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Running Mate, Soul Mate: Cheney Redefines VP Role

Times Staff Writers

For weeks, amid growing fears that Iran was secretly developing nuclear weapons, Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council staff hammered out a tougher, more aggressive stance for U.S. delegates to take at an international meeting later this month in Vienna.

All year long, European allies had insisted on go-slow diplomacy to give Iran more time to comply with international rules. Now, the United States had to send a message that the clock was running down. Reviewed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others, the new tactics seemed on track.

But 10 days ago, the NSC staff abruptly was sent back to the drawing board -- by Vice President Dick Cheney.

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“I got this call saying the policy had been pulled back because the vice president wants it toughened up,” said one official involved in national security matters. “My understanding was that it was already pretty tough.”

The incident, involving one of the most sensitive security issues facing the country, was just one more demonstration that the man scheduled to address the Republican National Convention in New York tonight is a vice president like no other.

As a national security powerhouse with a staff that rivals the NSC, as the president’s go-to man with Congress, the fundraiser GOP congressional candidates most often turn to for help, and as President Bush’s most intimate policy counselor, Richard Bruce Cheney appears to have surpassed all 45 of his predecessors in power and influence.

“There has never been a vice president like Dick Cheney, and there probably never will be again,” said David Frum, a former Bush White House speechwriter. The key to his position is unquestioned loyalty. “Cheney has made it clear his reputation rises and falls as Bush’s rises and falls,” Frum said.

Broad Influence

Cheney’s influence is not confined to a handful of issues, as his predecessors’ usually was, but cuts across foreign and domestic policy.

And it rests on a symbiotic relationship that began with remarkable speed during little-noticed contacts between the two men in the earliest stages of then-Texas Gov. Bush’s quest for the White House.

“This was all one on one,” Bush confidante Karen Hughes said in an interview this week, describing the interaction. “Karl [Rove, Bush’s political advisor] wasn’t sitting in on these meetings. I wasn’t sitting in on these meetings. It was Gov. Bush and Dick Cheney.”

Cheney’s achievement is all the more extraordinary because, only a few years ago, he seemingly had been consigned to the ash heap of politics. Rebuffed by fellow Republicans when he assayed a run for the White House in 1996, Cheney had gone off to the private sector, convinced his 30-plus years as a public servant were over.

Just three years later, he began to rise. “This was a kind of grand reversal of fortune for him,” said Paul Light of the Brookings Institution.

The Bush-Cheney relationship grew in two stages:

First, the Washington insider-turned-Halliburton chief executive caught Bush’s eye. In addition to vast national experience and a history of service as Defense secretary for the first President Bush during the Persian Gulf War, Cheney brought a chemistry to his relationship with the younger Bush that allowed him to be authoritative without seeming overbearing.

“They grew on each other,” said Richard N. Bond, former national Republican Party chairman. “They are soul mates. They both have great disdain for effete snobs, the Eastern liberal establishment. They are much more comfortable on a ranch with boots on. They both have a lively sense of humor.”

Cheney, for his part, was impressed with Bush’s interest in bold action on policy. “For some people, it’s 90% politics and 10% policy,” said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. “For Cheney it’s 80/20 policy.”

The second formative event was Sept. 11, 2001. From the fires of New York and Washington, Cheney came to share Bush’s conviction that time-honored approaches to security policy must be replaced by something tougher and more drastic.

And the vice president earned a license to do more than offer advice. One source who participated in dozens of national security meetings with Cheney said that his views proved decisive on at least three issues:

Bush’s decision -- coming after disillusioning experiences dating back to the Clinton administration -- to stop dealing with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; to directly threaten retaliation against states that sponsored terrorism; and to give Iraqi exiles a role in preparations for the Iraq war.

White House officials acknowledge Cheney’s special role. “He probably is the most influential vice president in history, but I think people tend to overstate his power,” one senior administration official said. “In the end,” the official said, “the president makes the decisions. What the president says carries the day.”

One measure of Cheney’s influence is the powerful staff he has assembled, largely out of public view. Although aides dispute its size, saying they work so hard the staff seems big, outside analysts say it is unprecedented in scope and expertise. It can and does compete on an equal footing with the NSC, the departments of State and Defense, and other players.

“Cheney’s predecessors would have one assistant doing foreign policy and maybe a couple underneath him. But basically, they relied on the staff and the paperwork of the National Security Council,” according to James Mann, whose book “Rise of the Vulcans” charted the development of the Bush administration’s national security team.

“Cheney appointed his own version of the National Security Council,” Mann said. From the start, the vice president’s office “was a separate power center, a fifth power center with the foreign policy apparatus. From the beginning it was State, Defense, the NSC, the CIA and the vice president.

“He’s got people working for him on Asia who work full time on Asia. The same with the Middle East.”

