Bush's point man: Cheney stakes out new vice presidential territory

In the Bush administration, Dick Cheney is like a seasoned infantryman, "walking point" for the leader of his unit.

If the modern American presidency began during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, the same cannot be said for the modern vice presidency.

In the 82 days he served as vice president under Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman had precisely three official meetings with FDR. Nor was there terribly much in the way of other forms of communication. Before heading to Europe for a month shortly after his 1945 inauguration, Roosevelt issued written instructions to Truman on how-and how much-he could communicate with the president. "If you have any urgent messages, which you wish to get to me, I suggest you send them through the White House Map Room," Roosevelt wrote. But Truman was to do so only if the matter was "extremely" urgent. "I ask," Roosevelt added, "that you make them as brief as possible."

Truman apparently expected as much. Nor is it likely that it would have occurred to Roosevelt to do it any other way. "I barely know Truman," FDR complained to aides who suggested the Missouri senator as a possible running mate before the 1944 Democratic Party convention. For his part, Truman hadn't sought the vice presidency. Before being talked into it by party bosses, Truman complained in an off-the-record interview, "The vice president simply presides over the Senate and sits around hoping for a funeral."

The funeral that came was Roosevelt's. On April 12, 1945, Truman was hanging around the Capitol without so much as a single Secret Service agent when he got a call to return to the White House quickly and quietly. "Holy General Jackson!" Truman exclaimed, fearing the worst.

Back at the residence, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who confirmed the news for him. And so, with no more preparation than that, Harry Truman became the 33rd president of the United States. "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now," Truman told the White House press corps the next day. "I don't know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."

It was little wonder: The world was still at war, and the list of issues about which Truman knew little or nothing included the development of the atomic bomb and the promises that FDR had made to Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin at the Yalta Conference two months earlier.

This is not the way of Washington anymore, and it most especially is not the way of George W. Bush. This summer, over lunch in his office with two reporters he's known for more than two decades, Vice President Cheney brought up on his own the contrast between himself and Truman. Cheney was particularly struck by the dearth of Truman's face-to-face meetings with Roosevelt. "Just those three," he said, shaking his head in amazement. Asked how many times he had met with Bush, Cheney reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper.

"Let's see: three, four, five, six, seven," he said, examining his schedule. "Seven times-today."

Creating a New Template

Richard Bruce Cheney was well-known to Americans long before July 25, 2000, when then-Gov. Bush of Texas introduced him to a cheering Austin audience with a disarming bit of understatement.

"I believe," Bush said, "you're looking at the next vice president of the United States."

Bush briefly recounted the familiar Cheney biography: White House chief of staff under President Ford; Wyoming congressman and member of the House leadership; secretary of Defense in the first Bush administration. Bush then described the character traits he found so appealing in Cheney, principally his "integrity, sound judgment, and experience."

Bush could have added, but didn't, Cheney's reputation for absolute loyalty. So confident was Bush in his choice that he permitted himself a quip about one of his running mate's obvious liabilities: Wyoming has only three electoral votes.

Americans acclimated themselves quickly to the awkward fact that the search committee for Bush's running mate had been headed by none other than Dick Cheney. The upshot was that the relatively untested Texas governor chose as his running mate someone who was older, better spoken, and more experienced, not to mention more highly regarded in official Washington and foreign capitals.

The fascinating near-term question was what such a choice said about Bush and his prospects for success. But in the long run, political scientists will assess Cheney's impact on the evolving office of the vice presidency. Is the new template for the vice president that of an established party statesman whose job is to guide the president and help him run the country, while eschewing preparations for a presidential bid of his own? If so, this would represent a change of historic proportions and would complete the long, painful evolution of a job that has always defied easy definition.

"Future presidents might try to get a Cheney, but you'd end up with a pale knockoff," says Mary Matalin, an assistant to the president and a counselor to the vice president. "I don't want to sound like a sycophant here, but how many guys are likely to have the depth of experience and the breadth of knowledge? He's a hard guy to come by: a member of Congress and in the leadership; had previous experience as a White House chief of staff; served in the Cabinet, in time of war-plus an academic and steady as a rock."

Matalin suggests that Cheney's most distinctive attribute, however, is that he doesn't aspire to run for president himself. After all, the past two Democratic vice presidents-Walter Mondale and Al Gore-were chosen for the job precisely because they, too, had impressive Washington pedigrees.

