Inside the numbers: Vice Presidents

Posted: Sep 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Sometimes success with the public depends as much on good presentation as it does on good policy. It might be wise for the White House to re-examine both areas.

During my years of active involvement in Republican politics, I came to know former Vice President Dan Quayle. His public persona was different from the Dan Quayle many knew and liked. From the "Murphy Brown" incident to his notorious misspelling of "potato," Quayle suffered from a perception that he lacked the confidence and intellect to be an effective vice president.

In reality, Quayle was quite capable. In private conversations he seemed to be more in tune with the average American than most of his fellow GOP leaders. He also displayed both candor and humor, attributes rarely witnessed at his lofty level of the political world.

Ironically, as those who know the real Quayle attended the unveiling of a statue in his honor at the U.S. Capitol last week, the current GOP administration was struggling to make strides in its own battles with public perception.

Following President Bush's rather tepid speech to the nation on Sept. 7, in which he delivered the bad news that he would request an additional $87 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq, the president's declining approval ratings accelerated their slide. That prompted a rare television appearance by Vice President Dick Cheney on NBC's " Meet the Press" to help improve public perception.

Unlike Quayle, Cheney has no trouble coming across as bright and confident on TV. But while conservative partisans rarely want to hear the truth until it runs them over, it has to be said that Cheney's cool and polished brilliance can have the effect of unsettling many viewers.

Cheney's deliberate, understated style borders on condescension. In answering what could fairly be termed a barrage of tough questions by host Tim Russert on Sunday, the vice president brushed off the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been discovered in Iraq with a glib answer suggesting that such evidence does now or once did exist, whether or not proof can be found.

When confronted with his own 1980s quotes criticizing then-President Reagan for excessive budget deficits, the vice president said the nation often has made exceptions for unique circumstances like war. A reasonable answer, but one that might leave those of us who considered Ronald Reagan a great president to wonder whether the threat from the Cold War of his era was not an equally compelling justification for accelerated deficit spending.

Add to this the chilling discussion on "Meet The Press" about Cheney and members of his staff frequenting CIA headquarters, and even the strongest supporters of the administration could recognize that the vice president seemed a little too hands-on sure of himself for his viewers' comfort.

And therein lies the problem. For while Vice President Cheney seems almost eerily confident in the Bush White House's every move, much of the nation is currently unsure as to how and when the conflict in Iraq will last and at what cost -- both in dollars and, more importantly, lives. Couple that with an equal lack of public confidence over the reasons for the nation's economic troubles and the solutions to end them, and it's easy to see why it's not just policies that bear increasing scrutiny, but also the manner of their presentation.

Quayle often left the public with the impression that because he lacked ability, he was being kept off the media center stage to prevent embarrassment for the administration of the senior Bush. In turn, that may have undermined his self-confidence and in fact been a big reason that he came across as nervous and inarticulate.

Cheney's limited availability to the media and public may be for opposite reasons. His sheer command of the issues may appear to overshadow those of the president. But understanding policy does not always translate into an impression that one comprehends political reality. And the reality is that a growing number of moderates and conservatives who supported both the war in Iraq and the president's domestic agenda want a clearer picture of where we are headed. Will $87 billion turn into hundreds of billions? Is there a policy in the works to address employment issues if the economy recovery becomes a jobless one? And how will we deal with now-serious deficits?

The vice president and others who speak for the president need to connect more with the public by acknowledging reality, and by presenting a clearer plan for dealing with it.

In the case of Dan Quayle, it always seemed that everyone else in the administration knew a secret they chose not share with him. In the case of Cheney, there is, perhaps, the unintended appearance that he is the one with the unshared secrets.