Hunting Cheney

Posted: Feb 16, 2006 8:05 PM

I admit it. I've never been a big fan of Vice President Dick Cheney's style.

 So maybe that gives me more credibility, not less, in rebutting the notion that Cheney shouldn't occupy the nation's second-highest position if he can't immediately come clean about an unfortunate hunting mishap.

 I seem to recall a certain prominent (and very likeable) political leader who once drove a car off a bridge. A passenger in that car died. He then waited a little longer than "immediately" before notifying law enforcement officials.

 Fast-forward to decades later -- today -- and you'll find one Ted Kennedy serving still as a respected United States senator.

 Give me a break. Dick Cheney's shooting accident, in which a friend was hurt, was nothing more or less than a good example of why people approaching their 80s shouldn't be traipsing around on quail hunts.

 It's also nothing more or less than laughable that many in the news media tried to make the accident look like another Dick Cheney "maniacal scheme." The auspices under which the press pursued this angle was the usual "public's right to know." (As I've written before, this supposed right doesn't exist in the U.S. Constitution.)

 That aside, this is as good a time as any to take the vice president to task for his generally nasty disdain for media dealings of any stripe or scope.

 Those who know Cheney well say he is both loyal and likeable to his friends. But let's face it, to the general public he comes across as the stereotypical grumpy old power broker who doesn't give a damn how the public feels, one way or the other.

 His dislike and distrust of the media is certainly understandable. He knows full well most of them hate him and that engaging them is usually a no-win proposition.

 I don't blame him for choosing Brit Hume and FoxNews as the forum on which to finally discuss the accident. At least he knew he would get a fair shake, rather than a frenzied shark attack from journalists who greet the situation as a chance to "get even" with the man they love to hate.

 At the same time, Cheney is the vice president of the United States. Whether he likes it or not, that plot of ground comes only with a deed that says there are some minimal public relations requirements involved.

 For too long, his standoffishness has helped perpetuate the myth that President Bush is some happy-go-lucky frat boy who plays president, while the gruff and serious Cheney goes about the business -- behind well-guarded walls -- of running the country.

 Cheney and America would have been better off had he submitted to that FoxNews interview a bit earlier than he did. Why perpetuate myths and deepen wounds with the media?

 In one sense this affair is terrible for President Bush, and in another it's not.

 It's bad for the president because, combined with all the other problems plaguing the administration and the GOP Congress, he doesn't need a vice president who engenders raw hatred from a biased press, and who draws increasingly poor approval ratings from a general public that doesn't keep up with the dynamics of vice-presidential politics. In short, the No. 2 guy at the White House is just another drag on this somewhat beleaguered, but well-intentioned president.

 Moreover, it makes the president look weak. Does anyone think that former President George HW Bush, while still President Ronald Reagan's vice president, ever would have left his boss hanging out to dry for three days while the vice president's staff handled things "their way"? Absolutely not. And if President Lyndon Johnson's second-in-charge, Hubert Humphrey, or Richard Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, had gotten out of line, they probably would have been shown the back of their bosses' hands.

 In fact, while Nixon personally enjoyed Agnew's famed attacks on the media during their first (and only) full term together, the Nixon White House effectively shut down Agnew's media presence almost completely after his most notorious tirade against the press.

 Yet President Bush has had to stay mum on the way in which Cheney handled the hunting accident. This has only added to the public's expanding image of Cheney as the commander-in-chief's father figure. That hurts not only the president, but his staff, too.

 There is a positive side, too. By sheer contrast to Cheney's perceived attitude of "I'm old, wise, connected and never again up for re-election," President Bush looks like one of the most caring, happy and upbeat men ever to inhabit 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

 Heck, the public even knows about the president having momentarily choked on a snack while watching TV some years ago. Cheney's regime probably would have classified similar information about their boss.

 It will be easy to beat up on Dick Cheney this week. And while my public relations concerns for him are valid, I stand by my assertion that the media frenzy over the shooting accident and their righteous indignation seem laughable when anyone recalls that this is the same crowd that hangs on every word of Kennedy. Let's have a little perspective here.

 More ominously for Cheney is one looming cloud on the horizon. If that cloud truly holds rain, it might force even many diehard GOP high officials to rethink their uncompromised backing of Cheney.

 The vice president's former chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby, is now saying his superiors authorized him to leak to media the name of a CIA "operative."

 If by that, "Scooter" means Dick Cheney authorized the leak, then we can all strap on our seat belts for a bumpy political ride. And Mr. Cheney really will need serious public relations help, with both the media and his boss in the White House.