WASHINGTON--Back on April 26, a few days after he had named Dick Cheney to manage the search for a Republican vice presidential candidate, I asked Texas Gov. George W. Bush if that assignment took Cheney out of the running for the No. 2 job. My reason for asking--which I did not share with Bush--was that the former defense secretary had seemed to me to be exactly the kind of partner Bush would want on the ticket, and even more, at his side if he became president.
The governor said: "It's interesting. Only one other reporter--Ron Brownstein (of the Los Angeles Times)--has asked me that question. The answer is: 'Not necessarily.' Dick is too modest to recommend himself. But I'm the one who will do the choosing."
I put the short exchange into the politics column of The Washington Post on April 28--and it stuck in my mind through all the weeks of increasingly heated speculation about which senator or governor Bush might pick.
Now, he has named Cheney as his choice, and it makes sense politically and governmentally, just as it did back last spring, when I was speculating for my own amusement about Bush's options.
Here's why: You must understand that Bush fully expects to be elected president. He may be wrong. Vice President Gore may beat him. But Bush doesn't think that will happen, and so, the choice of a running mate for him has more to do with a partner in government than an ally in the campaign.
Few if any Republicans match Cheney's credentials. For most of the past quarter-century, he has operated successfully at the top levels of government, first as chief of staff to President Ford, then as a member and deputy minority leader of the House of Representatives, and finally as secretary of defense in the elder George Bush's administration.
Second, beyond ability, the quality Governor Bush--like his parents--values most is loyalty. And both the former presidents, as well as colleagues of both parties in Congress, give glowing testimony that Cheney is a man of his word. Once he makes a commitment, he keeps it.
The irony is that, were it not for the Democratic-controlled Senate's rejection of the late John Tower as secretary of defense back in 1989, which forced President Bush to make a second choice for the job, Cheney today would probably be speaker of the House. He was in line to succeed to the Republican leadership and, as speaker, Cheney would probably have been too important a potential partner for a Bush administration to be chosen for the ticket.
As everyone has pointed out, Cheney is not the obvious political pick for the job. At 59, with a history of heart troubles, he may not be a likely successor candidate for president. He comes from Wyoming, whose paltry three electoral votes are guaranteed to be in Bush's column anyhow. His solid conservative voting record on economic, social and defense issues will comfort hard-core Republicans--but they were overwhelmingly pro-Bush anyhow.
But the choice of Cheney frees up Bush to do what he wants and needs to do politically: Focus his campaigning on the ticket-splitting, independent voters in suburban areas in the battleground states. Republicans in the Mountain states and the deep South will be happy to see Cheney come around; Bush won't have to bother. And it's important to note that Lynne Cheney has built her own following among conservatives as a harsh critic of "political correctness" and a lack of rigor and discipline in the schools.
Democrats will have no difficulty finding rhetoric and policy stands by both Cheneys that will raise liberal hackles. But his manner gives him immunity from the extremist label. Voters who saw his televised briefings during the Persian Gulf War remember the calm voice and thoughtful expression that are his natural style. His careful preparation will almost guarantee him a respectable showing against any Democrat Gore chooses to send into the vice presidential debate. And should Bush win, Cheney's friendships on Capitol Hill will be an asset in moving a legislative program.
Insiders say that Bush's choice came down to Cheney and former Missouri Sen. John Danforth. Both men are mature, deeply rooted in family and faith, with enough accomplishments in their past careers that neither hungered for this role. Both are serious about government and have the courage and experience to provide wise counsel to a president. By choosing a grown-up, Bush gave evidence of his own sense of responsibility.
Gore has a number of such people available to him--including at least two who, like Cheney, have retired from the political wars: George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, and Leon Panetta, the former congressman, budget director and White House chief of staff. Could we be lucky enough to go back to the future again?
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