"But those guys wanted to run," she said. "That changes everything." Matalin's theory is interesting and apparently has been discussed at the highest levels in the Bush White House, because at that private lunch with two reporters, Cheney made the same point.

Cheney agreed that Mondale's selection broke the old mold, but he also implied that as the job became more important, expectations rose. A powerful veep is now expected to be the party leader in waiting. This puts pressure on a vice president to assemble a political staff and conduct a parallel, if nascent, campaign operation inside the White House.

"That's what's different," Cheney said. "In this White House, there aren't `Cheney people' versus `Bush people.' We're all Bush people. I'm not running in 2008. I looked at running in `96, and decided against it. That was my time. In this job, I'm not spending my time figuring out how to do a side deal for a county chairman in New Hampshire or raising money for some guy in Colorado so he'll owe me a personal favor. One hundred percent of my time is spent doing the work of the Bush administration."

This does not mean that Cheney is above campaigning for GOP candidates, which he's doing this autumn, from coast to coast. But it does suggest that Cheney is doing so on Bush's and the GOP's behalf, not his own. Cheney also pointed out that both Matalin and the senior aide in his office, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., have the formal title "assistant to the president." The vice presidential and presidential speechwriting staffs are fully integrated. "It's a seamless operation," Cheney said. "We're all here to serve the president."

Bush apparently appreciates it. "I've got great confidence in the vice president, doing a heck of a good job," he said at a July 17 press conference in which he was dismissive of questions about Cheney's tenure at Halliburton. "When I picked him, I knew he was a fine business leader and a fine experienced man. And he's doing a great job."

What Cheney Does for Bush

In July of 2000, Bush gave two reasons for choosing Cheney: "I picked him because he is, without a doubt, fully capable of being the president of the United States," Bush said. "And I picked him because he will be a valuable partner in a Bush administration."

Neither Democrats nor political commentators contested the supposition that Cheney, as vice president, would have a substantive role in a new administration. Quite the contrary. Cheney's critics, after failing during the campaign to use his far-right voting record in the House to morph him from an amiable Western conservative into a closet extremist, settled on another story line: Bush is an abject dunce; Cheney is the real power.

This narrative became a staple of late-night television humor, although a hiatus occurred after September 11 when Bush found his voice and Cheney was often consigned to the dreaded "undisclosed location." But judging by the abnormal lengths to which the White House staff goes to keep the vice president away from the media, the image of Cheney as puppeteer remains a sore point inside the White House.

If the public's attitudes are any gauge, however, Bush's handlers are worrying needlessly. The president's favorability rating remains an improbable 70 percent in the most recent Gallup Poll. And 20 months into his presidency, he gets high marks in all the categories that measure leadership. Cheney's popularity rating is holding steady at 65 percent "favorable" to only 24 percent "unfavorable." Such numbers, while not quite as high as Bush's, put Cheney squarely between stalwart U.S. ally and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (69 percent) and the Rev. Billy Graham (60 percent)-and far ahead of the most prominent Democrats in the country.

In view of all that, one reason that White House aides are hypercautious about Cheney's press may be that they are all too aware that Cheney's role is indeed more expansive than the one historically played by vice presidents. The most tangible example of this came on Aug. 26 in Nashville, Tenn.

For months, some prominent Democratic Party leaders, European liberals, and much of the media led by The New York Times had been clamoring for Bush to step forward and present his case for war with Iraq. Bush was repeatedly being asked about the issue in encounters with the White House press pool. "The public focus for the month of August was supposed to be the economy-Iraq was taking place behind closed doors at the principals' level," recalls Matalin. "But as this was occurring, Bush was being asked about it every day at the `pool spray.' It was reaching a crescendo."

Most of the White House's senior officials, Bush and Cheney included, were "scattered to the seven seas," one aide recalls. Cheney himself was vacationing in Wyoming, but his staff was aware of his impending date in Nashville to address the 103rd annual national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Cheney's principal speechwriter, John McConnell, purposely returned from vacation on August 19 and called his boss. After 9/11, Cheney, in both public and private, had connected the new kind of terrorism to the prospect that weapons of mass destruction could fall into terrorists' hands. In addition, everyone who worked at the White House was aware of the pressure on the administration to make its case against Iraq. McConnell asked Cheney whether he wanted to address the Iraq issue in his VFW speech.

