The Cheney factor

With his blunt talk and trademark grimace, no one has ever mistaken Vice President Dick Cheney for the gossipy type.

These days, his stoicism may be fashioned more by circumstance than by his own choosing.

Pitfalls surrounding the war in Iraq have turned perhaps the most experienced and influential vice president in American history into something of a political albatross for President Bush and Republican lawmakers, and a legal liability to himself.

“We don’t talk about the current situation because he can’t,” Alan Simpson, the former senator from Cheney’s home state of Wyoming and one of the vice president’s best and oldest friends, said in an interview. “He’s been told by his attorneys and he knows at this point, there’s nothing he can tell me.”

Cheney’s office is entangled in a criminal probe of the alleged outing of a CIA agent whose husband publicly questioned the justification for invading Iraq in 2003.

No one stands charged with leaking Valerie Plame’s identity. But Cheney’s now ex-chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was indicted three weeks ago on charges he obstructed the investigation. The indictment says Libby learned of Plame’s job from Cheney. Democrats have piled on, suggesting the vice president’s involvement was sinister.

Cheney was a chief administration proponent of the war. In 2002 he declared “there is no doubt” Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he was preparing to use against the United States; such weapons have not been found.

Today, Iraq is building a democracy. But with more than 2,000 American soldiers dead, no end in sight to the insurgency and resources diverted from the broader fight against Al Qaeda, the war has grown unpopular and has battered Bush’s standing.

As the president maintains publicly that the United States doesn’t torture, Cheney has been dispatched to Capitol Hill to urge fellow Republicans, despite individual misgivings and upcoming midterm elections, not to restrict the tactics the government can use to interrogate war on terror detainees. The White House wants at least the CIA to be able to use controversial physical and psychological tactics _ if not torture under the legal definition of the term. The Senate has moved to ban the techniques, and the House could follow.

These developments have made the nation uncomfortable with its vice president. A Newsweek poll this month found 52 percent of Americans think Cheney deliberately twisted intelligence about Iraq to sell the war. A Harris Poll finds Cheney’s approval ratings dropped, from 55 percent just after the invasion of Iraq, to 30 percent today.

Don’t count Cheney out, though.

Several Washington insiders said unattributed reports that Cheney has lost sway with Bush seem exaggerated.

“He ain’t going anywhere,” Gary Schmitt, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and past director of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, said of Cheney, “and he still will be a significant voice inside the administration.”

Said Brad Berenson, a private lawyer who was associate White House counsel from 2001-03, “I’d be surprised if the relationship between the president and the vice president were genuinely strained. That doesn’t have the ring of truth to me.”

Bush displays loyalty under fire, and Cheney has been more visible after reports his stock was sinking. Cheney gave a Veterans Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and in a speech to conservatives said, “The suggestion that’s been made by some U.S. senators that the president of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on pre-war intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city.”

Celeste Colgan, a Cheney family friend, National Council on the Humanities member and former Halliburton Co. vice president under Cheney, said, “This is so temporary in the large scheme of things, these troubles and the polling data and people making irresponsible statements. In the course of the total picture, the nation _ and the world _ is much better off with him having served.”

Cheney, 64, has spent more than three decades in Washington, as a young chief of staff to President Gerald Ford and protege of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; a congressman who rose through the ranks of the Republican leadership and defended the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra affair; and President George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary during Operation Desert Storm.

For five years before becoming vice president to the younger Bush, Cheney served as chief executive at Halliburton, a huge and uniquely positioned oil services company, deepening his understanding of relationships between the Middle East and the United States. (Billions of dollars in Iraq post-invasion contracts have gone to Halliburton, which Cheney’s critics, fairly or not, have seized on.)

Cheney was thrown by the al Qaeda attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, though.

“It changed the lives of all of us,” Simpson said. “We’re fighting a Muslim insurgency of people who hate us.”

Cheney has always advised the president based on what he believed was the right course for the country, Simpson said.

“He’s not a sinister man, it’s very unfortunate.” Simpson said of the vice president’s image, but he added Cheney could care less about the criticism he now faces. “He’s an unflappable man. You can’t spook Dick Cheney.”

Cheney has made a career of bouncing back from humiliation, using failures or weaknesses to strengthen his resolve and embracing his convictions in the face of public scorn.

When he couldn’t cut it as a Yale man, he dropped out and worked building power lines in the 1960s. Cheney’s disgust with himself propelled him back to school. At public universities, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and began work on a doctorate, while some other men his age were sent to Vietnam.

Being a chief of staff to a president weakened by his predecessor’s scandal and America’s exhaustion with the Vietnam War put in a reality check for Cheney _ and shaped his belief that presidents needed stronger executive powers.

In 1975, “Ford was not able to respond to the fall of Vietnam because he was hamstrung by Congress _ the only thing he could do was pull out,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who worked as a congressional fellow for Cheney in 1984 and remains an admirer.

Cheney “was never one to tell a lot of war stories, but he was very explicit about his support for the institution of the presidency,” Pitney recalled.

A decade later, Iran-Contra bolstered those views. The ranking House Republican on the congressional panel investigating the convoluted arms-for-hostages scandal, Cheney was at the helm of the 1987 minority report that concluded there was “no administration-wide dishonesty or cover up” by the administration and no evidence of deep involvement or wrongdoing by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

The minority report also said that throughout American history presidents legitimately “engaged in secret diplomacy and intelligence activities and refused to share the results with Congress if they saw fit.”

Cheney was known as a hawk and a partisan conservative. He trusted a circle of few. And admirers say his Secret Service codename under Ford, “Backseat,” hinted at the power he preferred to yield behind the scenes.

But the man who married his high school sweetheart, Lynne, enjoys fly-fishing and pheasant hunting, and absorbs history books, also was widely seen as a straight shooter who did his homework before he staked out a position, listened more than he spoke, and when he did speak didn’t mince words.

Cheney’s friends say he is still that man today.

“Some of the press reports describing him are a caricature, they’re of a ‘Darth Vader,'” Laurence Silberman, a senior federal judge who co-chaired a commission that found no evidence the administration pressured intelligence officials to twist pre-war data on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, said in an interview. Cheney, Silberman said, “is as selfless a patriot as I know.”

But critics of the vice president, including some who supported the Iraq invasion, say 9/11 changed Cheney for the worse.

“It seems to me that he became right next door to what I would call paranoid, if not paranoid,” retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, said in an interview. “You can see President Bush and Cheney saying to themselves, ‘We will not have another attack like that on my watch.’ But in terms of the vice president, the focus is too intense, the passion is too great, and the desire to have perfect security even at the risk of our democracy, it just defies rational thought.”