Vice Grip: Dick Cheney Is a Man of Principles. Disastrous Principles

Article excerpt

EARLY LAST DECEMBER, VICE PRESIdent Dick Cheney was dispatched to inform his old friend, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, that he was being let go. O'Neill, the president's advisers felt, had made too many missteps, given too much bad advice, uttered too many gaffes. He had become a liability to the administration. As Cheney himself once said in a different context, it was time for him to go. It couldn't have been a fun conversation--especially since it was Cheney who had picked O'Neill two years earlier.

O'Neill stormed off to Pittsburgh and within days the White House had announced his replacement. Yet the new treasury secretary nominee turned out not to be much of an improvement. Like O'Neill, John Snow was a veteran of the Ford administration who ran an old-economy titan (the railroad firm CSX) and seemed to lack the global market financial experience demanded of modern day treasury secretaries. Like other Bush appointees, Snow came from a business that traded heavily on the Washington influence game. And--again typical of the president and his men--the size of Snow's compensation package seemed inversely proportional to the returns he made for his shareholders. Of the three new members of the president's economic team nominated in early December, Snow was the only one to get almost universally poor reviews. He was also Dick Cheney's pick.

Week after week, one need only read the front page of The Washington Post to find similar Cheney lapses. Indeed, just a few days after Cheney hand-picked Snow, Newsweek magazine featured a glowing profile of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that began with an anecdote detailing her deft efforts to clean up another Cheney mess. In a July speech, the vice president had argued that weapons inspections in Iraq were useless and shouldn't even be tried. That speech nearly upended the administration's careful late-summer repositioning in favor of a new United Nations-backed inspections program. As the article explained, Rice--the relatively junior member of the president's inner circle of foreign policy advisers--had to take the vice president aside and walk him through how to repair the damage he'd done, with a new statement implicitly retracting his earlier gaffe. Such mistakes--on energy policy, homeland security, corporate reform--abound. Indeed, on almost any issue, it's usually a sure bet that if Cheney has lined up on one side, the opposite course will turn out to be the wiser.

Yet somehow, in Washington's collective mind, Cheney's numerous stumbles and missteps have not displaced the reputation he enjoys as a sober, reliable, skilled inside player. Even the Newsweek article, so eager to convey Rice's competence, seemed never to explicitly note the obvious subtext: Cheney's evident incompetence. If there were any justice or logic in this administration as to who should or shouldn't keep their job, there'd be another high-ranking official in line for one of those awkward conversations: Dick Cheney.

Overruling Dick

Consider the evidence. Last year, Cheney's White House energy task force produced an all-drilling-and-no-conservation plan that failed not just on policy grounds but as a political matter as well, saddling the administration with a year-long public relations headache after Cheney insisted on running his outfit with a near-Nixonian level of secrecy. (To this day, Cheney and his aides have refused to provide the names of most of those industry executives who "advised" him on the task force's recommendations, though a federal judge has now rejected the Government Accounting Office's effort to make them do so.) During the spring of 2001, rather than back congressional efforts to implement the findings of the Hart-Rudman commission that called for forceful action to combat terrorism (including the creation of a department of homeland security), Cheney opted to spearhead his own group--not because he disagreed with the commission's proposals, but to put the administration's stamp on whatever anti-terrorism reforms did get adopted. …