"Yes," Cheney replied. "We need to give a good, strong message on it."

So McConnell drafted the speech; both Matalin and Libby made minor changes, and it was sent to Cheney, who made changes of his own before delivering it in Nashville. At nearly 4,500 words, the speech was by far the longest of Cheney's vice presidency. He rushed through it in 26 minutes, delivering it in his trademark, just-the-facts manner of a Western sheriff, a style so bland it makes Brian Lamb sound like Al Sharpton.

But it was neither Cheney's delivery nor the media rollout-Matalin purposely did not hype the speech-that was supposed to make the news. It was the content. Cheney painstakingly built the case that Saddam Hussein was abrogating his written pledge to dismantle his arsenal of biological and chemical weapons, and was, in fact, intent on developing nuclear missiles.

"Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network or a murderous dictator, or the two working together, constitutes as grave a threat as can be imagined," Cheney said. "What we must not do in the face of a mortal threat is to give in to wishful thinking or willful blindness. We will not simply look away, hope for the best, and leave the matter for some future administration to resolve."

The hard-line speech generated some criticism (though most of it was in Europe instead of the United States) over a passage in which Cheney sounded dismissive of the utility of putting more U.N. inspection teams into Iraq. Some media accounts subsequently suggested that Cheney had been freelancing and had been walked back by cooler heads in the administration. Such reports cheered doves, who didn't want to believe war was imminent. But hawks saw something else in Cheney's VFW speech. What it signified, crowed conservative commentator William Kristol, was that the Iraq debate inside the administration was over.

Both sides were engaging in a bit of wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is that three days later, in a shorter speech to Korean War veterans in San Antonio, Cheney omitted his language about inspectors. Nor did Bush rule them out in his forceful address to the United Nations on Sept. And policy discussions about how to deal with Iraq do continue inside the administration. On the other hand, two senior White House officials told National Journal that Cheney had discussed his Nashville speech, if not its precise language, extensively with Bush before delivering it. Moreover, it was strikingly similar in tone and content to the speech Bush himself gave on Iraq this past Monday in Cincinnati.

In military parlance, what Cheney was doing for Bush was "walking the point." Author Robert Timberg, in The Nightingale's Song, his book about five Vietnam-era Naval Academy graduates, referred to decorated Marine Corps war hero James H. Webb Jr. as the point man for his generation. Nothing so grandiose is generally applied to Cheney; during the Vietnam War, he received student and, later, marital deferments, and he is the consummate organization man, not a classic maverick like Webb. But Cheney's tenure as Defense secretary familiarized him with the varied and exacting talents of a good point man, and as he has grown older, his abilities have become those of a seasoned infantryman walking point for his lieutenant.

"A point man is venerated in his unit not just for bravery, but for his judgment as well," Timberg said. "If there's trouble ahead, you're the person most likely to find it. Walking the point means you know what to look for, you know what you're doing."

That's what Cheney did in his Nashville speech. Regardless of media reports to the contrary, he didn't usurp Bush's authority. But he didn't bog his commanding officer down in too many details, either. It sounds like a Zen riddle: a good point man leads the unit but is not its leader. Cheney is nobody's idea of a Buddhist, but he is not uncomfortable with subtlety. And he's surely not shy about being out front.

Iraq was not the only issue area in which Cheney has filled this role. In putting together the Bush administration's energy task force in the first days of the administration, in going to the Middle East in March when the administration belatedly decided to become more active in peace negotiations, and in taking the pulse of congressional leaders on war with Iraq, Cheney was also out front for the president.

"It's clear the president relies on him a great deal," says Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain recalled how he went on a trail-riding and fly-fishing trip with Cheney many years ago in Yellowstone country and marveled at Cheney's uncanny ability to know where the trout were-and how to catch them. "I admired it, his instincts," McCain said. "I still do."

"He's kind of like our advance scout," said one White House official. "The president sends him ahead as a lookout."

`Should Have Stuck With My Old Chores'

The very idea of a sitting vice president serving as a president's point man on the issue of war and peace would strike most of the men who held the office before Cheney as wondrous, if a bit weird. Hatchet man on the campaign trail, sure. But point man on the most important policy question facing a president? Any history buff can rattle off a devastating line about the worthless nature of the vice presidency.

