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PressBill Press is co-host of CNN's Crossfire. He is providing exclusive analysis to CNN allpolitics.com during the election season.

Bill Press: Cheney proves he's not up to the job

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Now I remember why I hated college so much.

Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney reminded me of the worst of my professors: mumbling his way through 90 minutes, never once making eye contact or showing any emotion, mechanically rattling off facts and numbers, clearly in a hurry to get his lecture over with and walk out the door.

How many classes like that did we suffer through? We suffered through another one, in last Thursday's vice presidential debate.

Actually, it wasn't a debate. It was a college seminar. When it was over, I felt the same way about Cheney I felt about those long-ago stuffy professors: If he can't feel any passion for his subject, why should I?

Not that Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman was much livelier. But at least he looked in the camera, showed a sense of humor and spoke with passion. And at least he made sense.

Cheney had the tougher task. He had to defend GOP presidential hopeful George W. Bush's program. And he did a poor job of it, appearing confused or unprepared on a few critical issues.

How, for example, could Cheney claim he didn't know about GOP-sponsored legislation -- by Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas -- to restrict distribution of the abortion pill RU 486? Didn't he prepare for the debate? Doesn't he read the papers?

On this issue, confusion reigns in Austin, Texas. Bush refused to say, in his debate with Democratic Vice President Al Gore, whether he would sign the legislation. Cheney said he wasn't even familiar with it. Later Thursday night, on CNN, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told me Bush might sign it.

Bottom line: RU 486 has finally been declared safe for use in the United States, after 12 years of study by the Food and Drug Administration. But it could still be banned as an illegal drug by Bush and Cheney, who want to get government out of everyplace but women's bodies.

Cheney didn't do much better trying to explain Bush's energy policy. In fact, he fell flat on his face. Asked by the debate moderator, CNN's Bernard Shaw, how he could oppose drilling for oil in Wyoming yet support drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, Cheney said that was consistent with his energy policy. "Not in my backyard," quipped Shaw.

The former oil executive never did explain why drilling for oil in Alaska was preferable to drilling in his home state of Wyoming. He couldn't.

Both Cheney and Lieberman missed the boat on the issue of gay marriage. Lieberman went first, professing his civil rights record, yet admitting he was struggling with the question of how to guarantee gay and lesbian couples the same legal rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples. Cheney said: Me, too.

What's there to struggle over? The Old Testament might be interpreted to justify inequality for homosexuals, but not the Constitution. Whether you call it marriage or not, same-sex unions deserve official recognition and equal protection under the law. Period.

But Cheney's reluctance to stand up for gay couples is even sadder. It's no secret that his daughter Mary is a lesbian and lives with her partner in Colorado. How powerful it would have been had he declared that he loved his daughter, whatever her sexual orientation, and would fight to make sure that she be granted the same rights given every other American.

Shame on him for not doing so. So much for family values.

In other areas, notably international policy and military readiness, Cheney showed himself more knowledgeable than Bush: just the kind of experienced hand you want at your side if you're president. But that's not good enough.

Today, Bush doesn't need someone to help him, once in the Oval Office. He needs someone to help him get there -- and that's where Cheney falls short. He was a capable defense secretary and CEO. He would make a good, if boring, professor. But he's a lousy candidate, and he proved it again Thursday night.

Think of what might have been: Arizona Sen. John McCain; Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge; New York Gov. George Pataki; retiring Florida Sen. Connie Mack; Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel; retiring Ohio Rep. John Kasich; Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist; and former presidential hopeful Elizabeth Dole.

Too bad George W. Bush stuck himself with Dick Cheney.

 
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