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Bush's Cheney Problem

By Richard S. Dunham Dick Cheney's term as Vice-President is already shaping up as a case study for political scientists of the future. In the first few weeks of the new Administration, the former Halliburton CEO, White House Chief-of-Staff, House Republican Whip, and Defense Secretary has amassed the largest portfolio ever handed to a No. 2 by the Commander-in-Chief. Every President likes to claim his Veep is hands-on: George W. Bush's father did it with Dan Quayle. Bill Clinton did it with Al Gore. But Cheney's role is breaking new ground.

Just look at how he plays Merlin to George W.'s King Arthur: personally tutoring the neophyte President on the Byzantine ways of Washington. He has attended virtually every Presidential meeting with congressional leaders, intelligence operatives, and foreign heads of state. He directs White House planning on energy and the budget. He's a trusted adviser on national defense and foreign policy. And he runs a huge operation on Capitol Hill, where he represents the tie-breaking vote in an evenly divided Senate. If this pace continues for four years, Cheney is destined to become known as the most powerful Vice-President in U.S. history.

The Indispensable Man in the Old Executive Office Building is popular with the public, too. After his latest medical complication, Cheney's positive ratings hit an all-time high: 63% favorable and just 18% unfavorable, according to a Mar. 5-7 Gallup Poll of 1,060 adults.

JUST LIKE DAD? Yet the Vice-President's continuing heart complications have created a problem for the President. Here's the box Bush has gotten himself into: If he asks Cheney to take it easy, the President risks upsetting the delicate balance of a White House that has operated efficiently and effectively during the first months of his term. More important, from a political standpoint, he would be acknowledging that when he plucked his father's former Pentagon chief from the corporate boardroom last summer, he made a mistake. (Like Poppy did with Quayle.)

But if Bush allows his second-in-command to continue with his pressure-packed schedule of grueling workdays, he'll be accused by some of working the Vice-President too hard. And he runs the risk of being blamed if Cheney's health problems get any worse.

There's no way out of this political conundrum for Bush. The best thing -- the only thing -- the President can do (at least for public consumption) is to keep on keeping on. Cheney says he's as healthy as an overweight guy with chronic coronary problems who just turned 60 can be. His doctors say publicly he'll be able to serve out his term without any major problem. What's more, says Bush, Cheney's country can't do without him. "This country needs his wisdom and judgment," the President said on Mar. 6.

Talk about pressure from the boss. It's no wonder the hard-charging former CEO won't let up -- despite four heart attacks, quadruple bypass surgery in 1988, and the artery-opening procedure he underwent on Mar. 5. "What are you suggesting that I do about it?" he asked reporters on Mar. 7. "I'm 60 years old. I have a history of coronary artery disease. But I very much enjoy my job [and] am having a very good time. [I] don't consider it stressful." It may not be the ideal political situation for a public servant, Cheney admits, "but I'm willing to live with those circumstances. I have for a very long time."

FORGETTABLE. In the past, Vice-Presidents have taken ill from time to time. Six of them have died in office, including both of James Madison's running mates, George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry. The others: William R. King, Thomas A. Hendricks, Garrett A. Hobart, and James S. Sherman. You remember them all, right?

Of course not. And that's the point. The Vice-Presidency, for most of American history, was a forgettable and forgotten job, not worth a pitcher of warm spit, as FDR's first No. 2, John Nance Garner, once declared. But recent Veeps, including Walter F. Mondale and Gore, have been key political and policy advisers. And Cheney, in a very short period, has carved out an even more vital role.

For that reason, Bush has little choice but to allow his ailing partner to do what the Vice-President -- and his doctors -- feel comfortable with. It's not only the best way to maintain smooth White House operations, it's also the best political solution. If Cheney and medical professionals say things are O.K., Bush can hardly be blamed for believing them. The entire nation is hoping that they're right. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. He shares BW Online's Washington Watch column with Howard Gleckman

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