Cheney's Policy Influence Is Unabated

Dick Cheney remains in the background most of the time, but his influence remains undiminished in the White House and on the Hill. He not only influences policy but makes key decisions, and Cheney's shift on the wisdom of invading Iraq (reversing the stand he took during the Persian Gulf War of 1991) was crucial to the current war strategy.

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President Bush has been on the road this week trying to rally support for the war in Iraq and for his agenda in general. With far less fanfare, Vice President Dick Cheney has been doing much the same in smaller venues. Cheney rarely takes center stage in public, but behind the scenes his influence is as potent and pervasive as ever. NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

When you listen to Dick Cheney, the first thing you notice is his slow, steady way of speaking, which remains about the same no matter what he's talking about. Here's Cheney on the Web site whitehouse.gov conducting a video tour of his office.

(Soundbite of whitehouse.gov Web page)

Vice President DICK CHENEY: The rooms have been refurbished and restored to what they originally looked like when the building was built.

GREENE: And here he is talking about terrorists.

(Soundbite of Cheney speech)

Vice Pres. CHENEY: These enemies hate us. They hate our country and they hate the liberties for which we stand.

GREENE: Those last remarks came from Cheney's speech in Missouri this month to the Military Order of the Purple Heart. The performance was far from electrifying, leaving veteran Ray Thunderburk(ph) to say this.

Mr. RAY THUNDERBURK (Veteran): I don't think he enjoys public speaking. I think he'd much rather stand in the background. That's been his philosophy all along. You know, he doesn't make very many public appearances.

GREENE: True, but President Bush was not looking for a showman. Cheney said as much himself when he spoke to NPR after joining the ticket in 2000.

(Soundbite of 2000 NPR interview)

Mr. CHENEY: He clearly picked me for governance reasons, that is, not because I could deliver three electoral votes from Wyoming. Based on that, I would expect that he'd ask me to take on important responsibilities in his administration.

GREENE: It soon became clear how important those responsibilities would be. On September 11th, shortly after the terrorists struck in New York and Washington, Cheney told NBC's Tim Russert it was he who decided where the president should be that day.

(Soundbite of interview)

TIM RUSSERT: You told him to stay away from Washington.

Vice Pres. CHENEY: I said, `Delay your return. We don't know what's going on here but it looks like, you know, we've been targeted.' And one of the things that we did later on that day were tied directly to guaranteeing presidential succession.

GREENE: Indeed, to Dick Cheney nothing is more important than preserving the office of the presidency. Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, worked in Cheney's office when Cheney was a member of Congress. He traces Cheney's attitude to the time he spent in the White House in the 1970s after Watergate, a time when presidential respect and authority were at a low ebb.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Claremont McKenna College): He was President Ford's chief of staff. He witnessed firsthand what happened when you have a weakened presidency. And part of what he has done throughout his career is to try to shore up the authority of the presidency, both from a legal standpoint and from a political standpoint.

GREENE: And so as vice president, Cheney has angered Democrats by stressing executive prerogatives. He's refused to disclose the list of those he consulted in drafting an energy policy. In fact, when members of Congress ask for documents, the answer from the White House is usually no. Most recently that's included documents pertaining to John Bolton's nomination to be UN ambassador and John Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court.

Cheney has also pushed executive power in the making of foreign policy, and President Bush has relied on that advice, much as his father did when Cheney was the first President Bush's secretary of Defense. Back then, Cheney opposed an outright invasion of Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. Here he is talking to NPR about that decision in 1991.

(Soundbite of 1991 NPR interview)

Sec. CHENEY: The notion that we ought to now go to Baghdad and somehow take control of the country strikes me as an extremely serious one in terms of what we'd have to do once we got there. You'd probably have to put some new government in place. It's not clear what kind of government that would be, how long you'd have to stay. For the US to get involved militarily in determining the outcome of the struggle over who's going to govern in Iraq strikes me as a classic definition of a quagmire.

GREENE: But this time around Cheney was an early advocate of invading Iraq. He was the highest-ranking member of the administration to mention the 9/11 attacks when talking about Iraq in the fall of 2002. This attempt to link al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein angered Democrats. Vice presidential candidate John Edwards all but called Cheney a liar during their debate in the 2004

(Soundbite of debate)

Senator JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, North Carolina; Vice Presidential Candidate): These connections--I want the American people to hear this very clearly--listen carefully to what the vice president is saying because there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11th, period. This--the 9-11 Commission has said that's true. Colin Powell has said it's true, but the vice president keeps suggesting that there is. There is not.

GREENE: There was speculation that Cheney's influence might be diminished in Mr. Bush's second term primarily because Cheney has no plans to run for president in 2008. But the vice president remains a principal architect and articulator of the president's policies, foreign and domestic. He was, for example, involved in the appointment of John Bolton as UN ambassador. Cheney stood by him even when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would not endorse the nomination.

(Soundbite of Cheney speech)

Vice Pres. CHENEY: I'm an enthusiastic backer of John. I've known him for many years, both personally and in a professional capacity. I think he's done a superb job throughout a distinguished career in public service and I think he'd make a great ambassador to the UN.

GREENE: Democrats blocked a vote on Bolton on the Senate floor, so the president took the unusual step of making a recess appointment to get Bolton to the UN.

The vice president was also involved in vetting possible Supreme Court nominees. He interviewed John Roberts weeks before Mr. Bush sat down with him. And Cheney remains Mr. Bush's go-to guy on Capitol Hill. He spent hours at the Capitol last month selling Republicans on a trade agreement with Latin America. The trade deal squeaked through by two votes. North Carolina Republican Howard Coble, who opposed the deal, says Cheney still holds sway with House Republicans, some of whom served with him in the 1980s.

Representative HOWARD COBLE (Republican, North Carolina): Clearly, he's one of us. When he comes back to the Hill, he's an alumnus of the US House of Representatives, the people's house. When you have a popular member of your group who has gone on to other areas of government, when he comes back, it's not unlike a homecoming and I think that has to be a plus.

GREENE: Cheney's ratings in a new Harris Poll reached an all-time low. Only 35 percent rated his performance excellent or good. But his former adviser, Republican strategist Mary Matalin, says he's doing just what he and his boss set out for him to do.

Ms. MARY MATALIN (Republican Strategist): History will record this vice presidency as changing the template for how we--that office is structured, how that officer relates with the president. And that was the idea of the president.

GREENE: There has even been speculation in Washington that Cheney will reverse himself and run for president in '08. So far he's denied that, as he did in a speech to a Republican lawyers' group in April.

(Soundbite of April speech)

Vice Pres. CHENEY: I'm not going to run for the presidential nomination in '08. We've got a lot of great candidates out there and I've got so much confidence in the field that I've agreed to lead the search committee to pick the nominee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Vice Pres. CHENEY: It's a joke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: As everyone in that room understood, in 2000 Cheney led the search committee to pick a vice presidential nominee for Mr. Bush. David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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