The Cheney Question

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, July 7, 2004; 12:15 PM

Now that John Kerry has settled on John Edwards as his running mate, one has to ask: Has President Bush really settled on his?

Officially, administration officials say there is no chance that Vice President Cheney will leave the campaign. But the "Dump Cheney" rumors continue to swirl in the press, fueled by a steady infusion of feeble poll results, poor reviews from the campaign trail, Cheney's own foul mouth, persistent Halliburton scandals and his continued and unsupported insistence on strong links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

And then there was this weekend's revelation that the doctor who has repeatedly assured us all that Cheney is fit to serve was allegedly illegally using narcotics. (Don't forget that the "Dump Cheney" conspiracy theorists predict that it all begins with an announcement that Cheney's heart problems have suddenly gotten much worse.)

I must say I'm reminded more and more of one of the great unsolved White House Briefing mysteries. Back on Jan. 20, I linked to this transcript of a Cheney interview with USA Today. Here's an excerpt:

"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? . . .

"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."

We never figured out what Cheney meant by "brown cloud." But now I wonder: Is that what he disappears into?

A Mixed Blessing

Over the long weekend, Mike Allen wrote in The Washington Post: "Cheney's relish for the attack makes him an effective tool for the campaign, allowing Bush's team to level tough charges that will get wide attention, while allowing the president to keep his distance. But Cheney is a blunt instrument in an age when politics is delicately choreographed. His willingness to speak his mind has continued to provoke controversies, strategists on both sides said.

"At a time when Republicans are unified on nearly every other question, a number of well-known party members continue to talk privately about the possibility that Cheney will be replaced before the party's convention at the end of August. White House officials said there was no possibility that would occur."

As for fallout from Cheney's foul-mouthed escapade on the Senate floor: "[A] Cheney aide said the rebuke was the most popular statement the vice president had made in months, aside from his eulogy of former president Ronald Reagan at the Capitol. The aide said Cheney has received hundreds of e-mails and calls complimenting him.

" 'It was a give-'em-hell-Harry moment,' the aide said. 'It's been huge.' "

Wes Allison writes in the St. Petersburg Times: "A favorite pastime among Democrats in Washington these days is speculating that Bush will dump Cheney and tap former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or another moderate Republican with broader appeal." But among the Republican faithful, Allison writes, he "more than lives up to his presidential nickname: Big Time."

The Doctor

It's the "Talk of the Town" alright.

Jane Meyer writes in the New Yorker: "When George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney to be his running mate four years ago, Dr. Gary Malakoff, Cheney's personal physician, assured the nation, in a letter released that July by the Bush campaign, that Cheney, despite having suffered three heart attacks and undergone quadruple-bypass surgery, was 'up to the task of the most sensitive public office.' Four months later, Cheney suffered a fourth heart attack, and Malakoff joined Cheney's cardiologist in declaring him fit to return to work. Now Cheney has dropped Malakoff from his medical team, after nine years of service. In June, Malakoff was relieved of his position as chairman of George Washington University Medical Center's General Internal Medicine Division. Hospital officials said last week that Malakoff was on leave until September.

"It turns out that Malakoff has a history, going back to 1997, of abusing prescription narcotics. At the same time that he was attesting to Cheney's physical fitness, he was privately struggling with problems that call into question his own fitness to practice medicine and to treat one of G.W.U. Medical Center's most prominent patients. The Vice-President's office severed its professional ties with him after learning about the problems."

Cheney, the Un-Campaigner

Cheney was on a campaign bus trip during the weekend through the swing states of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, followed by a legion of reporters.

In retrospect, the contrast with effervescent glad-hander Edwards is acute.

Kate Zernike summed it up this way in the New York Times: "The vice president has never been much of one for campaigning. . . . "

At one point, she writes, "the audience got a little too excited. Their cheers forced him to read the same line twice. The vice president is a man who likes to get on with things.

" 'You guys want to hear this speech or not?' he asked, not angrily but not quite kidding. . . .

"Shaking hands outside the Republican Party headquarters in East Lisbon, Ohio, he moved along the rope line with the emotionless efficiency of a shopper loading groceries onto the checkout belt, cocking one side of his mouth only slightly into a smile. . . .

"And delivering his standard laugh line on John Kerry's raising taxes -- 'at least the folks back in Massachusetts knew he was on the job' -- he looked down at the podium and laughed to himself."

