WASHINGTON -- The intended shock value of Dick Cheney's selection as vice presidential nominee, germinating in George W. Bush's mind for some three weeks, was spoiled by a constitutional quirk. When Cheney flew to Jackson Hole, Wyo., (without the knowledge of Bush or his campaign staff) to transfer his voter registration, the secret was out. But the skeptics did not believe it.
A wide array of such skeptics speculated that a duplicitous Gov. Bush had used a distinguished supporter as a smoke screen to obscure pressure from House Republicans for Sen. John McCain as his running mate. Unfriendly liberal journalists suspected a "cheap frat boy's trick." A GOP congressional leader privately predicted Cheney would not be named while McCain was disposed of. Even the American Conservative Union's (ACU) David Keene, a friend and admirer of Cheney, was suspicious that hints of his selection were too good to be true.
While disguised by his characteristic smirk, Bush is too serious a politician to play games with the vice presidency. His reasoning was correctly analyzed by Sen. Chuck Hagel, one of the VP finalists. "When you really analyze what he (Bush) needs," the senator told me, "I didn't fit -- (being) a senator for only four years." What he needed and what Cheney provided, Hagel continued, was "security, national stature and experience."
Bush and his advisers were well aware that McCain could have been talked into the vice presidency by Bush, creating despair among Democrats. The governor is accused by critics of not being secure enough to take on anyone as difficult as McCain.
But an alternative interpretation is that Bush, as he became better acquainted with Cheney while performing his assigned task of checking out potential running mates, felt that he was someone professionally and psychologically better suited than McCain to succeed to the presidency. He is also more ideologically in tune with the conservative mainstream of the Republican Party.
Cheney has never worn that ideology on his sleeve. Not when I first met him in 1969 as a quietly efficient 28-year-old aide to Nixon administration anti-poverty chief Donald Rumsfeld. Nor five years later as President Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff. So, there was reason for surprise when Dick Cheney appeared on Capitol Hill in 1979 as a freshman congressman from Wyoming acting like a prototypical mountain states conservative: anti-gun control, pro-land rights, anti-abortion.
He quickly moved into the House Republican leadership and as party whip was indistinguishable on issues, but not on style, from a combative successor. That leads a conservative (who admires both men) to call Cheney a "Tom DeLay with table manners."
During five terms in the House, Cheney recorded a 90 percent conservative voting record as measured by the ACU. Almost all the votes compromising the "non-conservative" 10 percent supported Reagan administration positions such as tax increases and foreign aid rather than committing liberal apostasy. His one major vote against Reagan policy, for a federal ban against sex discrimination, reflected the House GOP leadership's position. Thus, he is a party loyalist as well as a conservative.
But he is not a yes man. As Secretary of Defense in 1989, he was concerned that the Bush administration was lowering its defense guard by overestimating the change wrought on the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev. In a CNN interview with me and my partner Rowland Evans, Cheney said "I would guess that he (Gorbachev) would ultimately fail. That is to say, that he will not be able to reform the Soviet economy to turn it into an efficient modern society." Secretary of State James Baker was outraged, but Cheney for the most part was proven correct.
Cheney's performance at the Pentagon, particularly in orchestrating the Gulf War, generated major support to run for president in 1996 within party ranks and corporate America. Writing his own speeches, however, he could not stir enthusiasm and stunned his supporters by dropping out early on Jan. 3, 1995.
He will not stir the masses in this campaign. But a political adage says that a vice president should be heard from only twice: first, when he delivers his acceptance speech and then, when he debates his opponent. Al Gore's experts at negative politics will have a hard time keeping Dick Cheney in the news.