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"Big time" punches in

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As Dick Cheney works the levers of power, a look at the Veep's schedule shows why he's a major league asset to President Bush

In the first days of any administration, the new President's schedule is picked over for clues to his priorities, his management style, his strengths and weaknesses. But this year White House watchers are following not only George W. Bush. Dick Cheney is being tracked with equal intensity. Last week, while Bush displayed his talents in a very public way--announcing new legislation to help the disabled, touring a school with former adversary Joe Lieberman, chatting up the minister while attending services at an African-American church--his Vice President was in the background, less visible but no less crucial to the workings of the new Administration. As a close look at his emerging schedule shows, "Big Time" Cheney's influence is vast, his portfolio unprecedented--just the way his boss wants it to be.

The key measure of stature for any presidential adviser is time spent "in the loop"--the magical, shifting circle of power and influence in which the most sensitive issues are debated, the most profound decisions made. Cheney never leaves the loop. The President not only put him in charge of the transition but allowed him to install allies atop both the Treasury and Defense departments and place former aides at choke points throughout the government. After Bush's smooth first week in office, it was Cheney who appeared on the Sunday talk shows to tout the Administration's success. And last week Bush dealt with the first big crisis of his tenure--California's energy mess--by turning it, and the Administration's national energy policy, over to Cheney.

During the campaign, Cheney would sometimes go almost a week without talking to the man at the top of the ticket. Now they spend as much as two-thirds of every working day in each other's presence. Their togetherness begins at 8 a.m. with an intelligence briefing in the Oval Office. By the time Cheney settles into his yellow chair near the fireplace for that session, he has already received his daily CIA briefing. To maximize efficiency, he is briefed during the 25-minute ride from the McLean, Va., town house where he and his wife Lynne are living while the Vice President's residence is being renovated. In the Oval Office, fueled by a breakfast of black coffee, Cheney reviews intelligence issues with the President, then stays for a National Security briefing with Bush and senior staff.

Out of the Oval Office by 9, Cheney walks in his polished maroon cowboy boots down the hall to his West Wing office, where he huddles with his chief of staff, Lewis ("Scooter") Libby, and other senior staff members to go over the day's schedule. Though Cheney has three other offices in town--two in the Capitol and one in the Old Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House--he, like Al Gore before him, plans to spend most of his time in the one closest to the President. That may be where the comparison between the two men ends. Unlike Gore and most other previous Vice Presidents, including the elder George Bush, Cheney is not treating this job as a stepping-stone. After briefly flirting with a campaign for the presidency in 1995, Cheney--who just turned 60 and has survived four heart attacks--has ruled out running on his own. As the current President happily explained to a group of congressional visitors the other day, "Dick's doing a good job because he's told me he doesn't want to be President."

That's one reason Cheney's stature isn't threatening to the new President. Bush trusts him completely and knows Cheney's power is something he himself created. Bush has often told friends that he put Cheney in charge of his transition because he wanted lawmakers in Washington to understand that the new Vice President would be a major player. "I want Dick to build up some political capital," he would say, "so he can go up to Capitol Hill and spend it." Bob Strauss, a Democratic wise man who was called into a White House meeting two weeks ago, says all the talk about Cheney's overshadowing the President "doesn't bother Bush one goddam bit. He thrives on it." At the Alfalfa Club dinner on Jan. 27, an annual black-tie gathering of the Washington elite, Bush even told a self-deprecating joke about "President Cheney."

With more power than ambition, Cheney doesn't need a big staff. His contingent of 50 is less than half the size of his predecessor's and fully meshed into the Bush operation. Except for Mary Matalin, a former talk-show host and G.O.P. operative who is his senior counselor, Cheney doesn't have a slew of political advisers weighing the impact of each development on his future. "He speaks with the authority of the President," says Matalin, "because everyone understands the Vice President has no personal agenda." According to Libby and Matalin, that means their boss will spend far less time than past Vice Presidents tending the gardens of politics--schmoozing and fund raising and campaigning for fellow party members--leaving him more time to work on the issues. And he is free to embrace politically perilous issues like the California energy crunch, something a future presidential candidate may have wanted to avoid.