But Cheney was certainly leading the anti-Kerry charge effectively.

Mike Allen writes in Sunday's Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney attacked Sen. John F. Kerry on Saturday for past votes against a ban on flag burning, as the Bush-Cheney campaign opened a broad assault on the Democrat's record on social issues."

Nothing to Say to the Press

It's so rare for Cheney to willingly fraternizes with the press that even if he doesn't say anything, it's news.

G. Robert Hillman writes in the Dallas Morning News about Cheney's visit to the press bus.

" 'I was lobbied to come back, and I'm delighted to be here,' Mr. Cheney said.

"But not so fast, he warned reporters and photographers jostling for the best positions to duly record his visit.

" 'I'm not going to say anything special at all,' he said. 'So quit taking notes.' "

Sticking to His Story

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said yesterday that it has had access to the same information on alleged ties between al Qaeda and Iraq as Vice President Cheney, who suggested last month that the panel may not have been privy to all available intelligence when it found limited links between the two."

That would appear to be a slap at Cheney's suggestion on June 17 that he had evidence to which the commission wasn't privvy that supported his insistence that those ties were extensive.

Dana Milbank wrote in Friday's Washington Post: "Countering the staff of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, which found no 'collaborative relationship' between [Saddam] Hussein's Iraq and al Qaeda, Cheney renewed his accusation that they had 'long-established ties.' He listed several examples and stated: 'In the early 1990s, Saddam had sent a brigadier general in the Iraqi intelligence service to Sudan to train al Qaeda in bombmaking and document forgery.'

"Senior intelligence officials said yesterday that they had no knowledge of this."

Other Problems

For those not keeping meticulous track, here are some other Cheney Watch items from recent weeks.

• Cheney gets booed at Yankee stadium (New York Times).

• Cheney slammed by Ron Reagan for leaving Nancy unattended in the Capitol Rotunda (New York Times).

• 9/11 commission can't figure out if Cheney got permission from Bush before shoot-down order (Newsweek).

• Cheney denying he ever said that a meeting between Mohammed Atta and a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service had been confirmed, except that he had (Washington Post).

• New York Times/CBS poll finds Cheney with 21 percent approval rating. (New York Times).

The Edwards Strategy

Dana Milbank and Mike Allen write in today's Washington Post: "President Bush and Vice President Cheney bid Sen. John Edwards a cordial welcome to the presidential race as Democrat John F. Kerry's running mate, while the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee immediately challenged the North Carolinian's character, competence and ideology. . . .

"The two-part Republican response, in which Bush and Cheney welcomed Edwards while others ridiculed him, came as the Bush campaign acknowledged that the addition of the populist senator was a politically sound choice and one that added energy to the Democratic ticket."

Not the First Choice?

Howard Kurtz takes a close look in The Washington Post at the new Bush/Cheney ad, "First Choice," featuring Senator John McCain and "designed to remind people that Kerry had repeatedly discussed the vice presidency with the Arizona Republican."

Richard Sisk writes in the New York Daily news about how Democrats trotted out previous McCain statements of their own -- critical of Bush and flattering of Edwards.

Interestingly enough, McCain was apparently Bush's first choice too, in 2000, when he settled for Cheney instead. In March, for instance, James Kuhnhenn of Knight Ridder newspapers quoted McCain saying: "George Bush asked me in 2000 if I was interested in being vice president. I said no. I wasn't interested then and I'm not interested now."

F-Word Watch

U.S. News reports in its Washington Whispers column that Bush is quite a cusser, as well.

"Like past presidents, Bush is unapologetic about his cussing. In fact, when Democrats called on Cheney to apologize to [Sen. Patrick] Leahy, whom he crudely put down last month, it was Bush who blocked him. 'Bush said, "You said it, so don't back away from it," ' an associate says."

But Bush generally cusses in private. And while he may use profanity about his opponents, he doesn't actually spit it at them directly.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

It wasn't exactly like when Marilyn Monroe vamped it to John Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962.

Instead, a motley crew of White House staffers and/or reporters broke into something passing for "Happy Birthday" yesterday at Bush's photo-op with the president of Iceland yesterday. It was Bush's 58th birthday.

Here's the video of the photo-op. Fast forward to 5:45 to hear Bush say (it's not captured in the transcript): "Please do not break out in 'Happy Birthday,' it's embarrassing."

And on cue, the singing begins off-screen.

