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How Bush Decided

His choice of Cheney says a lot about how the Governor sees himself and what he learned from Texas and from his father

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When he sat down with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in a Chicago hotel suite on July 18, former Missouri Senator John Danforth assumed he was the only one in the room being considered for Vice President. After the intense three-hour meeting ended, Danforth came away thinking he might be offered the job. It never occurred to him that Cheney, the man in charge of Bush's selection process, was also his competition. "Cheney flew [me] up to Chicago," Danforth recalled last week. "I took that to mean Cheney had declined it."

In fact, by then Bush not only knew he wanted Cheney to be his Vice President; he also knew Cheney, his father's Secretary of Defense, would say yes. But that was information neither man shared with Danforth. He and 10 other would-be running mates had laid themselves bare before Cheney and his vetting team. They enlisted accountants, lawyers and doctors to look over their lives. They answered touchy questions probing for criminal records, past drug use and illicit affairs. Some of them, like New York Governor George Pataki, were summoned to private interviews. The process was so laborious that Senator Chuck Hagel needed a full two weeks. When Congressman John Kasich was finished, he couldn't close the flaps on the packing box he had filled.

But no matter how sharp their answers or how earnestly they stared into the candidate's eyes, the other hopefuls didn't have what Dick Cheney had: a spot in George W. Bush's comfort zone. To be sure, Bush wanted a running mate who was ready to be President. But just as important was a partner who would be loyal--someone, as Bush said more than once, "who likes me."

Which is why Cheney had such an unfair advantage. Unlike him, the others hadn't been on the phone constantly with the candidate for three months, sharing confidences, offering advice and proving their worthiness. They hadn't visited Bush in the Governor's Mansion and out at Dubya's new ranch near Waco, where the two had sat on the porch, taking in the endless view of the central Texas desert. And they had never bonded, as Bush and Cheney had, over their love of the West's open spaces, their shared conservative philosophy and their experiences in the oil business. No wonder it didn't take long for Bush to agree with what his father had told him more than once: that Dick Cheney was not just a "good man" but also a great choice for Vice President.

The way Bush made the biggest decision of his campaign so far says a lot about how he operates. By picking Cheney, he showed he was aware enough of his weaknesses--his lack of patina, his light resume--but confident enough to pair himself with someone who has brainpower and Washington credentials. Taking the arm of an experienced elder is something he learned to do in Texas when, as a neophyte Governor in 1995, he apprenticed himself to Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, the late master of Lone Star politics. Bush is doing the same with Cheney, 59, who, although just five years his senior, was already White House chief of staff when the G.O.P. nominee was still drifting through his "nomadic years" in Texas.

The Cheney choice demonstrates something else Bush learned as Governor of Texas: caution. He developed an aversion to taking political risks after his proposed 1997 overhaul of the state's property-tax law, a highly ambitious attempt to correct some ancient inequities in the system, ended in a revolt by G.O.P. legislators and business allies. Bush was able to salvage a tax cut from the fiasco, but he told Time last fall that the experience taught him that "the status quo is really powerful. In times when there is not a crisis, it's hard to get people to act boldly." And Bush knows from watching his father what happens when a desire for boldness is applied to a vice-presidential pick. Two words: Dan Quayle.

If Republicans were happy with the choice, Democrats were ecstatic. Even before the announcement was made, they had researched Cheney's public record and were ready with a barrage of attacks over votes he had cast in Congress in the 1980s. But when reporters peppered Cheney with questions about those votes--against banning "cop-killer" bullets, against funding the Head Start program, against calling for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison--Cheney and the Bush campaign seemed caught off guard.

In his home state of Wyoming on the day after the announcement, Cheney hedged, pronouncing himself "generally proud" of his House votes, though he might like to "tweak" some in retrospect. Then the next morning he said he wouldn't make "any apologies for" his conservative record. When NBC's Matt Lauer asked him about his opposition to a gun-control measure that even the N.R.A. had supported, Cheney quipped, "Well, obviously I wasn't in the pocket of the N.R.A."

The rocky roll-out of Cheney's nomination suggested his selection had been so closely held by Bush that it had never been thoroughly vetted by the campaign. In fact, the only person to examine Cheney's personal and business affairs was Bush. A day after the announcement, campaign spokeswoman Karen Hughes said Bush was still reviewing the Cheney trail, a statement Bush later made a point of correcting. Even so, it was as if the Bush team expected Democrats and reporters to accept what Bush clearly took for granted as universally understood: that Cheney, by virtue of his role in the Gulf War, was a man of unassailable credentials.

No criticism of Bush's decision stung more than the suggestion that his father had made it for him. Campaign aides had been struggling over just how to handle the old man standing behind the dugout since before the primaries. They have tried to capitalize on the public's nostalgia for the former President without giving credence to the enemy position that the son is a mere stand-in for the father.

And while Bush's father is perhaps the most experienced living consigliere on the matter of selecting a Vice President--having both been one and picked one--aides are loath to admit that the Governor ever sought his advice. The elder Bush's only role, Hughes insists, was "that of a loving father." At the suggestion that Cheney might be viewed as an old-style Republican more tied to the former President than to his son, a Bush adviser bellowed, "That's b_______!" Campaign aides insisted that Cheney was no different from other potential running mates, all of whom had some ties to the elder Bush. A spokesman actually argued that the former President was no closer to Cheney than he was to Elizabeth Dole, a laughable assertion to anyone familiar with the long history of friction between the Bushes and the Doles.

