"Big time" Dick goes small time

Bush's homespun No. 2 gets ugly at remote stops along the campaign trail -- while never breaking out of grandpa mode.


Jake Tapper
October 9, 2000 11:27AM (UTC)

It's the big annual East-West high school football game, and GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney is walking around the gridiron, making his way to the stands. But the greeting he's getting is hardly one you might expect, not quite "Big time."

"That's not George Bush!" a disappointed high school girl shouts when she spots the bald, portly ex-defense secretary.

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Cheney, 59, makes his way up to the press booth, where a local radio host reportedly forgets his name in the midst of introducing him, turning over the microphone to, "Secretary, um, what's your name again?"

Then, after Cheney's genial, gracious half-time remarks from the field -- in which he urges the crowd to vote on Nov. 7, "whatever your political affiliation" -- dozens of East High teens unfurl a bleacher-length banner that reads, "We Love Dick." They begin to chant the message: "We love Dick! We love Dick!"

And yes, they are joking. I ask the three East High School seniors responsible for the sign and the chant whether they're swept up in Cheney-mania, or something else entirely.

"Oh, no," says Danny Stafford, barely able to suppress his laugh. "We love Dick. And we don't get many big Dicks around here."

In what one might think would otherwise be a grandiose campaign schedule in the days following his strong debate performance Thursday night -- the biggest moment of his candidacy so far -- Cheney is sent to events with little fanfare. After hitting the battle between the East High Trojans and their rival, the West High Wahaks (where the home team loses), and a small veterans morning meeting at Waterloo Memorial Hall, he scurries around some impromptu Iowa State-Nebraska tailgate parties outside Jack Trice Stadium in Ames (home team loses) as well as making brief remarks at smallish campaign rallies in Shreveport, La., and Fort Smith, Ark. On Saturday, he heads back home to Wyoming.

They're mostly manly-type events in B-list towns in B-list swing states. He's joined throughout the swing by retired Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, who spreads his story about Gore selling his Gulf War vote to whichever side gave him the larger prime-time speaking slot (why? So he could wow the viewers of C-Span?). And the whole tour is, like Cheney, smaller than life.

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But this seems to be the way Cheney likes it. It allows him to revel in his homespun image, and get high marks for his anti-polish. "We must be in Shreveport," he says flatly on Friday morning, and the crowd goes wild.

Bush heralds him as an anchor to his unbearable lightness, and as a result, mild-mannered Cheney seems to be runnning for Chief Operating Officer of the United States. His staff lauds him as the ultimate example of who they are -- the folks who make the trains run on time.

He may actually be the ultimate staffer -- a former behind-the-scenes power broker in the Ford White House, the House GOP minority and the Defense Department. But this seems to have made him comfortable only in a system where he is accountable only to his patrons.

At Waterloo Memorial Hall Saturday morning, Cheney sits hunched at the front of the room, dressed like a grandpa out for a mall walk, looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man melting into his chair. Asked about the "food-stamp" Army -- a problem three times worse when he was defense secretary than now -- Cheney demurs, holding forth lifelessly like a high school principal.

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"He's very businesslike," says Leslie Remertson, 68, a Korean War veteran and lifelong Republican who's turned out for the donuts, coffee and discussion about the military -- clearly Cheney's favorite subject. "He's very professional. I remember him from those days when he was secretary of defense -- you had the feeling that he'd get everything under control."

Don Findlay, 35, the Republican candidate for a state house seat around Cedar Falls and a naval reservist who served in Japan during Operation Desert Shield, also gives Cheney high marks as "a decisive leader."

"He commands respect," Findlay says. "Secretary Cheney had the ability to communicate with the citizen-sailor such as myself as well as officers, and to inspire."

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But he doesn't seal the deal with everybody. After Cheney's passionless, if respectable, discussion, I approach two men who were sitting in the front row in full American Legion uniforms. Dave Boyd, a 51-year-old Air Force Vietnam veteran, and Randy Miller, 45, who served in the Navy, express anger at what they feel is a dilapidated state of the military. But they remain undecided about who they're going to vote for, despite the fact that no candidate talks more about the issue than Cheney.

"I haven't decided that yet," Boyd says.

"I wanted to hear what he had to say," adds Miller.

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At the East-West high school football game, Cheney stays in the press booth rapping with Simpson and shaking a few voters' hands for a relatively few minutes.

In the booth, Cheney communications director Juleanna Glover Weiss -- valiantly trying to get reporters to like her boss, who seems to have nothing but indifference to and occasional disdain for them -- introduces me to him. Someone asks if Cheney and Simpson are laughing at the traveling press corps, who sit immediately outside the booth, shivering.

