Dick Cheney, Out From the Shadows

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 20, 2004; 10:30 AM

Sure, the State of the Union speech is tonight (see below) and John Kerry won a stunner in Iowa, but the most amazing White House phenomenon of the past several days has been the re-emergence of Vice President Cheney.

Mr. Tight-Lipped in a secret undisclosed location is suddenly Mr. Chatty -- and he's everywhere. (Tonight, of course, he'll be sitting behind the president, standing up and applauding a lot.)

The reason for Cheney's sudden re-materialization is not exactly a mystery.

As Mark Leibovich puts it in his big Cheney profile on the cover of The Washington Post's Style section on Sunday, "White House officials have become concerned that negative stories about Cheney have reached critical mass, to a point that it could be harming the president. One of those concerned officials is Dick Cheney, who has been more bothered than usual by much of his recent coverage, sources close to the vice president say."

Leibovich's story -- headlined "The Strong, Silent Type; Vice President Cheney Doesn't Suffer Small Talk When He's Looking at the Big Picture" -- is no hatchet job. Leibovich declares Cheney to be a quiet man, a good listener, and "the Platonic ideal of sheepish." There is virtually no sign of the alleged puppetmaster.

Several reporters were invited to tag along with Cheney on Air Force Two during his recent trip out West. And Cheney sat down in a hotel room for a formal interview on Thursday with reporters from the Los Angeles Times and USA Today.

The result? Some pretty good press.

In the Los Angeles Times, Maura Reynolds brings us a story headlined "Cheney's Lack of Flair Is Just the Ticket for Many in GOP." She writes: "The White House is preparing to make new use of this unusual weapon: the anticharisma of Dick Cheney." And what's with all that secrecy and gravitas? It's all for the best. "Cheney sees himself as a kind of Mr. Worst-Case Scenario, trying to ensure that the administration is prepared for events that were once considered unthinkable."

What was the biggest news out of the interview? In a companion piece with the profile, Reynolds reminds us that in a new book, "former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill describes Vice President Dick Cheney as a leader of a 'praetorian guard' around the president, cutting him off from dissenting opinions." Cheney's dismissive response, she writes, is to call O'Neill "a big disappointment."

Over at USA Today, Judy Keen writes in her story, "Different Cheney Set to Campaign in 2004," that "Bush strategists believe it's time for Cheney to move from undisclosed secure locations to the front lines of the campaign, and a little image repair is in order."

In her newsier companion piece, Keen leads with the fact that Cheney says it's still too soon to tell whether Iraq had the weapons of mass destruction that were the Bush administration's justification for war. "Democrats have accused Cheney of exaggerating the weapons threat to justify the invasion," Keen writes, but "Cheney suggested that biological weapons are hard to find because they could be produced on short notice."

The stories are not entirely glowing, but they sure are a far cry from the coverage Cheney was getting just this past November. Think back to Ted Koppel on Cheney in November: "There is the president, and then there is the significant power behind the president." Or the Newsweek cover story in November, "How Dick Cheney Sold The War," subtitled "The inside story of how Vice President Cheney bought into shady assumptions and helped persuade a nation to invade Iraq," by Mark Hosenball, Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas.

Even in a good week, Cheney is still getting more than his share of bad headlines, though. James Sterngold does a slightly different reading on Cheney in the San Francisco Chronicle, which headlines his story: "Cheney Playing 'Dr. Doom' to President's Dr. Feelgood." Sterngold interviews pollster John Zogby, who tells him that "Cheney's role seems to be to say that if you elect the other guy, it's Armageddon."

David G. Savage calls attention to a potential hullabaloo in Saturday's Los Angeles Times with a story about how "Cheney and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spent part of last week duck hunting together at a private camp in southern Louisiana just three weeks after the court agreed to take up the vice president's appeal in lawsuits over his handling of the administration's energy task force."

And George Anders and Susan Warren remind us of the ties between Cheney and his once-again controversial former company, Halliburton, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

Stay tuned, because the Cheney media blitz has just begun. The world tour is next. Cheney leads the U.S. delegation to the upcoming World Economic Forum of government and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland. He'll give a big speech there on Saturday, then visit Rome for consultations with Italian leaders. He'll address the Italian Senate on Jan. 26 and meet with Pope John Paul II the next day.

Cheney: Evil Genius? Brown Cloud?

The quite amazing transcript of Cheney's interview with reporters is on the USA Today Web site, and it's well worth reading, in particular for the part toward the end when Judy Keen finally (and in a friendly way) raises the question of Cheney's role in the White House.

"Judy Keen: You must be well aware of the caricature of you that has evolved over the last three years, the whole undisclosed location thing, the sinister force behind the President's policies. What do you make of that? And do you feel compelled to deal with it, especially in the context of this campaign that's just beginning? And lastly, what do you think happened to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction?

"Cheney: Why do I want to deal with it? What's wrong with my image? . . . Am I brown cloud? Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It's a nice way to operate, actually."

