OK, everybody, listen up: The time has come for the nation to stage an intervention. We need to come together and convince the vice president that he needs to step down. And not just to save his life, but potentially to save the lives of millions of Americans.
More important than presiding over the creation of the new budget or chairing the administration's energy task force, this responsible act could be his greatest contribution to the country. It would be compassionate; it would be conservative.
Coronary heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in America today. Roughly 1.1 million Americans will have a heart attack this year -- with around 400,000 of them dying as a result. About 12.2 million people have a history of heart attack, chest pains or both -- with many of them, like Cheney, proudly, but irresponsibly and unwisely, soldiering on, denying the significance of the warning signs.
And now, while the whole world watches, the message the vice president is sending to his fellow sufferers is that power and position are more important than life itself. In fact, in so many cases, such pursuits become just another addiction.
And like any addiction, this one is rife with denial and self-delusion. The vice president began experiencing chest pains on Saturday. You'd think after suffering not one, not two, not three, but, yes, four heart attacks -- the last of which was just three months ago -- this might have set off a few alarms.
But not for Cheney, who not only kept to his arduous work schedule but his arduous social schedule as well -- partying with Washington lawyer Roderick Hills on Saturday night and Alan Greenspan on Sunday (and you know how the Fed chairman likes to get down). In the midst of all this, he told Wolf Blitzer on CNN: "I feel great."
He exhibited the same bonhomie when leaving the hospital Tuesday morning, telling reporters he felt "good." Come on, Mr. Vice President, you've just had a catheter tube inserted into your leg and run up to your heart to reopen the same clogged artery that'd been propped open by a metal stent back in November, and you feel "good"? What would it take before you admit to being "a little under the weather" -- the onset of rigor mortis?
The problem is that, like all addicts, he's not just lying to us, he's lying to himself. Cheney's doctors say there is a 40-percent likelihood that he'll have another episode like the one he just suffered -- not great odds. Nevertheless, Cheney has already resumed his supercharged work schedule.
"There is an increasing amount of scientific evidence," Dr. Dean Ornish told me, "that stress plays a large role. All these bypasses and angioplasties only temporize the problem. It's important to address the underlying causes of the condition rather than literally and metaphorically bypassing them."
Underlying causes, like, you know, the vice presidency.
When asked if he thought his ailing No. 2 should cut back on his responsibilities, our compassionate president said no: "He's plenty strong and plenty capable of carrying the workload that he's been working in the past." Of course, to the Bush family, Cheney is just a political version of the help.
The question remains: Is the vice president on a suicide mission -- or just unable to overcome his type-A addiction to the adrenaline highs of his lofty position? After his last heart attack, he was asked if he was worried about having another one. "I don't operate that way," he replied. No, you just put the gun to your head and see if the next chamber is the one with the bullet.
Which is why you would have hoped that the people who love him the most -- his wife, his daughters, his close friends -- would have intervened by now. But they haven't -- and clearly the enablers he works with are not likely to.
President Bush called this week's cardiac catheterization, which Cheney's cardiologist termed "urgent" and "significant," a "precautionary measure." To me "precautionary" suggests adding some extra fruit and vegetables to your diet, not having a balloon inflated inside your heart.
Of course, this is not the first time the seriousness of the vice president's condition has been obscured in a cloud of euphemistic understatement and out-and-out lying. "Dick Cheney is healthy. He did not have a heart attack," Bush told reporters last November when Cheney was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack.
And the obfuscation beat goes on. On Monday, Cheney spokeswoman Mary Matalin assured us that the vice president had checked himself in to the hospital for "a non-emergency precautionary procedure" after experiencing "two brief, mild episodes of chest discomfort" over the weekend. By Tuesday that had doubled to four episodes of chest pain.
Wasn't this the administration that was going to "restore honor and dignity to the White House" and put an end to linguistic hairsplitting? I guess it's just a question of subject matter: New Democrats lie about sex; aging Republicans lie about their cholesterol count.
Illness is supposed to slow us down a step, take us back a pace and make us reevaluate our priorities. In a culture that -- memorial service platitudes notwithstanding -- always puts the urgent above the important, Cheney could send a powerful message about what ultimately matters.
After all, vice presidents are supposed to attend other people's funerals.