"It's not a crime, exactly," humorist Finley Peter Dunne wrote. "You can't be sent to jail for it, but it's kind of a disgrace. It's kind of like writing anonymous letters." Daniel Webster, explaining why he turned down the 1848 vice presidential nomination, said, "I do not propose to be buried until I am dead."

But former vice presidents themselves have uttered the best put-downs. "I never wanted to be vice president of anything!" growled Nelson Rockefeller. Hubert H. Humphrey once joked: "There is an old story about a mother who has two sons. One goes to sea and the other becomes vice president of the United States. Neither is ever heard from again."

The job has been especially tough on politicians who had powerful jobs before being coerced into the vice presidency. "Worst damn-fool mistake I ever made," insisted John Nance Garner, one of FDR's three vice presidents. "Should have stuck with my old chores as speaker of the House. I gave up the second-most-important job in government for one that didn't amount to a hill of beans."

Occasionally, sitting presidents have contributed to the canon of contempt for the vice presidency. Dwight D. Eisenhower, asked by a reporter to name a "major" contribution made by his vice president, Richard M. Nixon, paused before snapping in exasperation, "If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don't remember."

The source of such tension is no mystery-the vice president's chief purpose is to replace the president if he dies or is incapacitated. Ronald Reagan reminded people of the strain that this fact puts on even the easiest of relationships when he referred in 1988 to Vice President George H.W. Bush (albeit lightheartedly) as his "bodyguard."

Vice presidents are aware of it, too. Lyndon B. Johnson, a vice president who became president because of an assassination, was quoted by historian Robert Dallek on this very point: "Every time I came into John Kennedy's presence," LBJ said, "I felt like a goddamn raven hovering over his shoulder."

John Adams, the nation's first vice president, put it this way: "I am vice president. In this, I am nothing. But I may be everything."

Adams was probably not thinking about George Washington's mortality, but of his own possible election, for the question of succession was then unclear. When William Henry Harrison died in 1841, just a month after being sworn in, congressional leaders planned to appoint one of their own as president. Their desires were commandeered by the fast-acting vice president, John Tyler of Virginia, who rushed to Washington from Williamsburg, took the oath of office, and assumed the president's duties.

Some 126 years later, in 1967, the adoption of the 25th Amendment ended once and for all the constitutional ambiguity surrounding the vice president's accession to the top office. But Tyler had initiated the precedent that would enable seven future vice presidents to ascend to the presidency.

Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the man who followed him into the "nothing," put their stamp on the office in ways that lasted nearly two centuries. This was inevitable: Adams and Jefferson were strong personalities with keen, if divergent, senses of their respective places in history. Moreover, the vice presidency was a blank canvas. The Framers had spelled out only one day-to-day duty for the vice president, and that was to preside over the Senate. Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution holds that the vice president "shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote unless they be equally divided." Adams exercised this power regularly-29 times in all, a record that's never been broken.

In modern legislative history, such tie-breaking is rare, although vice presidents exercise it with relish. In 1993, newly installed Vice President Gore cast the deciding Senate vote to give President Clinton a much-needed victory on his first budget reconciliation act. Seven years later, when Gore ran for president, his campaign touted this as one of the highlights of his career in government service. Adams was also the first to moderate his behavior while presiding in the Senate, in an attempt to make himself a more viable presidential candidate. And he accepted the seemingly opposite role of spear-catcher for the president, though he complained about it to his wife, Abigail.

Jefferson, in turn, set the precedent of eschewing any pretense of being the president's adviser. The reasons were particular to the historical circumstances: Vice President Jefferson was of a different political party than his president, Adams (the only time that has happened), had run against Adams in 1796 before becoming his vice president, and would oppose Adams again, this time successfully, in 1800. But Jefferson's idea that a vice president's role did not include that of close adviser to the president eventually became the custom.

The 1796 election also started a tradition of regional ticket balancing that was to last until 1992. Michael Nelson, author of an acclaimed study on the vice presidency, A Heartbeat Away, describes ticket balancing as a craven practice for which the nation paid a steep price.

