How to Angle

By Barton Gellman
Sunday, October 19, 2008

Vice presidential power was a term of mirth in governments past. Not anymore. Vice President Cheney may be the nearest thing we have had to a deputy president, and that hasn't escaped the notice of the candidates vying to succeed him. At the vice presidential debate, Sen. Joe Biden called Cheney "the most dangerous vice president" in U.S. history for his efforts to "aggrandize the power of a unitary executive." Gov. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, praised Cheney for "tapping into that position" and the Founding Fathers for "allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president."

Imagining Palin as "Cheney: The Sequel" is now fodder for cable television news. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked me the other day whether Palin could reprise Cheney's role, I gave a quick TV reply: Ambition and capability are two different things. Palin lacks Cheney's Washington savvy and policy depth. But that's not the end of the story. Anyone can learn Cheney's methods. For busy aspirants, I offer an executive summary of the Cheney Rules.

Fly Under the Radar.

When candidate George W. Bush asked Cheney to help choose a running mate in 2000, Cheney devised the most intrusive vetting process ever used in a presidential campaign. He insisted on waivers that gave him unrestricted access to the medical, IRS and (via the Freedom of Information Act) FBI files of each contender. He asked them to specify in writing whether they were vulnerable to blackmail and, if so, why. (Note to applicants: If you have to think twice about that one, discard the questionnaire.) But when Cheney became Bush's choice, he did not fill out his own paperwork. The cardiac surgeon who vouched for Cheney's heart now says he never met the man or reviewed a page of his records. Cheney "went down through everybody's negatives," former vice president Dan Quayle told me. "And everybody has negatives. . . . And nobody really vetted him on what his negatives were."

2. Winning Is Easy When the Other Side Doesn't Know About the Game.

See Rule No. 1. During his tenure as White House chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, Cheney emphasized the importance of letting all the president's advisers be heard in policy debate. "Be an honest broker," he advised a successor. But as vice president, Cheney cared more about winning. Just ask Colin Powell, Christine Todd Whitman, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft and other very senior Bush aides, all of whom learned about historic, Cheney-driven shifts of policy only after the fact. When Rice's lawyer, John B. Bellinger III, complained in 2002 to David Addington, Cheney's hard-driving counsel, that he had not been consulted about the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, Addington made no apologies for cutting out the National Security Council staff: "I'm not going to tell you whether there is or isn't such a program. But if there were such a program, you'd better go tell your little friends at the FBI and the CIA to keep their mouths shut."

3. You Can't Be Fired.

Cheney styled himself no more than an adviser to Bush, but he served at his own pleasure, not the president's. The vice president is a "constitutional officer, elected same as he is," Cheney said, referring to Bush. It takes a lot to push a veep overboard, as Cheney learned in his chief-of-staff days when he persuaded Ford to bounce Vice President Nelson Rockefeller from the ticket for reelection in 1976. Bush did not make the same choice in 2004, but he did lose some confidence in his No. 2 that year when Cheney's attempt to overrule the Justice Department on domestic espionage nearly brought about a mass exodus of Bush appointees.

4. Everyone Else Can Be.

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey and other people you've probably never heard of -- for instance, a CIA analyst named Benjamin Miller working on the National Security Council's staff -- became obstacles to Cheney and lost their jobs. Most people learned to get out of his way. Edward P. Lazear, who chairs the Council of Economic Advisers, has the customary self-regard of a man at the top of his profession. But he told my former colleague Jo Becker that he could not name a time when he kept up a disagreement with Cheney. "I might fight for 10 minutes or so, and you know, kind of try to argue it out with him. . . . But it's clear, by the time we've talked something through, I agree with him. I can't think of a case where he hasn't persuaded me."

5. Silence Is Powerful.

Cheney has a way of spooking people with no more than an expressionless stare. His longtime aide David J. Gribbin III described an encounter with Stephen J. Hadley, now the national security adviser, in a Pentagon hallway in the early 1990s after Hadley had just finished a briefing. "You know, Cheney somehow intimidates me," Hadley told Gribbin. "He's not trying to intimidate me, but when I'm sitting there briefing him, I'm talking a little fast, and my voice is a little high."

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