But as much as the campaign may at times have tried to distance itself from the father, his presence was felt throughout this process in ways that were impossible to deny. It was Cheney's rich and trusting relationship with Bush senior that gave him entree into W.'s close orbit in the first place. Even Danforth, no bosom pal of the son's, owed his close consideration in part to the recommendation of the father, who nearly chose the Missouri Senator as his running mate in 1988. And in the end, the father is wrapped up in the message sent by the Cheney selection. When Bush aides talk about Cheney as "a leadership pick" and as someone who represents the "integrity" and "civility" of a pre-Clinton-Gore era in Washington, they are using code meant to conjure up positive memories of the original Bush years.

Which is why, even as they play down the father's role in the son's campaign, senior advisers can't wait to tell you how the son benefits from President Bush's 68% favorability ratings. Internal research has led W.'s team to conclude that the elder Bush is an asset with the swing voters who will decide the election. "They know that the Bush brand is not extreme," says one of the admen shaping the Bush message.

The Cheney brand stands for quiet counsel, which is why he seemed to be ruled out for the No. 2 spot when he was named to lead the selection team in late April. For one thing, he had already told Bush he wasn't interested in the job. For another, he was seen mainly as a possible bridge builder to his onetime colleague in the Bush Administration, Colin Powell. The former general remained the younger Bush's dream running mate long after Powell had privately made it clear to W. that he did not want to be considered. As recently as two weeks ago, the Governor told confidants that he was still trying to find a way to bring the wildly popular former general onto his ticket.

But with Powell truly unavailable and the freewheeling John McCain unimaginable, the process moved in May to a second tier of contenders. The list of roughly a dozen names ranged from Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating to Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson to twice-failed presidential candidate Lamar Alexander. Each contender was given a questionnaire containing more than 80 requests for information, including 10 too sensitive to be answered on paper. To answer those, candidates were told to wait for face-to-face interviews.

"My wife and I were going back and forth in our minds about this," says Danforth. "We left politics six years ago and returned to St. Louis, where we wanted to stay. There were very strong pulls not to go through with it." In early June, the former Senator and Episcopal minister called Cheney and withdrew his name. Bush called the next day, but Danforth stood his ground. With Danforth out, the list of contenders grew. Cheney paid a visit to the Capitol Hill office of Tennessee Senator Bill Frist. Vetters were dispatched to the New York law firm of Dewey Ballantine to review Pataki's old records and set up meetings between him and the Texas Governor.

Bush was so secretive about the process that he kept even his closest aides in the dark. He would poll them at senior staff meetings--"Give me your top three picks!" he would demand--but he would never play the game. He flirted publicly with "bold" contenders like Tom Ridge, Pennsylvania's pro-choice Governor, but never let on that Ridge had quietly taken himself out of the running in early July, citing family considerations. And he kept coming back to the safest option--a seasoned Washington insider who would please the party faithful and whose fealty to the Bush family had been tested. "Loyalty," a senior Bush adviser intoned two weeks ago, "is the top criterion."

Loyalty was probably on Bush's mind at his ranch on July 3, when he met with Cheney to talk about potential running mates. Over lunch with his wife Laura and two aides, Bush gestured in Cheney's direction. "This would really be the best man if he would do it. I wish he would." After lunch, Bush and Cheney were alone on the back porch, and Cheney said he had changed his mind and was willing to be considered. He credits Bush's talent for persuasion for his conversion. "He grows on you," Cheney told TIME last Friday. "He's got a very important trait for a leader, the ability to convince people to set their personal desires aside for the greater good."

But even though Cheney was in his sights, Danforth had been coaxed back into the game by two Bush intimates and former President Bush's pollster Bob Teeter. Danforth described one call as "a real Uncle Sam poster. It was an 'I need you' kind of thing." And it worked. In mid-July, Danforth told Cheney that he was willing to talk to Bush.

But by July 15, when Bush met with Cheney at the Governor's Mansion, the only obstacle that might have prevented Bush from picking the former Defense Secretary had been removed. Three days earlier, Cheney--whose medical history includes three mild heart attacks and a coronary bypass--had been given a clean bill of health by his doctors in Washington. For backup, Bush's father put Cheney's doctors in touch with Dr. Denton Cooley, a renowned heart surgeon in Houston and a family friend. Cooley told Bush that Cheney's heart could handle the job. And so, on the 15th, Bush called his top three advisers to the mansion. They chewed over the possible risks of picking Cheney, but as chief strategist Karl Rove later said, they didn't come up with much to fear.

Though Cheney was now the certain choice, Bush went ahead with the three- hour July 18 meeting in Chicago with Danforth. Cheney excused himself after an hour and a half, leaving the two men to discuss their faith and their governing philosophies. Danforth's wife even quizzed the candidate about his beliefs. After the meeting was over, Danforth told Cheney he would serve if asked. But Bush never asked. The next morning, he called Cheney and formally offered him the spot.

After an awkward launch, the Bush-Cheney ticket was showing signs of what former President Bush used to call "the Big Mo." On Friday, the two men stormed into Arkansas and Missouri, states Clinton and Gore won twice, and were met with big, boisterous crowds. Campaign advisers were crowing over polls showing Bush's lead over Gore expanding, and it was clear that among Republicans, at least--for whom the memory of the Bush years burns brightest--the new candidate was a hit. "Mercy," said Cheney, a reluctant campaigner who seemed surprised by the crowd's ecstatic reaction. All week Bush had been talking about how he picked Cheney not because the taciturn insider would help win the election but because he would make a good partner in the White House. On the eve of the Republican Convention, it seemed possible that Cheney could help Bush do both.

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Cover Date: July 31, 2000



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