Pool reporter Mike Allen of The Washington Post filed this report to his colleagues: "In contrast to some of the President's other recent avails, he did not seem chatty. After he said, 'Thank you,' he added, 'Don't break out in "Happy Birthday." ' A reporter said, 'Happy birthday.' Then a number of people broke into 'song.' It is not clear from the pooler's position who was 'singing' or whether it was journalists. There was laughter. As the staff tried to usher out one journalist, she said with a laugh, 'I'm singing!' The President said, 'You call that singing?' Then he paused and said, 'No, it was beautiful.' "

Independence Day

Vanessa Williams wrote in The Washington Post that the president went to Charleston, W. Va., for July 4, "telling a spirited crowd Sunday that on its 228th birthday the nation is 'moving forward with confidence and strength.' "

David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times: "For Mr. Bush, it was a return to the theme of America as an enforcer of justice, a theme that he has used less often in recent months since the publication of photographs showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American troops.

"But those images have faded in recent weeks, and Mr. Bush, who was accompanied Sunday by his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, apparently felt comfortable returning to the theme without referring to the prisoner abuse scandal."

Here's the transcript of his speech in Charleston.

The Economy

Edmund A. Andrews wrote in the New York Times on Saturday: "Six months ago, in an anemic job market, President Bush would almost certainly have been delighted to hear that the nation had added 112,000 jobs the month before. On Friday, though, he found himself on the defensive.

"In an otherwise buoyant speech shortly after the government reported a surprisingly weak increase in employment in June, Mr. Bush struck a momentarily cautious note.

" 'We've got an economy which is changing,' he told a group of small-business owners at the White House on Friday morning. 'The nature of the job base is changing. And all of that means it's been a difficult period of time.' "

Here's a transcript of Bush's speech on the economy.

Stagecraft Watch

Edwin Chen had a big story in the Los Angeles Times yesterday about all the stagecraft that goes into Bush events.

"The White House leaves little to chance when it comes to projecting Bush in a favorable light. With its extensive location-scouting, technical expertise and attention to minute detail, the Bush administration is setting new standards in presidential stagecraft. . . .

"For nearly every public event, the White House considers creating a backdrop if a naturally compelling one does not present itself. . . .

"Before the president emerges from behind the curtains to deliver a speech or participate in a town hall meeting, they show him a precise diagram of the event's layout, including camera positions."

Irish Envy

Richard W. Stevenson of the New York Times weighed in on Irish reporter Carole Coleman's interview with Bush, and made this observation:

"Although he typically answers a few questions from reporters several times a week and has become more comfortable doing occasional full-scale news conferences -- where he often banters with and teases his American inquisitors and sometimes cuts them off -- Mr. Bush hardly ever agrees to sit-down interviews with American news organizations. This newspaper, for one, has not interviewed Mr. Bush since he took office."

Oversight Watch

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) had an op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post, bemoaning the lack of congressional oversight of the White House.

"When President Clinton was in office, Congress exercised its oversight powers with no sense of proportionality. But oversight of the Bush administration has been even worse: With few exceptions, Congress has abdicated oversight responsibility altogether."

Does he really think congressional oversight could be a hot issue?

Well, among readers it is. It was the most e-mailed story for part of the yesterday and today, surpassing even the breaking news about Edwards.

CIA Watch

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush said Tuesday he has not decided whether he will nominate a new CIA director before the November election."

NBC is reporting: "The Bush administration is seriously considering nominating John Lehman, businessman, former Navy secretary and current 9/11 commissioner, to replace George Tenet as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, NBC News has learned from multiple sources at the White House, the State Department and on Capitol Hill."

Today's Calendar

Pete Yost of the Associated Press writes: "Seeking to both reassure his conservative base and challenge a rival, President Bush is making a public push for congressional action on his judicial nominees from North Carolina, one day after the state's Sen. John Edwards joined the Democratic presidential ticket.

"Bush will use Wednesday's trip to highlight Edwards' role in blocking federal court nominees. . . .

"After North Carolina, the president heads to Michigan to meet other federal court appointees whose nominations have been blocked by Senate Democrats. Bush will also raise money for the Republican Party in each state."

The Blair Watch Project

Ed Johnson writes for the Associated Press: "Facing hostile questioning in parliament, Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged on Tuesday some friction in his close relationship with President Bush and the political problems the friendship causes at home.

" 'I am not daft about the politics of it,' Blair said."

© 2004