy, associate professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia.

“At his best, Bush is calm and conversational and relies on his ability to connect one-on-one. Cheney strikes me as somewhat similar,” said Murphy. Campaigning for president “is not a Pentagon briefing. It’s a different world right now.”

The question, of course, is whether it matters that Bush’s nominee is no roof-raiser. If history is any indication, the answer is not really; the last time a vice presidential nominee lit up a ticket was probably in 1984, when Geraldine A. Ferraro made Walter F. Mondale interesting.

Cheney himself acknowledges that he’s a bit rusty on the stump; he has not run for office for more than a decade and has little experience on the national campaign trail. Bush lauds his No. 2 as a strong and decent man, but one who is still “warming up.”

“I’m getting there,” Cheney said Friday. “I gave it up, but I’m getting back into the swing of things.”

For all of his discomfort in the political limelight, there’s something so steady about the former Wyoming congressman as he stands on the podium, gray suit coat soberly buttoned. He presses fingers into steeples, twiddles his thumbs and goes for the moral jugular.

There he is in Joliet, Ill., saying nasty things about Bill Clinton, so understated, so matter of fact: “It’s absolutely essential for us to do whatever has to be done in order to restore honor and integrity and decency to the Oval Office.”

Coming from another man, one, perhaps, who waved his arms or raised his voice or jabbed a finger at the audience, such statements might sound argumentative, maybe even angry.

But Cheney “reminds me of my father,” said Doreen Tobin, of Three Rivers, Mich., who recently saw Bush and Cheney go through their paces at a rally. “He’s got, like, a stern exterior. Bush reminds me of my uncle. He’s just got a freer spirit than Mr. Cheney.”

Moments of spontaneity have been rare during Cheney’s first outings on the campaign trail--a three-day, whistle-stop tour through the Midwest with Bush and a three-day solo jaunt this week through Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Illinois.

The height of the unexpected was a sound-system breakdown at a rally in East Lansing, Mich., that left him tapping helplessly on the microphone in near silence.

“Nobody achieves perfection, right?” he told the cheering crowd once the sound came back.

Cheers in Arkansas elicited a droll “Mercy.” To cheers in Philadelphia he intoned, “You folks in Philadelphia do know how to throw a party.” To cheers in Pontiac? “We must be in Michigan.”

Karl Rove, chief strategist of the Bush campaign, lauds Cheney’s high name identification and figures that he’ll be a “powerful” presence. But when he describes the vice presidential nominee’s role on the campaign trail, he talks more about controlled settings than wild get-out-the-vote rallies.

“Cheney is going to be great at set piece speeches before opinion leaders,” Rove said. “He’s going to be great at editorial boards. He’s going to be great at message events like going to schools and other round-tables. And we’re going to take advantage of that.”

Even in such small settings, Cheney’s awkward adjustment to life on the stump has been clear this week. Take that simple staple of campaign life, reading to children. Bush does it all the time. So does wife Laura Bush. So, as a matter of fact, does Lynne Cheney, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

So there the Cheneys were at Tussing Elementary School in Pickerington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. With nine recent kindergarten graduates squirming at their feet, the couple took their little seats and picked up their picture books.

Lynne turned to Dick, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in hand, and said to the man running for vice president: “Would you like to read this book?”

The cameras rolled, the children waited and the ever-deferential candidate replied: “Why don’t you go ahead and start. You’re the expert in reading.”