Like Vice Presidents Gore and Dan Quayle, Cheney has a standing weekly lunch date with his President. The one-on-one with the boss is among a Veep's most coveted perks. For all the alleged closeness between Gore and Bill Clinton, Gore had to ask for his lunch and fight to keep it on Clinton's schedule. For Cheney and Bush, however, the Thursday meal is almost superfluous since they spend so much of their day together. (In addition to the morning briefing and scheduled events, they reunite in the Oval Office every afternoon for economic- and domestic-policy meetings.) But the lunch is important because the two men are completely alone. There they discuss issues like whether some adviser has too broad a portfolio or whether a new Cabinet Secretary can handle a looming challenge.

Cheney's lunch with Bush may be the least interesting of his midday meals. Each Tuesday the Vice President plans to travel to the Senate for the Republican conference lunch, and he has promised to make regular visits to the House on Wednesdays. Such visits are rare. When Quayle, the last Veep to have regular lunch dates on the Hill, met with Senators, he was not seen as a significant conduit to the White House. Cheney, however, sends all kinds of strong signals. Republican Senators already consider him their 51st member, the one who will be needed to break tie votes. Even more important, they see him as a reliable link to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. "He has the delivery system and the capacity" to carry messages to and from the President, says a senior Senate aide. In meetings with lawmakers, Cheney holds back more than he holds forth. He doesn't work the room but sits quietly until he is introduced. Then he lays out the agenda quickly and without gassing on and on, a laconic style that few others in the room practice. He takes questions, but mostly he listens.

Inside Washington's chatterbox culture, Cheney's silence and trademark smirk make people nervous. In his office a picture from his Gulf War days captures the perfect Cheney pose--former President Bush and General Colin Powell standing in the foreground while Cheney lurks in the background with what an aide calls his "cockeyed look," his shoulders hunched and a slanted, slightly menacing smile on his face. Since his days as Gerald Ford's chief of staff and, later, as second-ranking Republican in the House, that look has invited all manner of interpretations. Returning from White House meetings last week, Republicans and Democrats were puzzling over what the man in the background was thinking. "He just sits there with a cat's grin," remarked one legislator. Maybe it was that opaque quality that Bush was referring to early last week when 15 Republican and Democratic Senators sat down at the long table in the White House Cabinet room and the President said, "Welcome to Cheney's charm offensive."

On the Hill, it's now widely assumed that while Bush spreads goodwill, Cheney will sow fear. He is the Administration's chief enforcer. His task is not to woo Democrats but to keep fractious Republicans in line. Senator John McCain got a glimpse of that Cheney two weeks ago, when he arrived at the White House for what he thought would be a private meeting with the President to discuss campaign-finance reform. Cheney was there too. And though Bush suggested he was open-minded about McCain's proposal to restrict campaign funding, Cheney made it clear he wasn't. McCain left the meeting wondering whose position would carry the day.

Cheney will be soothing the concerns of conservatives, who worry that Bush will give too much away to the Democrats to get legislation passed. House Speaker Denny Hastert--whose son landed a job on Cheney's staff--has taken to calling Cheney an extra whip, the vote-corralling job he held in his days as a Wyoming Congressman. As a Hastert aide says, "It's hard to turn the White House down when Cheney calls."

Cheney's biggest role may come in the sphere he mastered as Defense Secretary to the first President Bush--foreign policy. Last Wednesday the Vice President crossed the Potomac to the Pentagon for the first of another regular lunch session--this one with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Though all four are friends, and Rice and Powell worked with Cheney in the first Bush Administration, it has already become a Washington parlor game to guess who will prevail in the inevitable infighting. Both Cheney and Rumsfeld, who was Cheney's mentor in the Ford Administration, are far more hawkish than Powell. Cheney watchers believe Cheney installed Rumsfeld as a counterweight to the charismatic Powell.

For all his responsibilities, Cheney, like his boss, knocks off from work earlier than the crowd that preceded him. The first weeks of the Clinton-Gore Administration were marked by frequent all-nighters. Not so Bush-Cheney. By 7 o'clock most nights, the Vice President is on his way home. Last Friday most of his senior staff members were gone by 6. "He is feeling wonderful because everything is working so well," says an aide. But that's the Cheney way. On the first night of the Gulf War, Secretary of Defense Cheney ordered Chinese food and kicked back on his office sofa. Cheney's calm "comes from riding the range genetically for several generations," says his chief of staff, referring to the Vice President's Western heritage. It is a disposition that should serve Bush well, especially when the days get longer.

--With reporting by Karen Tumulty and Douglas Waller/Washington



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Cover Date: February 12, 2001

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