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Cheney's Response A Concern In GOP

Sen. Trent Lott tells reporters how Vice President Cheney described the shooting incident to GOP lawmakers.
Sen. Trent Lott tells reporters how Vice President Cheney described the shooting incident to GOP lawmakers. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

"I guess he's so measured with what he does say personally, but boy, I'd think on something of this nature, you'd let your feelings [be] known," Michel said.

In general, Michel said, Cheney has "enclosed" his personal feelings so tightly to avoid showing them in public. "I guess that discipline upon himself is probably the thing that holds him back." Cheney, he added, is virtually immune to public criticism and image problems: "I don't think he really cares."

Former senator Alan K. Simpson, a fellow Wyoming Republican who hunts with Cheney, said the vice president decided when he was defense secretary during the Persian Gulf War that journalists ask "stupid questions" and distort things, and so he probably sees no need to publicly explain himself.

"Whatever he does, Dick will do it his own way, because whatever he does, it will be the subject of ridicule," Simpson said.

That disregard for public approval, though, can become a problem for the White House, according to veteran presidential aides from both parties. "When the vice president is immune to politics and tone-deaf to politics, as Vice President Cheney has shown himself to be at various stages along the way, then his perspective on this kind of situation isn't as sharp," said Ronald A. Klain, chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore.

Despite a string of political embarrassments linked to Cheney, including not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the indictment of the vice president's chief of staff in the CIA leak case and now the shooting, he remains a powerful force inside the White House.

A testament to his power is the deference Bush showed Cheney in the handling of last weekend's shooting episode. White House aides said Bush has not pressured Cheney to disclose more details about the shooting or to apologize.

One person close to both men said that Bush is the only person in the White House who could persuade Cheney to change strategy and that even high-level White House aides are reluctant to take on the vice president's office. That left White House press secretary Scott McClellan to be battered by reporters on national television.

"This is one of the challenges of having a high-profile, very powerful vice president inside the White House," said Klain, who added: "The disadvantage is when something negative happens involving the vice president, it is much harder for the White House staff to step in and exert control."

Typically, the relationships between vice presidents and White House staffs are fraught with politics and personal ambitions because nearly every modern vice president has used the position as a launching pad for his own campaign for the top job. With Cheney, Republicans have often boasted that no such dynamic would get in the way because he does not covet the presidency. Cheney has said he will never run for president.

Nonetheless, the relationship has become increasingly complicated. With no political future of his own at stake, Cheney seems indifferent to public perceptions of him. He prefers not to talk with reporters, favoring red-meat speeches before friendly audiences such as last week's Conservative Political Action Committee gathering or call-in chats to conservative radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.

His approval rating dropped to an all-time low of 36 percent in November, according to a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll, before rebounding to 41 percent last month. Although White House officials disagree, some outside Republicans wonder whether he has lost influence because his aggressive promotion of the Iraq war led to the CIA leak case and the indictment of his chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who resigned after being charged.

Mary Matalin, a Cheney adviser who has helped him deal with the shooting fallout, rejected suggestions that the White House's handling of the incident might result in political damage. "We have a history replete with evidence to the contrary," she said. "Every time we've had predictions of monumental liability, it never occurred."

Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.


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