Prince Cheney?

Posted: Jul 26, 2000 12:00 AM
The last vice president struck by lightning was Lyndon Johnson, before that Harry Truman, before that Calvin Coolidge and Teddy Roosevelt. The sequence is reassuring -- i.e., lightning induces a certain savoir faire in the people it hits. Can we ask for anything more? Federally guaranteed lightning?

On that score, the selection of Richard Cheney should meet with pretty general approval. Nobody is not going to vote for Bush because of the fearful prospect that Cheney might actually end up in the White House. The concentration is, rather, on whether the mere sound of Bush/Cheney is a more compelling sound than, say, Bush/Ridge or Bush/Keating. Most political analysts would probably tell you that manifestly it doesn't give off as galvanizing a sound as Bush/Powell or Bush/McCain --though there are probably 75 Americans left who wouldn't want to risk a black president, and 75 who wouldn't like the McCain they observed in New Hampshire and South Carolina as president.

My own view of it is that any man who is not ) president can't really be thought of as president, because the process of investiture, for understandable psychological reasons, is thought more sacramental than political. I illustrate the point by remembering the morning of Nov. 9, 1960. Scene, Hyannisport, the big summer room at the Kennedy family compound. One hundred reporters and cameramen are there at 8 a.m. waiting, as they had waited day after day, month after month, following around the campaigner and candidate, whom they referred to as Jack. The door opens and --everyone rises silently to his feet. That affable man they had mingled with, written about, played with, was suddenly the Prince.

That can't happen to a vice presidential candidate. It's different from the royal situation. The cameramen following Prince Charles hither and yon do so because Charles is going to be king. That isn't true in republican situations, where the vice president is by no means guaranteed someday to be sovereign.

There can only be one king, so that attention inevitably turns to the question: What can the No. 1 figure reasonably do to better his chances? He has to come up with a believable successor, and Bush has done so. There are those who think that his father stretched that challenge when first he came up with Dan Quayle. But if Quayle was indeed a liability, he was a liability Bush had the baggage capacity to handle: He did, after all, become president.

Those who have looked again at Cheney's biography are struck by his very young age when Gerald Ford named him chief of staff at the White House. It is reported that he had there, in the turbulent days following the resignation of Nixon, a steadying effect, both within the White House and on executive-legislative relations. He is a man of peace, which goes well with a sometime secretary of defense.

I had a personal experience with him that brings to mind his gift for avoiding war. At a dinner party I told him of my bright idea and serial frustrations. I thought to do one of the regular two-hour "Firing Line" television debates on the subject, "Resolved: That the U.S. military should exclude women from combat duty" and stage it at West Point. Management said, Negative! So? -- I would do it at the Naval Academy. Nix.

So at dinner I asked the secretary of defense if he would consider overruling the colonels and commodores. He said quietly, consolingly: Let's go for the Air Force Academy. Months later he had done nothing, and avoided telephone conversations. The debate was held at George Washington University, in the shadow of the Pentagon, but safely removed from it. Mr. Cheney displayed diplomatic skills.

These he will employ, in the months to come, by self-effacement. This is something vice presidential candidates regularly do, and Mr. Cheney is by temperament a quiet operator. But there will be one debate between the two men competing for the vice presidency. That night he will find himself pitted against ... Gephardt? Bradley? Oprah? And he will be up front to speak, as a former secretary of defense, on the question of anti-missile missile development. He will do well, though not too well -- that might dim the spotlight on the No. 1 man, and Cheney will not forget who that is.