Let's put aside for now the fact that Cheney just laughs this one off. I want to know: What does he mean by "brown cloud"?

Is he likening himself to the strip of visible pollutants sometimes seen along the horizon in some American cities, and increasingly across Asia? (See, for instance, more about a brown cloud in Denver, or about the Asian Brown Cloud.)

Or does he see himself more like some sort of Dust Bowl figure? (See this story in Montana's Billings Gazette.)

Let's figure this one out together. E-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

Stating the Union

Rich Morin and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post that "President Bush delivers his State of the Union address tonight to an American public that has become broadly dissatisfied with his domestic agenda, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll." (See the complete poll data and the trend document.)

This is consistent with other recent polls. (See a complete tally of recent approval ratings on pollingreport.com.) As a result, write Morin and Milbank, "Bush's speech tonight will address this anxiety by giving greatest emphasis to his domestic proposals. Aides said the president will reverse the order of his annual address from last year -- when he closed with the case for war in Iraq -- to put his closing emphasis on domestic issues such as health care, the economy, Social Security and immigration."

More and more is known, or at least suspected, about what Bush will say tonight. Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post that "Bush plans to take up the volatile issue of defining marriage in his State of the Union address tonight, reminding listeners that he considers marriage to be the union of a man and a woman but stopping short of endorsing a ban on gay marriage, administration officials said yesterday." (See full Post coverage of the State of the Union, including links to previous years.)

In the New York Times, David E. Sanger and Neil MacFarquhar write that, rather than calling them "evil", Bush will urge countries that are potential enemies to "to follow the example of Libya, which recently announced that it would dismantle its nascent nuclear weapons program, a step the administration attributes to Mr. Bush's confrontational stance toward nations seeking chemical, biological or nuclear weapons."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times that "President Bush intends to use his State of the Union address on Tuesday to set out a multipart approach to helping Americans deal with rising health care costs, including a possible expansion of tax-free savings accounts for medical expenses, people briefed by the White House said on Monday."

Bill Sammon of the Washington Times reports that people are already arguing over Bush's expected "call on Congress to make his tax cuts permanent in tonight's State of the Union address."

On a segment on the NBC Nightly News last night, David Gregory reports that "this year's speech amounts to a campaign kickoff for the president" that is "timed this year for maximum political benefit."

Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press sums up the combined effect of all the leaks and prognostication this morning.

Bush's radio address on Saturday and speech at a fundraiser in Atlanta last week are thought to provide previews of his speech tonight.

But allow for the unexpected. Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times that "if the speech includes surprises -- and for presidents, the State of the Union is an almost irresistible opportunity to surprise -- they are likely to come on domestic policy, where aides said Bush wanted to demonstrate his care for workers battered by the winds of economic change."

And in USA Today, Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto remind us that "Bush's previous State of the Union addresses have been notable for memorable rhetoric and missteps."

Any more questions? Ask Dan Bartlett, the director of the White House's sprawling communications empire. He'll take questions on the White House Web site today at 2 p.m. ET.

Any questions after the address? Check out tomorrow's column, of course. And I'll be Live Online Wednesday at 11 a.m. as well.

News of the Weird

The Globe and Mail, the largest national circulation newspaper in Canada, put this story on its front page on Friday: "Bush Prefers Our Pretty Boy to His Pretty Boy." I couldn't possibly do it justice, so go read it yourself.

More Headlines

Lots of important White House stories over the weekend, including the surprise recess appointment of Charles W. Pickering Sr. as an appeals court judge.

-- Bush Fulfilled About 46 Percent of Campaign 2000 Promises, Analysis Shows, Ron Hutcheson and William Douglas, Knight-Ridder

-- Hopes for Civility in Washington Are Dashed; In Bush's Term, Tone Worsened, Partisans Say, Dana Milbank and David S. Broder, The Washington Post

-- Arms Issue Seen as Hurting U.S. Credibility Abroad, Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post

-- Poll Bolsters Bush on Terrorism but Finds Doubts on Economy, Robin Toner and Janet Elder, New York Times

-- A Democratic Rallying Cry: Vote Bush Out of Rove's Office, Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times

-- Timing of Address No Accident, Official Says, Elisabeth Bumiller and Carl Hulse, New York Times

-- Bush Bypasses Senate on Judge, Mike Allen and Helen Dewar, The Washington Post

-- Bush Seats Judge, Bypassing Senate Democrats, Neil A. Lewis, New York Times

-- In Rare Move, Bush Installs Judge Pickering, Richard B. Schmitt and Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

Is Cuba Next?

Do you like conspiracy theories? Try this one on. Cuba's top diplomat in Washington is worrying that Cuba may be the Bush administration's next target for "regime change," writes George Gedda of the Associated Press.

That one not far-fetched enough? The humor Web site Buttafly has crafted a "Bush Conspiracy Generator." So go make your own.

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