"As a matter of fact, we were," he says, with his cockeyed, flat smile.

Then, more seriously addressing what he's up to, he says, "Alan and I have been friends for a long time, and we're enjoying each other's company."

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He turns his back to me and resumes his whispers to Simpson.

To suggest that Cheney's laconic manner isn't a style, however, is doing the man a disservice. He is crafty, wily and deceptively ambitious. His unprecedented leap from leading the search for Bush's running mate to becoming that running mate is actually par for the course in his long and illustrious career. He always seems to just end up being at the center of power, always just the natural choice.

For a slow-moving, out-of-shape, former three-pack-a-day smoker who's suffered three heart attacks, Cheney moves quick and fast. On the campaign trail, his wife and high-school sweetheart, Lynne, a former baton-twirler, often says that when Cheney was a high school running back, he may not have been the fastest guy on the field but "when he tackled you, you knew you'd been tackled."

Indeed. And that has been doubly true off the football field, whether as one of the youngest White House chiefs of staff ever, under Ford, or a fast-moving House member who became chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee in 1981, after only about two years of being sworn in as a Congressman. Or the man who became secretary of defense -- after having done everything he could to avoid serving in the military, and not having a particularly close relationship with his would-be boss, then-President George Bush.

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And now, bringing little in terms of electoral votes, ethnic identification or even sheer campaigning skills, Cheney has become the vice presidential nominee.

Not only that, but because of his role as head of Bush's vice-presidential selection committee, Cheney knows where all the financial, personal and professional bodies are buried for the next generation of GOP leaders whom he had personally vetted. How can former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska look at Cheney without remembering how he failed to disclose, as they turned over their most potentially damaging information to him, that he was in the running, as well?

Cheney embodies an amazing combination of ambition and Teflon. He's been able to continue his political achievements in a way that his previous patrons -- like former White House chief of staff Don Rumsfeld, or former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill., -- weren't able to. He's able to blast Gore with rhetoric unheard of, and no one seems to care much.

On Friday, Cheney laid into Gore's history of exaggerations by implying that he thought Gore to be emotionally and psychologically unstable, describing the vice president's "compulsion" and "uncontrollable desire" to fib. And yet, as always, Cheney seems to get away with comments that might not be accepted if others did them because of his style, because they come from beneath a veneer of competence and factuality.

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Immediately after being sworn in as defense secretary, for instance, Cheney publicly upbraided Air Force Chief Larry Welch for a matter that few in the military thought he deserved to be slammed for. With full permission from the acting defense secretary, Welch had been trying to get Congress to work out a compromise on a then-deadlocked debate over the Air Force's land-based intercontinental ballistic missile program. Cheney, however, thought Welch was being presumptuous.

"My instinct is to cut him off at the knees," Cheney said, according to "The Commanders," Bob Woodward's book about the Gulf War.

"General Welch was freelancing," Cheney said at his first press conference. "I'm not happy with it, frankly."

Cheney's public rebuke of Welch left the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe, quite upset. And later, quite critical.

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"Pitiful, Crowe said to himself," Woodward wrote. "In his first week in office, a new Secretary who has never served in the military, never served on any of the armed services committees, publicly chastizes a senior officer? Crowe had never heard anything like it. Clearly, Cheney felt a need to establish his machismo, to lay down a marker that he was the number-one guy around the building ... For Cheney to get in a public spat with one of the chiefs was below his dignity as Secretary. By trying to demonstrate his authority in such a public fashion, Cheney had suggested that he himself was uncertain of it."

Later, when Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, saw Cheney at a breakfast, he argued that Welch hadn't been even remotely guilty of the "freelancing" Cheney had publicly accused him of, and that while working with members of Congress Welch had made it clear that the final decision would be Cheney's.

"It was useful to do that," Cheney replied.

And usefulness is apparently its own defense. Cheney's comments about Gore came after a New York Times story detailing various Gore misstatements, mistruths, and exaggerations -- all condemnable -- from last Tuesday's presidential debate. Worth noting, however, is that Gore had commented in the New York Times story that Bush, too, told an untruth during the debate.

"In the debates, when he said that I spent more in my campaign than he has, the numbers show that he has spent twice as much as I have," Gore said to a Michigan TV station, as quoted in the Times. "But I don't seize on that as evidence of some character flaw. He made a mistake, and I'm not going to attack him personally."

