Just how powerful is Dick Cheney in George W. Bush's incipient administration? In response, a member of the president-elect's inner circle raised his eyes skyward, signifying no limit. As transition manager, Vice President-elect Cheney can take credit for the cleverly crafted Cabinet that eases doubts about how the winner of the disputed election will govern.
In the 40 years that I have watched new administrations take office, this is the first Cabinet selected on other than a patchwork basis. In 1981, Ronald Reagan's stodgy Cabinet bore only a coincidental resemblance to his revolutionary campaign. In 2001, Bush's choices mirror his mainly conservative themes. Almost all his positions are supported by the appropriate Cabinet member. Bush's pro-choice nominees, opposing his and the party base's position on abortion, have been given portfolios unconnected to this contentious issue.
Here is the handiwork of Cheney, the ultimate Washington insider. He engineered the selection for the key defense and treasury posts of two Ford administration colleagues. His primary standards are experience and competence, combined with loyalty to the administration's program.
Cheney's emergence as a de facto prime minister is strictly a post-election phenomenon. Off to a slow start after Bush selected him as running mate, he was not a major player in the campaign. While Joe Lieberman and Al Gore were inseparable, Cheney was often out of sight (aside from applying a whupping to Lieberman in their debate). It was only after Cheney was named to head the shadow transition during the Florida recount that he came into his own as principal shaper of the Bush Cabinet.
Whether there ever was any reality in talk about Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge becoming secretary of defense, he never would have gotten past the Cheney screen. Ridge is a smart, attractive politician who gets along well with Bush but disagrees with him on key defense issues. Giving him the Pentagon portfolio would have been in keeping with the haphazard Cabinet-making of past Republican presidents, but Ridge did not meet Cheney's specifications.
Former Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana did, and Cheney liked him. But Coats, who had courageously criticized Clinton's irresponsible military interventions, is not a strong personality. Bush was not impressed by his interview, and it was back to the drawing board.
Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee recommended Frederick Smith, head of the Memphis-based Federal Express. But Cheney was not interested in anyone at the Pentagon with a steep learning curve.
It is certain that Don Rumsfeld, 68, would not be secretary of defense-designate today had it not been for former protege Cheney thinking of him for a job Rumsfeld held 24 years earlier. Yet, Rumsfeld is ideal for the Bush Cabinet. He will not be intimidated by Gen. Colin Powell, who upon his introduction as secretary of state sounded as though he also wanted to run Defense (and perhaps Education as well). Rumsfeld, mindlessly described as a liberal Republican in some accounts, was a hero to the conservative cause in the '70s when he deftly undermined Henry Kissinger's arms control schemes.
Treasury Secretary-designate Paul O'Neill was no more likely than Rumsfeld to be a Cabinet member were it not for Cheney. When Rumsfeld was running the Nixon administration's anti-poverty program with Cheney as his chief of staff, they corroborated with O'Neill as a Budget Bureau civil servant who knew where all the bodies were buried.
Cheney wanted to avoid continuing Republican appointments to the Treasury of successful financiers and corporation executives who were novices in Washington. Cheney's model for a Republican Treasury secretary was James A. Baker III, no master of finance and no ideologue, but an ace at bureaucratic politics. He was able to argue that O'Neill was not identified closely with Bush conservative policies but wasn't aligned against them either (at least not lately).
No vice president ever has begun an administration with such a power position or with such vast government experience. The two previous administrations in which Cheney played a major role (Ford and Bush senior) were failures, in large part because they strayed from conservative principles. Bush campaigned as a conservative Republican, and Cheney has forged a Cabinet obviously dedicated to competence but also sticking to what the president-elect advocates.