Dick Cheney is the most powerful vice president the United States has ever had. He led the way for a new president — driving policy in the first term and blocking policy changes in the second, when his influence waned.
Before Cheney, it was President Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, who was seen as the transformative figure.
"The Mondale vice presidency was really the big bang that transformed the office," said vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein.
But Cheney got more than access to the president, access to all information the president saw, and a mandate to be a troubleshooter throughout government. Former Cabinet members, reporters and scholars all report that at least in the first term, he framed the options for a president who disdained details; he sometimes suppressed information, not just from Congress and the press, but also from key executive branch players and, on occasion, from the president himself.
Former Vice President Mondale is bluntly dismissive of the Cheney model.
"The problem is that they use the unique position of a vice president to go beyond the law and turned the vice presidency almost into a government within government, beyond accountability to the Congress, or the press, and to the law," Mondale said.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle believes Cheney did the job a new and uncertain president wanted him to do. At least until the president gained confidence in himself and perhaps lost some of his confidence in Cheney.
"It's what the president wants," Quayle said. "It's not what the vice president wants."
Vice presidential scholar Goldstein points out that Cheney's goal was never to strengthen the vice presidency, but to strengthen the presidency — something Cheney was never shy about saying.
"Time after time, administrations have traded away the authority of the president to do his job," Cheney said in 2002. "We're not going to do that in this administration."
'Precedents Are Dangerous Things'
Cheney's belief in a powerful presidency has been consistent throughout his career. Not so his belief in a powerful vice presidency. When he was defense secretary, he refused, amid an international crisis, to attend an emergency meeting called in the situation room by Vice President Quayle when the president was in the air, en route to a summit meeting. When Quayle relayed the president's orders, Cheney refused to carry them out unless he heard them from the president himself.
Most observers believe that Cheney's vice presidency was idiosyncratic — that without his persona, and President Bush's, his power won't be replicated. Mondale isn't so sure.
"Precedents are dangerous things," Mondale said. "They're like leaving, as they say, the loaded pistol on the kitchen table. Somebody might pick it up and use it."
So while Vice President-elect Joe Biden has disdained the Cheney model, he might eventually look to some of the Cheney precedents to enhance his power.
A VP With No Presidential Ambitions
Biden, like Cheney, is anomalous in modern times in that, at 65, he likely is too old to harbor presidential ambitions. When Cheney was picked, a lot of people thought that lack of ambition was a good thing because Cheney wouldn't have a personal political stake in decisions. But Goldstein thinks that notion is backward.
"A vice president that doesn't have presidential ambitions is more likely to be able to be a freelancer, to say 'I can pursue my own agenda because I don't have to worry about getting the president's support down the line when I want to run for president,' " Goldstein said.
The conundrum is well illustrated by this exchange Cheney had with ABC's Martha Raddatz, who questioned him about Iraq.
Raddatz: "Two-thirds of Americans say it's not worth fighting."
Raddatz: "So you don't care what the American people think?"
Cheney: "No, I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls."
"We're in a democracy," Goldstein said. "The premise is that public opinion matters a great deal and that public officials have a responsibility to try and develop support for their policies and to persuade the public and not really to just take an attitude of in effect stiffing the public."
Nobody who knows Cheney disputes his skill, his hard work, or his genuine belief that he acted in the best interests of the country. But most of his actions as vice president have remained secret. He even developed a new classification stamp for his office, "Treat As Classified." Using that, he sought to keep secret even documents that were already public. So it may be that his last legacy is a largely secret vice presidency, with documents from his office kept under seal for decades to come.