The Times story had been mentioned by both Simpson and Weiss, and indeed seemed to be the linchpin for Cheney's attack. But when I ask him about Gore's comment -- and indeed the fact that Bush's remark that "This man has outspent me" is demonstrably untrue, by at least a 2-to-1 margin -- Cheney says that he hasn't read the Times story.

Likewise, during last Thursday's debate, after Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., jokingly noted that Cheney seemed to be "better off" than he was eight years ago, with his multimillion-dollar salary and stock options from his former employer, the Halliburton Company -- Cheney said, "I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it."

Oh, really? According to the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity, Halliburton Company under Cheney "has emerged as a corporate welfare hog, benefiting from at least $3.8 billion in federal contracts and taxpayer-insured loans."

Ask Cheney about these matters, however, and he bristles. One example: On the stump he talks about the importance of local control of education.

But Cheney neglected not only to vote in the 1996, 1998, and 2000 Republican primaries, but key votes on state and local school issues. He didn't bother to vote on a November 1997 constitutional amendment election that dealt with Texas' prepaid college tuition; or a 1998 local school board election in which two school board seats were decided by less than 30 votes. He didn't vote on a 1998 $76.1 million bond package to ease overcrowding in the school district; or a 1999 vote on a $49.95 million bond to expand Highland Park High School and upgrade technology in the elementary schools; or a 1999 constitutional amendment vote to authorize the issuance of $400 million in bonds for student loans.

About these votes, in mid-September, at the Economic Club in Grand Rapids, Mich., Cheney said, "It's much easier, frankly, to cover some of the trivial stuff that from time to time seems to dominate when we get one these feeding frenzies going. But it is unfortunate, I think, because what happens is it does not lead to informed debate and dialogue. It means you've got this huge news mechanism, a media mechanism, discussing trivia."

Education and local control of schools are one of the three main points of Bush's candidacy. That Cheney didn't play a role by even voting hardly seems like "trivia."

Nor does Cheney's obfuscation of the issue of gay and lesbian rights. Cheney's daughter Mary, 31, is one of his chief campaign aides and an out lesbian who once did gay-and-lesbian outreach for the Coors Brewing Company, traveling the country with Mr. International Leather 1999.

Yet Bush and the Republican Convention platform oppose the rights of gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, or to be protected from workplace discrimination. Cheney does not answer questions about Mary, despite her very public role on his campaign. Nor did he take a stand one way or another about gay and lesbian marriage, explaining -- as he should -- why he opposes or favors his daughter's legal right to adopt. She seems like a great woman, as competent as her pop and twice as gutsy, and she deserves a public answer.

As Christian activist Gary Bauer -- no friend to gay and lesbian rights -- pointed out in a Sunday New York Times op-ed, "Cheney, essentially agreeing with Joe Lieberman, said that people should be 'free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into' and that 'states are likely to come to different conclusions' on whether same-sex marriages should be recognized. He summed up by saying, 'I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accomodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into.'"

For Cheney, this apparently means that he still loves his daughter, just as he stood up for his longtime press secretary, then-Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams, when he was outed.

But beyond that, his rhetoric of inclusion and accommodation is disingenuous -- unless he's willing to say, in legal terms what that means for gays and lesbians even beyond his immediate circle of family and friends.

Or to explain why he doesn't think gays and lesbians should be allowed to adopt or be protected under workplace discrimination laws.

But, just as he stayed "neutral" when asked which team he was rooting for during the Iowa State-Nebraska football game, Cheney shows no willingness to take a position.

On Friday, after Cheney's performance in the debate, Bush heralded his running mate. "I was really proud of how Dick Cheney conducted himself last night in the debate," Bush said. "There's no question: last night, America got to see a man who, if need be, could be president of the United States."

That is unquestionably true. But there's a lot more to leadership than competence.

Cheney doesn't seem to think that he should be accountable, and doesn't seem to understand why a public figure should explain himself or his record. If he could renounce the First Amendment right to freedom of the press, suppressing the media during this campaign as he did during the Gulf War, you get the feeling that he would.

The would-be COO of USA, Inc., doesn't even seem to remotely like mixing with us low-stakes stockholders. He doesn't have to. The board of directors already picked him for the job.

With Grassley and Simpson by his side at the Iowa State-Nebraska game, hopping among tailgate tents, Cheney is asked by a gushing local radio interviewer if he's had a chance to try any of the local "beef-burgers."

Cheney says he's eaten one.

"The longer this interview lasts, the less food I'm going to get," he says. The interview ends immediately.


Jake Tapper

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

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