"The 19th century vice presidents make up a rogues' gallery of personal and political failures," says Nelson, a political science professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee. "Because the office was so weak and unappealing, an unusual number of the politicians who could be enticed to run for it were old and in bad health. Six died in office, all of natural causes. Some were embroiled in financial, others in personal, scandal. Several did not bother to live in Washington."

Nelson and other scholars believe this situation was bound to change as the presidency itself was transformed into an immensely powerful office. "It's a bit more of an evolution since World War II than most people have recognized," says John M. Murphy, a University of Georgia professor who has studied presidential communications. "The change occurred for some pretty practical reasons: the government grew enormously from 1932 to 1952, and the job of president grew accordingly. The White House staff grew enormously, the Defense establishment was reorganized by Truman in response to the emergence of the United States as a global power, and the president needed the vice president to do substantive things-tend the home political fires in the party, undertake diplomatic missions, and the like."

A Break With Tradition

Old habits die hard, however, and Truman's minimalist apprenticeship was followed by a succession of vice presidents who didn't fare much better in the job than he had. Lyndon Johnson felt constantly slighted by John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert; Johnson regularly degraded his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey. Nelson Rockefeller, who served with Ford, was apprised of little-and was dumped as a running mate in 1976 in favor of Bob Dole.

The true break with tradition, according to sources as disparate as Brookings Institution scholar Paul C. Light and former Vice President Dan Quayle, was when former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter chose to run in 1976 with Walter Mondale.

Carter's considerations in choosing Mondale were quite conventional, a matter of ticket balancing. Carter ran as a political moderate while Mondale was a liberal with strong support from union leaders. Carter was a Southerner; Mondale was from Minnesota. Carter was a governor; Mondale was a U.S. senator. Carter ran as an outsider; Mondale made no pretense of being anything but a Democratic Party-and Washington-insider.

But then Carter did something so simple, so obvious, that it now seems strange that it was such a radical break with existing custom. He gave Mondale office space in the West Wing. To Light, the academic credited with first realizing that the new paradigm was likely to be permanent, Carter's bold step was motivated by little more than an impulse to "take the job seriously."

But the Carter-Mondale partnership had its rough spots. In fact, establishing what amounted to a separate staff led to a new set of problems. "The irony of the new relationship that Carter created with his vice president was that it institutionalized the division within the administration and prevented the White House from articulating a clear message on the economy," argues Steven M. Gillon, a University of Oklahoma professor who has written extensively about the Carter-Mondale years.

Each successive president has at least kept the partnership status quo-and most have upped the ante. After besting George H.W. Bush in the 1980 primaries, Ronald Reagan chose Bush's man, James A. Baker III, as his own White House chief of staff. When it was his turn to run the country, the mannerly Bush continued the practice started by Carter of holding regular lunches with his vice president.

Moreover, although Dan Quayle was micromanaged during the campaign, Bush gave him significant leeway in picking his White House staff. The caliber of Quayle's staff can be judged by what his aides later accomplished in GOP circles. Spencer Abraham became a senator and is currently Energy secretary. William Kristol has become an influential conservative magazine publisher and commentator. David Beckwith is a respected spokesman who has handled numerous Republican candidates. McConnell, the current White House speechwriter, was another Quayle staffer.

In 1992, Bill Clinton added to the prestige of the vice presidency by single-handedly repealing 196 years of precedent with regard to ticket balancing. Gore was roughly the same age as Clinton, from the same region of the country, and from nearly the same place on the ideological spectrum. He was, in short, chosen to help Clinton govern and, if necessary, to take over the job himself.

Clinton explained it this way: "I can tell you that if you look at the whole history of the United States, and you ask any objective historian who has really studied it, Vice President Gore has been by far-not even close, by far-the most influential, productive vice president in the history of our republic." Clinton is given to grandiose claims on behalf of himself and his aides, especially when campaigning, as he was when he gave this testimonial. But few presidential scholars disagree with his assertion about Gore.

Then Came Cheney

To put the current partnership in perspective, it's instructive to remember the 1980 talks between Reagan's advisers and those loyal to Gerald Ford (Cheney was part of Ford's camp) who wanted the ex-president to run as Reagan's No. 2. The term bandied about was "co-presidency," but what doomed the negotiations wasn't that word-it was the policy-making duties Ford envisioned for himself. Well, 20 years later, those kinds of responsibilities were simply handed to Cheney the moment he signed on.

