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Easy Does It

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Compared with Clinton--or Cheney--George W. Bush is certainly no workaholic. Does the President lean too hard on his heart-sick Veep?

If anyone in the Bush Administration deserves a day off, it's Dick Cheney. From the budget to energy policy to national security and foreign affairs, there's almost no major issue that doesn't feel his touch. But last week, just two days after he underwent his second cardiac surgery in three months, the 60-year-old Vice President was back at his desk--his return hastened, perhaps, by a boss who insisted there was no reason for Cheney to even consider slowing down. "He's very important," the President said. "He is needed. This country needs his wisdom and judgment."

The President clearly does. Bush chose Cheney in part because he wanted a Washington elder to rely on, in part because the former Defense Secretary's resume would send a reassuring message to the world. So it follows that Cheney's absence could send the opposite message. That he made such a quick return helped the White House downplay the seriousness of his problem. But aides say that after four heart attacks in 23 years, Cheney is inured to his health troubles and incapable of relaxing at home. When he was there briefly after the surgery, aides let it be known he helped his wife unpack boxes. Back at work, he told people to stop asking him how he was feeling.

But Cheney's John Henry routine also highlights his boss's more easygoing work ethic, reinforcing a stereotype that our new President doesn't like to overtax himself. Bush routinely takes an hour or more each day for exercise, is out of the office by 6, keeps a light schedule on the road and starts the weekend early, on Friday afternoons. Compared with Cheney, some critics say, he looks like a part-timer.

Bush aides have long since perfected the art of eye rolling to meet suggestions that Cheney, rather than his boss, is the man in charge. But there is no argument from the White House that this President has a way of doing business that is different from what Washington has seen in years. While the Clinton Administration seemed to thrive on chaos, Bush's is self-consciously calm, efficient, focused and results oriented. "He doesn't want our time to be White House time all the time," says chief of staff Andy Card. "He wants people to have a life. This does not have to be all consuming." Bush wants to dictate the terms of the job, not let the job dictate to him--which is remarkable, given the job in question. He urges advisers to go home to their kids. Even Cheney is out by 7 most nights. A staff member in the elder Bush's Administration used to leave his office light on and jacket draped over his chair to make it appear he was working all night. That kind of stagecraft isn't effective in the son's halls, says Mary Matalin, who worked for both Bushes. "There is no guilt associated with being able to make a respectable departure," she says.

Bush's take-it-slow-and-easy approach is yet another rebuke to his predecessor. Clinton came to office promising to work for the people "until the last dog dies." In Clinton's world, working hard meant exhausting yourself, something the President and his staff did regularly, especially in his first term, when leaving the White House before midnight was viewed as proof of a lack of commitment. Clinton's sheer effort was a key part of his message.

Not so President Bush. "I don't like to sit around in meetings for hours and hours and hours," he told TIME during the campaign. "People will tell you, I get to the point." Meetings should be crisp and should end with decisions. Talking matters less than doing. "People who make up Republican White Houses come from the business world and are used to a business-like routine: getting in early, getting it done and going home," says Bush spokes-man Ari Fleischer. By contrast, he adds, Democrats tend to come from "the world of government service, which is much more hectic and much less disciplined."

Even as officials who worked for Clinton concede the point, they argue that Bush's approach may not survive rough times. "These are high-pressure jobs," says Leon Panetta, who served more than two years as Clinton's chief of staff. "Someone has to carry the load, especially when there's a crisis." Bush has enjoyed a smooth stroll through his first six weeks on the job, but some say his need for order and structure makes him appear unsteady and slow to react when confronted with an off-the-script event. When he fumbled his remarks about North Korea last week--suggesting the country had not kept its international agreements, contradicting advisers who said it had--critics said he may have delegated too much, leaving himself unprepared.

When the crises come, it will help that not all Bush's aides mimic his work habits. "I wish I had his hours," jokes a senior Administration official. Card routinely works until Bush goes to sleep. Card's deputy, campaign veteran Josh Bolten, often leaves the White House after midnight. And top adviser Karl Rove rarely takes a break from plotting strategy.

Where critics call Bush's light work schedule proof that he's not up to the demands of the job, his defenders call it a sign of self-knowledge. Bush is keenly aware of his internal wiring. He knows how much sleep he needs and is fanatical about getting it. "He's a straight eight-hours man," says Mark McKinnon, his media adviser during the campaign. When a tighter than expected primary season with John McCain forced Bush to cut into that shut-eye, he was sick for nearly a month with a bad cold.

Clinton rarely wandered into the Oval Office before 9 a.m., but Bush is usually there by 7:15, with Cheney showing up soon after for their joint-intelligence and national-security briefings. But Bush often cuts out in the middle of the day for a run or workout, sometimes for two hours. (When he can't, his mood sours.) The White House staff secretary is under orders to have his briefing book for the following day in the Oval Office no later than 6 p.m. Even so, by then Bush has frequently punched out and headed back to the residence. He likes to have dinner every night at 7 and is almost always in bed and asleep by 10.

Bush runs meetings with the same precision. He starts by announcing the objective, listens and at the end recaps what has been decided. "When you leave a meeting, you know what you're supposed to do," says a top aide. And you leave on time. Aboard Air Force One last month, Bush appeared in the press section and bragged, "This is the On-Time Administration." He marks time so closely that a cult of punctuality has developed around him. "Pity the staffer who causes this President to be late," jokes a member of the Punctuariat. Running behind two weeks ago in Little Rock, Ark., Bush spent a paltry 23 minutes participating in a "leadership forum" in a packed school auditorium--cutting the event short in order to get back on schedule.

If health problems were to force Cheney to slow down and reduce his portfolio--adopting work habits more like Bush's--the President would at the very least have to make adjustments to his routine. A lightened Cheney work load wouldn't rob Bush of his Veep's most important function--offering advice and counsel--but it would put a heavier burden on other top aides. Bush might have to do more of the things Cheney now does for him that staff members can't, like tending to conservatives on Capitol Hill and resolving disputes between Cabinet Secretaries. If Cheney were to step down, of course, it would throw Bush even further off kilter. Governing without Cheney at his side is a prospect neither he nor his aides want to entertain. Those staff members willing to consider the idea simply call Cheney irreplaceable and leave it at that. Even so, the favorite parlor game among Republicans outside the White House last week--even among Bush friends--was speculation on who might replace Cheney if he were to step down. Colin Powell was the consensus choice, although the Secretary of State passed up Bush's offer last summer. Other names included the various Senators and Governors who were runners-up to Cheney.

Will Cheney run with Bush in 2004? As the Vice President said last week, that will be up to his doctors and, of course, the President. For now, Bush has made it clear he needs Cheney on the job full time.


Cover Date: March 19, 2001



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