MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Since he took office in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney has never backed down from a fight. Here he is last night at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, baiting Democrats on recent votes on the president's Iraq policy.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: I sincerely hope the discussion this time will be about winning in Iraq, not about posturing on Capitol Hill.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: But for Cheney, these have been difficult times. The Iraq war he championed is not going well; his former trusted advisor and chief of staff, Lewis Libby, is standing trial, charged with lying to federal investigators; and the 2008 campaign is heating up and Cheney is not involved.

It would seem his political relevance might be on the decline, but as NPR's David Greene reports, many don't think so.

DAVID GREENE: This is going to be one of those stories that Dick Cheney just doesn't like.

Vice President CHENEY: We get these thumb suckers, if you will, stories where people speculate who's up, who's down.

GREENE: But it's hard to resist filling out a score card on the vice president right now. He's a unique political creature. He has been since he headed the committee in 2000 to choose George W. Bush's running mate and then became the running mate himself.

Six years later, a two-term vice president is usually hanging out in Iowa, New Hampshire and talking about getting a promotion. Think back to George H. W. Bush in the last 1980s.

President GEORGE H. W. BUSH: I want it. No one - none of these other people no matter what they have to do are going to work any harder for this nomination and I need your support. The others may not think they do, I know I do.

GREENE: And remember Al Gore in the late 1990s.

Mr. AL GORE (Former vice president, Clinton administration): Six years ago this state was losing ten thousand jobs a year. It was practically a nightmare out there on Elm Street.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GORE: And now New Hampshire is creating 12,000 jobs a year. One of the candidates on the other side asked the question the other day on New Hampshire television, are you better off than you were six years ago. And all across the state people've said, ah yeah.

GREENE: In fact, to find a VP who served a two-term president but made no serious attempt to succeed his boss you have to go back to 1920. So what about Dick Cheney? Well, he remains adamant about remaining a non-candidate and there are several reasons: age, a history of heart problems, very low poll ratings, and a media image that's irresistible for late night comedians like Jon Stewart.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show")

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show"): For those of you who live in Washington, you may have noticed a subtle difference this week in D.C. The air a little crisper, food a little more tasty, homeless people weren't being discovered drained of blood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: It could only mean one thing: Vice President Dick Cheney was out of town.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: Cheney, in fact, was dispatched by the president recently to Australia, Japan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Still, from a world away he was able to get himself into a flap with the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

He said Pelosi's views on Iraq validate the enemy's strategy, and Pelosi cried foul. An ABC News reporter traveling with Cheney gave him a chance to apologize and he said no thanks.

Vice President CHENEY: My statement was that if we adopt the Pelosi policy that we will validate the strategy of al-Qaida. I said it and I meant it.

Unidentified Man #1: And you're not backing down.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: I'm not backing down.

GREENE: Cheney said Pelosi misinterpreted him anyway.

Vice President CHENEY: She accused me of questioning her patriotism. I didn't question her patriotism. I questioned her judgment.

GREENE: On his stop in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the base where Cheney was sleeping. The Taliban claimed the vice president was the target. And the plane Cheney was using had its own controversy. The aircraft was named for the late segregationist Strom Thurmond.

But it wasn't just this trip. Really, it's been hard for Cheney to catch a break ever since he accidentally shot his hunting buddy, Harry Whittington, down in Texas a year ago. For that Cheney did apologize for what he said was a tragic mistake.

Vice President CHENEY: A bird flushed and went to my right, off to the west. I turned and shot at the bird and at that second saw Harry standing there.

GREENE: On a policy level, Cheney now stands nearly alone among advisors who pressed the president to invade Iraq. Most of the other major figures from that era are gone - Donald Rumsfeld, the former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, former CIA director George Tenet. Most of them gone even before the failures in Iraq helped usher in Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. There are times when Cheney seems the last sentinel standing in defense of the Iraq war decision.

Unidentified Man #2: Vice President Cheney, of course, has made - takes many of the same positions that Secretary Rumsfeld did on the war. Does he still have your complete confidence?

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, he does.

Unidentified Man #2: Do you expect him to stay…

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The campaign is over. Yes, he does.

Unidentified Man #2: And he'll be here for the reminder of your term?

President BUSH: Yes, he will. Thank you.

GREENE: But no matter how bad things appear, Cheney's demeanor never changes. He remains the unflagging cheerleader, the man with the megaphone and monotone. For Dick Cheney, talking about Iraq - as he was here in an interview with ABC News - still somehow sounds like bragging.

(Soundbite of ABC News interview)

Vice President DICK CHENEY: We've succeeded, I think, in many respects. I think we've been very successful in Afghanistan and Iraq. I also think we've been very successful at defending the nation at home now. We've gone more than five years without another 9/11. That's not an accident, but it's because we did some very controversial things.

GREENE: But right now there's a cloud over the vice president. At least that's who Patrick Fitzgerald put it. Fitzgerald is prosecuting Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis Scooter Libby, on charges that Libby lied to federal prosecutors about the outing of a CIA operative in 2003, in the early days of the Iraq war. If nothing else, the trial going on in Washington seems to suggest the vice president's office was hell-bent on protecting Cheney's reputation.

I put that question to Cheney's long time advisor, Mary Matalin.

A lot of the records during the Libby trial seem to paint a portrait of the vice president as more kind of keenly aware of his own image and concerned about it than a lot of people realized. Is that fair?

Ms. MARY MATALIN (advisor, Vice President Cheney): That is a complete press narrative on a myopic and magnified view of a speck of time in six years.

GREENE: Matalin, who was on her cell phone rushing to catch a flight, said news coverage of Dick Cheney is rarely accurate. In the early days, he was never as powerful as some suggested. And now, Matalin said, stories that Dick Cheney's influence has diminished are all wrong.

Ms. MATALIN: There is much to the vice president's job that is behind the scenes and that is his preference and that's the way he does work and he is -even before the Bush administration - was known for his discretion.

GREENE: Cheney's discretion is what his critics call secrecy, and his critics have been multiplying. They now include people like Senator John McCain and other prominent Republicans.

Prof. JOEL GOLDSTEIN (Law, St. Louis University): That's bound to hurt the vice president's influence when other leading Republicans are in a sense saying you've led us down the wrong road.

GREENE: St. Louis University Professor, Joel Goldstein, has studied and written on the vice presidency. He said even if Cheney's not enjoying the sway he once did inside the White House, he's still going to go down as the most powerful vice president in history.

Jimmy Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, set a new standard for influence, he said. Cheney has well surpassed that.

GREENE: When you write the book on Dick Cheney, do you see it being positive, negative, a mix?

Prof. GOLDSTEIN: What's happened with vice presidency, beginning with Mondale, I think is a very positive thing. It's good to have a second experienced political leader with a generalist perspective involved. It's good to have the potential successor engaged in what's going on so he or she is prepared to take over.

I think the negative part is that with power comes responsibility.

GREENE: And Cheney, he said, has rarely had to take much responsibility for the policies he supports. And certainly at this point, Goldstein said, Cheney doesn't have to take as much responsibility as some of his predecessors did.

Prof. GOLDSTEIN: He's not accountable, because he's not standing for election. He's not running on those policies in the future, and so in some respects I think its' really a troubling phenomenon.

GREENE: Cheney, of course, doesn't much like to talk about legacy and that sort of thing - though, he did say this about himself and President Bush.

Vice President CHENEY: I think we will have influenced the course of history in significant ways.

GREENE: And his critics would probably agree.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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