Under Cheney, it became routine for foreign national security advisors who normally would have met with their counterparts at the NSC, the Pentagon and the State Department to make a point of also visiting their counterpart at Cheney’s office -- I . Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Cheney attends essentially all the most important meetings in the White House, and his aides virtually all the other policy meetings.

Cheney rarely speaks in those settings, reserving his thoughts for the president alone. He has a private lunch with Bush once a week in the dining room off the Oval Office, but has unfettered access at other times.

Not everyone thinks this level of vice presidential involvement is helpful. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter, says it can distort the policymaking process.

“It is very difficult to coordinate policy when you have, parallel to the NSC staff, a staff that reports to the vice president, that attends interagency meetings pretty much at will and on the basis of a very special status.... It is just like having a wagon with three round wheels and one square one,” he said.

“I think it accelerated the race to war and probably intensified the pressure on people involved in analysis and intelligence to come up with ... conclusions that would please the vice president.”

Cheney makes no apologies for his active role. His job, he says, is to ask questions.

Integral Role

How integral the vice president and his staff have become to the White House policymaking process was illustrated April 10-16, when Cheney was in Asia.

It was a busy time for the White House. U.S. forces in Iraq were battling insurgents in several cities. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was visiting Washington. Bush was planning a news conference.

Even though they were on the other side of the globe, Cheney and his aides stayed completely plugged in to Washington. They met with Asian leaders during the day -- and then, at the end of Asia’s working day, plunged into a second shift on Washington time.

Cheney even took a CIA representative with him so that he could receive exactly the same daily intelligence briefing Bush got, and at exactly the same time -- it was 8 p.m. in Asia when the president got his 8 a.m. briefing in Washington.

Aides got the worst of it: The vice president asked them to participate by videophone in most of the White House meetings they would have attended had they been in Washington. “It’s like working two jobs,” one Cheney aide said.

But Cheney’s active role is not confined to national security. He has a hand in almost every domestic issue from energy to healthcare. And he is Bush’s ace in the hole with the Republican-controlled but sometimes fractious Congress.

Fourteen months ago, for instance, as Bush struggled to win congressional approval for a huge expansion of Medicare, a handful of conservative Republicans rebelled over what they considered to be reckless growth of government power and spending.

The bill was a cornerstone of Bush’s domestic agenda and a high-profile test of his ability to control his own party. With so much at stake, Bush turned to the one man he trusted to handle the crisis: Cheney.

And Cheney, operating from an office suite just off the House floor that he had acquired months before, quickly put down the rebellion.

“He has been more involved on a day-to-day basis in trying to put together Bush’s legislative agenda than any vice president I’ve known,” said David Hoppe, a lobbyist with long experience on Capitol Hill. “He is sticking in the shovel and digging through it more than any other vice president.”

“He often appears on Capitol Hill as the administration’s spokesman when major bills are in conference committee -- where previous administrations sent the director of the Office of Management and Budget, or the president’s chief of staff,” said Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian.

“It is universally accepted that when he threatens a veto, he speaks for the president,” Ritchie said.

Cheney also meets regularly with Senate Republicans, often attending their Tuesday luncheons. And his close involvement with the House is symbolized by the fact that he is the first vice president ever to have an office on that side of the Capitol, Ritchie said.

Not just any office. What Cheney got, Room H-208 of the Capitol, is a corner office prized for its location just steps from the House chamber, with a grand view of the east side of the Capitol.

Politically, Cheney has also become a key player in GOP efforts to hold and expand their majority in Congress, headlining fundraisers for 39 House candidates in 25 states, and nine Senate candidates.

Some Limits

But no single presidential advisor is ever heeded on every point or wins every policy fight. And Cheney has stubbed his toe more than once.

His highly secretive handling of the president’s Energy Policy Task Force, for instance, turned into an embarrassment for the White House -- and a legislative failure -- even though the Supreme Court eventually upheld Cheney’s right to withhold information about his deliberations.

In a speech to the American Legion in September 2002, Cheney got out ahead of the president in showing his impatience with diplomatic efforts to rein in Saddam Hussein. Bush effectively rebuked him shortly afterward by acceding to Powell’s preference for giving United Nations weapons inspectors more time in Iraq while the United States sought a supportive resolution from the Security Council.

In the end, though, Bush abandoned diplomacy and embraced Cheney’s desire for preemptive military action.

That Bush would end up where Cheney was shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering the nature of their relationship.

As Bush sees it, says former Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming: “At this point in life, you’ve got to have somebody around you who won’t just be a yes man, and give you all the soapsuds and tell you how great you are.”

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Times staff writers Janet Hook, Doyle McManus, Greg Miller, Maura Reynolds, Esther Schrader, Richard Simon and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report


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