I pick me!

At least one veep also-ran is "baffled" by Cheney's self-selection.

Published July 26, 2000 10:37AM (EDT)

The GOP vice presidential selection process, Newsweek writer T. Trent Gegax quipped Monday night, is a rehash of the film "The Usual Suspects." You spend hours listening to one balding, unassuming character hash out with you the mystery of who Keyser Soze is. Then, at the end, you're stunned to find out that the guy telling the story is Keyser Soze.

Dick Cheney is Keyser Soze!

And if you're surprised, how do you think the other prospective running mates feel? Take Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, for instance. On Tuesday morning, Keating received a phone call from Texas counterpart George W. Bush, telling him what he was already pretty sure was going to be bad news: He wasn't the one.

Instead, Keating was told, that role would be assumed by Cheney -- oddly enough, the man who had interviewed Keating for the job and who had been supervising the entire running-mate selection process to begin with!

"The governor thought Dick Cheney was a great pick," says Keating spokesman Phil Bacharach, adding, "When it comes to the decision, Governor Keating would have to defer to Dick Cheney because of his expertise in foreign relations and international policy; in short his national and international stature." Keating and Cheney have known each other for some time, Bacharach explains, as they both served in the Bush administration. Keating had asked Cheney to lead the fundraising for the Oklahoma City Memorial. They're friends, Bacharach says.

That is not to say, however, that Keating was pleased with the oddness of this selection process and that, in the end, Cheney essentially picked himself. According to a source familiar with the process Keating went through, the Oklahoma governor did find that process somewhat "baffling."

In the job interview of all job interviews, Keating, after all, turned over his most sensitive personal, financial and professional information about himself to the very man who would end up applying for -- and winning -- the same job.

"On its face, it's pretty bizarre," says the Keating source.

From Keating's perspective, Cheney's moves were odd for other reasons as well. As head of the selection committee, Cheney was the intermediary between the prospective running mates and Bush. He had promised Keating that he'd get at least one more meeting with Bush before any decision was made; that didn't happen.

Nor was Keating aware that Cheney was a competitor. Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes told reporters Tuesday that she "assumed" that Cheney was open with other candidates about the fact that, since July 3, Cheney was a leading choice in the process he was supervising. She assumed that, she said, since he had been so forthcoming about so many other issues with her boss. But such does not seem to be the case with those he was interviewing, at least with Keating.

As of last Thursday, Cheney had called Keating's office to find out where he could reached over the weekend, and no mention was made then -- or at any other time -- that Cheney himself was in the running. When media reports surfaced that Cheney might be a candidate, Keating and those around him assumed that the stories had been leaked by the Bush team to bump off front-page stories speculating about the willingness of Arizona Sen. John McCain to serve with Bush. Then on Friday, NBC News' Lisa Myers broke the news that Cheney had flown to Wyoming to change his voter registration from Dallas to Teton County -- thus avoiding a constitutional prohibition against state electors casting their ballots for a president and vice president from the same state. Keating then took the story seriously, the source says.

This story, and others from those close to other running-mate candidates, serve to paint a picture of a selection process that was coming apart at the seams. On Thursday, the Bush team reportedly had even asked former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander for financial and other background information. Since the request was coming so late in the process, this led many Republicans to suspect the entire vetting system was unhinging. How could it not be, with the vetter suddenly a top candidate?

In fact, as spokeswoman Hughes acknowledged today, Cheney wasn't vetted the way that the others were. While he went through and analyzed the political records of prospective running mates like Keating, Michigan Gov. John Engler, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, New York Gov. George Pataki and former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, it was Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh who did what Hughes called a "similar" review of Cheney.

More questionably, while Cheney analyzed and hashed over sensitive financial and personal records of his competitors for the job, it was Cheney and Bush -- who is not known for attention to details or a long attention span -- who did the same for him. Asked who vetted Cheney's financial records, Hughes replied, "Just as with other candidates, secretary Cheney is the one who handled that."

Hughes said that since Cheney is a former secretary of defense, he has already been through numerous FBI background checks and had received a high security clearance.

Recognizing the oddness of the selection process, Bush spokeswoman Hughes broke down the timeline Tuesday for the press after Bush formally announced his selection of Cheney Tuesday afternoon in the Burnt Orange Room of the Frank Erwin Center downtown.

