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Mary McGrory

Giving the Country the Business

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, August 15, 2002; Page A25

President Bush's economic forum summary was a convention speech without the balloons.

It was full of applause lines and it had a villain -- in this case a balky, spendthrift Congress. Bush offered a minimalist solution: Just hang in and trust the American people. It wasn't much of a prescription for an ailing market, sinking stock prices and a meltdown of public confidence in the lords of the boardrooms. CNN kept switching to another California kidnapping and memories of Elvis.

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Bush's choice of words signaled that he was not going to bend himself out of shape trying to describe a problem that might complicate things in the upcoming congressional elections. He called the past six months "kinda tough." His summation was a collection of other well-aired themes about tax cuts; he spoke with great feeling about hard-hats and how they would benefit from an extension of "terrorist protection" to developers who would put them to work. There was no wild talk about restitution of lost wages and pensions to the thousands put out of work -- or back to work -- by the avarice of bottom-liners who sold their stocks and their employees down the river.

The forum was much criticized for the exclusiveness of the guest list. The assembly was heavy with eagles of high finance in handmade suits and only a sprinkling of sparrows, a selection of working people who were relentlessly referred to as ordinary Americans.

The president's casual approach, and his flitting from session to session -- with fervent promises to read all the papers they produced -- added to the "in your face" quality of the gathering, which in any case was guaranteed by the presence of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Anyone else might have been a little self-conscious about co-presiding at a meeting that was partly prompted by the proliferating problem of CEOs who didn't exercise their options to be honest, and Cheney, ex-chief of Halliburton, has questions to answer about his stewardship, which left him a super-millionaire and his company in shreds.

The vice president, who is extremely intelligent but limited in his imagination, seemed unperturbed, as ever. His self-satisfaction is one of several qualities he shares with his nominal boss. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the kind of accounting irregularities that have driven many captains of industry to the wall or at least to sell a house or two in Aspen.

Cheney would never be found guilty of the excesses of Dennis Kozlowski, the mogul with the $6,000 shower curtain. Conspicuous consumption is not Cheney's style -- although we can't know for sure, since we have little opportunity to observe him. Cheney is hooked on the quieter pleasures of pure, unadulterated power.

The Bush-Cheney team provides a tableau of the co-presidency that Hillary Clinton dreamed of in 1992. The division of labor suits them perfectly. Bush does the personality, Cheney runs the country. Bush lifts weights; Cheney does the heavy lifting on policy, foreign and domestic.

Bush feels he deserves to be president as his father was before him. He loves "being the president," he told one interviewer.

Cheney has no need for "Ruffles and Flourishes." He determined Bush's energy policy, under circumstances that are the subject of a court case brought by individuals who think that Enron executives should not be deciding how we will heat or cool the nation.

When Bush felt he needed to bring the Middle East to heel, he dispatched Cheney to the area. The policy that evolved was a declaration of their common attraction to Ariel Sharon, a tough guy who gets things done -- a role model for Cheney.

More recently, when a band of Iraqi dissidents came to call on our government, it was Cheney who talked to them and assured them by videophone that they would have a democracy in Baghdad. The vice president is the chaplain of the cakewalk corps, that company of bellicose civilians who crave war with Saddam Hussein.

Cheney shares all of Bush's ideology, his vision of missile defense, war against Iraq, permanent welfare for the military-industrial complex and permanent tax cuts. He presents no competition whatever. His health and his age preclude ambition and intrigue. Cheney recently announced he would like to keep his job, exhibiting a self-confidence that perfectly matches his principal's.

There are, however, limits to his loyalty, it seems. While Bush was assiduously taking notes at Waco, Cheney didn't try very hard to suppress a yawn. He just doesn't enjoy vaudeville in the middle of the day. Who could take seriously a forum that produced an idea of having the robber barons band together and "self-police" their ranks? Bush was enthusiastic about it.

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