How the tale of "The Great Cheney Running Mate Search" became the story of "Cheney the Vice Presidential Nominee" has never been told in much detail. Cheney is one of the few who really know the story, and over lunch in his spacious White House digs a few months ago, he told it.

Cheney recounted how he received a call from Austin in the spring of 2000 when Bush had all but locked up the Republican nomination. Bush was feeling him out about being his running mate. Cheney, for reasons that go unexplained, demurred. All right, Bush responded. But would Cheney help out in searching for candidates and vetting them? Of course, Cheney replied. And so Cheney found himself walking the point for Bush and reporting regularly to him on the progress of the search. Each time, Bush would listen and then sign off jocularly by saying something like "You could make my problem go away," or "You could make my life a whole lot easier." Cheney was flattered, but he didn't realize how serious Bush was until Cheney called one day to say he'd compiled the list of finalists.

"Fine," Bush said, this time in a tone that suggested he wasn't kidding. "But I want your name on that list, too."

Only then did Cheney focus on the Electoral College problem: The Constitution requires electors to cast a ballot for at least one person who does not live in the elector's state, and Bush and Cheney were both living in Texas. He learned he could simply re-register to vote in Wyoming, but the other issue-was he really the best candidate?-was dicier. Cheney tells of spending an afternoon with Bush-vetting himself in person, so to speak-and prefacing the session by declaring: "Governor, I've had three heart attacks, I flunked out of Yale twice, I've had one DUI, and I can bring you zero electoral votes-you're going to carry Wyoming anyway." Cheney didn't characterize Bush's response, but obviously he wasn't dissuaded by Cheney's humility or his handicapping.

Lessons and Questions From Bush I

Certainly no consensus yet exists on the ultimate meaning of the Cheney vice presidency. Because politicians are such copycats, the 2004 Democratic nominee may be tempted to name a Cheney type-Matalin's warning about pale knockoffs notwithstanding. It is an open question whether Cheney is a throwback as a vice president or a blueprint for future choices by other presidents. Elder party veterans have been picked in the past-remember professor Nelson's 19th-century "rogues' gallery"?

Certainly, it would be incongruous if Cheney's tenure inspired a series of ancient, faltering warhorses. For one thing, the political duties of a president are so vast today that having a helpful spouse and vice president-and, preferably an energetic vice presidential spouse-gives a president four times as many headliners to send out into the world.

Meanwhile, choosing a running mate who lacks a realistic chance of running on his own cuts two ways. While a president doesn't have to worry about a rival power center in the White House, he might have a problem if voters don't see his running mate as presidential material. Some Republican leaders to this day fault the first President Bush for not replacing Quayle on the ticket in 1992. Although Quayle's perceived lack of gravitas is not an issue for Cheney, the upshot might be the same.

"I don't know what the Bush people are thinking at this point, but the opportunity to pick a new vice president in 2004 is no small thing in continuing the Bush/Republican dynasty in 2008," says Paul Light. "Cheney might be able to serve a second term, but he is in no condition to run for the White House in 2008. Bush would be quite right to pick his heir in 2004 when he has the influence."

It would be interesting to know what Bush and his political advisers have gleaned from the Bush I experience. Is the lesson of `92 that the Bushes are an uncommonly loyal clan-and that no serious consideration will be given to replacing Cheney, just as none was given to replacing Quayle? Or is the lesson that the vice presidency has become so influential an office that a president who ignores the issue of succession risks hurting his party? The definitive answer, which depends on the vagaries of human mortality and the election returns of 2004 and 2008, is unknowable now.

If anyone wonders what Cheney himself thinks, there's little question he relishes his job. "This is a man who loves what he's doing," says Dave Gribbin, a former top Cheney aide in Congress who followed him to the Pentagon and to Halliburton. "He's not the kind of guy who'd tell you, `I'm a happy man.' But he is a happy man."

In August, Cheney said publicly that he's quite ready to run again with Bush-provided Bush wants him to. This was widely seen as an effort to quell worries about his health. But earlier in the summer, in a quiet moment in his office, Cheney was asked the same question. "Like everybody else," he said, "I serve at the pleasure of the president."

Then he shrugged, as if to say, sure, he'd like to stay, but a good point man sometimes just has to head where he's told, whether that means walking into glory or into oblivion.