In March, at a post-dinner rap session in the library of the governor's mansion here, Bush asked Cheney if he had any interest in serving as his running mate. Though Cheney had always been a friend of the campaign, going so far as to help put together the Bush foreign policy and defense advisory group, he demurred, saying that he was enjoying his job in the private sector, as chairman and CEO of the Halliburton Co.

Fair enough, Bush said. Though, he said in his speech on Tuesday, he "kept the thought of him joining me in the back of my mind."

Several weeks later, in April, Bush asked Cheney to head the selection process; Cheney accepted. Plenty of individuals went through the rigorous vetting process, Cheney, Bush and the vetting team discussed the choices and reviewed their financial, professional and political records.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Cheney went to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas. On July 3, sitting in the den of the guest house -- as the new house is being built -- Bush and Cheney rapped for several hours, talking about potential running mates. Soon it was lunchtime. Over lunch-meat sandwiches that Hughes said were assembled by each individual, Laura Bush asked her husband how the process was going.

Bush motioned toward Cheney. "This would really be the best man, if he would do it," Bush said, according to Hughes. "I wish he would." Bush explained in his speech Tuesday that, having selected "a distinguished and experienced statesman" to head his selection task, he "saw firsthand Dick Cheney's outstanding judgment. As we considered the many different credentials, I benefited from his keen insight. I was impressed by the thoughtful and thorough way he approached his mission. And gradually, I realized that the person who was best qualified to be my vice presidential nominee was working by my side."

After lunch, Cheney told Bush that he would consider the possibility. He would need to talk with his family about it, he said. In his speech Tuesday, Cheney said that he had become enamored of Bush. Working alongside Bush was "an experience that changed my life this spring," he said. "I worked alongside Gov. Bush; I heard him talk about his unique vision for our party and for our nation. I saw his sincerity. I watched him make decisions -- always firm and always fair. And in the end, I learned how persuasive he can be."

On July 11 and 12, Cheney traveled to Washington to interview other candidates -- and to visit his doctors at George Washington University Medical Center to get a clean bill of health. Cheney, after all, has had three mild heart attacks and underwent coronary artery bypass graft surgery in 1988.

Cheney has "a long history of elevated cholesterol," according to Dr. Gary Malakoff, an associate professor of medicine, and has been treated for skin cancer and gout. According to Malakoff, Cheney "takes a long list of medications." He is also allergic to pomegranates.

Still, the doctors said he was healthy enough to run. A July 24 note given out in the Bush-Cheney press packets from Dr. Jonathan S. Reiner, also an associate professor of medicine, states that Cheney "continues to lead an asymptomatic and extraordinarily vigorous lifestyle. He travels extensively for work, exercises 30 minutes per day several days per week on a treadmill, and engages in vigorous recreational activities such as hunting."

On July 15, Cheney met with Bush to tell him about the candidates he had been interviewing, and the fact that he was apparently healthy enough for the job. Allbaugh, Hughes and Bush's chief advisor, Karl Rove, met with the two men, as well as Laura Bush, to talk "about the ramifications of the leader of the search becoming a candidate in that search," according to Hughes. It was soon after that that Bush contacted his father to have family friend and cardiac surgeon Denton A. Cooley consult with Reiner and Malakoff to give his OK on Cheney's bum ticker, too. They did so.

According to Hughes, Cheney was insistent that, even though he really really really wanted the job, he would present Bush with other viable options. "I remember being impressed that he was so fair and so thoughtful," Hughes says, though one wonders how fair Keating, Ridge, Pataki and the others think Cheney was.

It happened fast from there. On July 18, Cheney and Bush met in Chicago with Danforth and his wife, Sally. (Hughes says she assumed Cheney told Danforth that he himself was a candidate, too, though she wasn't sure.) On July 19, Bush called Cheney and told him he wanted to seriously consider him, asking if Cheney would be willing to leave the Halliburton Co. That day and the next, Cheney discussed his leaving with members of the board of directors of the company. On the 21st, he flew to Wyoming -- unbeknownst to the Bush campaign, Hughes insisted -- to change his voter registration.

Over the weekend, Bush contemplated his options at his ranch, and by Monday afternoon he had made his decision.

And then, the official version of this story goes, on Tuesday at 6:27 a.m., Bush woke up, fed the cats, gave Spot some water, brought some coffee to Laura and called Cheney at his Dallas home to tell him he had the job. Lynne Cheney answered the phone, Hughes said. Cheney, after all, was working out on his treadmill. Hustling his tail off, no doubt.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Dick Cheney George W. Bush