Iraq puts Cheney in harsh spotlight

WASHINGTON - Walking through the Capitol last week, Dick Cheney marched past the assembled journalists who hoped to question him, brushing them off in his inflection-less voice with a curt, "Good morning," before slipping behind closed doors.

The vice president had come to buck up House Republicans at a time of growing anxiety about the state of affairs in Iraq, the cost of the reconstruction and the economy at home. And by all accounts, he succeeded. The Republicans left the session noting how "incredibly lucky" President Bush is, as their whip, Rep. Roy Blunt, put it, "to have a partner like the vice president in these challenging days."

The performance was classic Cheney - refusing to engage on the issues with the klieg lights on, but vigorously defending the administration and exerting influence behind the scenes. It highlighted the extraordinary role that Cheney - arguably the most influential vice president ever - plays in shaping nearly every major White House policy.

Yet Cheney's formidable presence has not been an unalloyed asset for the Bush administration. Along with the gravitas, reassuring air and mastery of inside Washington that he has brought has come a measure of controversy that has turned this low-profile vice president into a high-profile target.

Cheney's hard-line posture and recent statements on the Iraq war and its aftermath - suggesting ties between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks as well as other justifications for war that have not panned out - have put the Bush administration on the defensive and Cheney in the spotlight.

Democrats have invoked "Cheney and company" as a sort of shorthand for the hawkish wing of the administration, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, that made the most forceful arguments for war.

Among Bush administration officials, Cheney painted the most ominous picture before the war, saying that there was "no doubt" Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that the administration believed the Iraqi dictator had reconstituted his nuclear arms programs.

One of the administration's more spectacular claims - that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Niger - led to a White House retraction. It also spurred the growing scandal involving a former diplomat, Joseph C. Wilson IV, who investigated that claim for the CIA and deemed it spurious. It was Cheney's interest in the implications of an Iraq-Niger connection that led the CIA to look into the matter, Wilson has asserted.

Still, CIA Director George J. Tenet says Cheney was not briefed on Wilson's conclusions. Nor has Cheney been tied to accusations that the White House punished Wilson for his role in forcing the retraction by blowing his wife's cover as a CIA operative.

Alone among top administration officials, Cheney has continued to suggest that Hussein could have had ties to the Sept. 11 terrorists, even though some of the evidence he has offered has been deemed questionable by the CIA and FBI, and Bush himself has said, "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with Sept. 11."

Mary Matalin, Cheney's former counselor who is still an informal adviser, defends Cheney's use of such evidence, saying: "It's not questionable if you have other data that he has that's classified."

At every appearance these days, Cheney defends the decision to wage war in Iraq, saying that Sept. 11, the Bush administration's "defining moment," justified preventive action against a brutal dictator who "gave support to terrorists and pursued weapons of mass destruction."

On the domestic front, Cheney's aggressive effort to keep secret his meetings with oil industry officials while he was developing a national energy policy has turned into a fierce legal battle. The administration plans to appeal to the Supreme Court to avoid a court order to release information related to Cheney's energy task force.

Pointing to Cheney's resistance to releasing the documents, Democrats have complained that the Bush administration is too cozy with big business and operates in private, with little public accountability.

Critics still rail against Cheney's ties to and deferred income from Halliburton, the oil services company he formerly led. The company recently won a no-bid contract worth $1.2 billion to rebuild oil fields and aid the U.S. military in Iraq.

Cheney has said he has no financial interest in Halliburton, though his office acknowledged that he will still earn about $150,000 a year through 2005 in a deal he negotiated while at the company so he would be paid even if Halliburton failed.

Last week, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, released a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service that concluded that Cheney's deferred compensation from Halliburton amounted to continuing financial interest in the company. Others have asked for investigations into Halliburton's government contracts.

Among Democrats running for president, Halliburton has become a buzzword for their charges of a symbiotic relationship between the Bush administration and corporate America. References to Halliburton have become applause lines in Democratic debates and have even made their way to late-night television.

Remarking on the additional $87 billion the Bush administration has sought from Congress for Iraq and Afghanistan, David Letterman joked: "When you make out that check, remember, there are two L's in Halliburton."

Still, many analysts say issues such as Cheney's energy task force and Halliburton have little traction with the public.

"If the Iraq issue turns against Bush, it will be because of body bags, not because of Halliburton," says John J. Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California and a former Cheney aide.

So far, Cheney has remained relatively unscathed by the criticism. He continues to play a central role in domestic and foreign policy decisions.

In recent weeks, in fact, as the administration has needed its heavy hitters to make the case for the contentious and costly postwar effort in Iraq, Cheney has emerged more and more from the shadows where he has generally operated.

Besides an occasional appearance on Meet the Press - one of the few public forums in which he will submit to questions, according to an adviser - he has given speeches defending the Iraq war effort and has attended fund-raisers and campaign events, kicking off the Bush-Cheney re-election bid in New Hampshire.

In polls, Cheney generally scores higher than the president in approval ratings. And he is revered in Republican circles.

One Capitol Hill staffer says that, among Republicans, Cheney is seen as "the indispensable man," the fixer of problems.

His position on the Republican ticket in 2004 is secure - a "done deal," his wife, Lynne Cheney, said in a recent television interview. And he still rakes in millions of dollars for the party as one of its top fund-raisers.

"If you are a Republican in a dark business suit who writes checks, odds are you have an extremely high opinion of Dick Cheney," Pitney says. "He comes to town, you open the checkbook."

Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University who has written about the vice presidency, notes that Cheney has always been able to stay "one step ahead" of any obstacle or conflict in his way.

"I don't know if he quite has the Teflon quality of Ronald Reagan, but nothing seems to have diminished his stature," Goldstein says.

In a job that has grown in importance since the days of Walter F. Mondale, when the vice president's office was first moved to the West Wing, Cheney has surpassed his predecessors in exerting influence, analysts and historians agree. Cheney, who was defense secretary in the first Bush administration, was instrumental in staffing the current one, bringing in longtime allies such as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, as well as the two men who have served as treasury secretary, Paul H. O'Neill and John W. Snow.

A former six-term congressman, Cheney is viewed as one of the House's own and has been crucial in helping the president navigate the unfamiliar terrain of Capitol Hill. The vice president's portfolio stretches from energy policy to bioterrorism to defense and foreign policy.

"It's no exaggeration to suggest he's the most powerful vice president in the history of the country," says William Connelly, a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University and a former Cheney aide.

"He's accomplished that in part because of his own modest ambition. He's not looking to be president. It makes it easier for the president to trust him."

Cheney, who unlike many vice presidents has said that he has no plans to run for president, attends most of Bush's meetings

He is at work by 6 a.m. and out by 6 p.m. And between his medication, a pacemaker-like device, a healthy diet and regular exercise - these days on the recumbent bicycle - he has kept his heart disease in check, Matalin says. "His doctors tell me at each checkup that he's healthier than the time before."

Bush and Cheney, said to have "no daylight between them" on the issues, according to one former associate, have a private lunch every Thursday - that is, when the vice president is not cloistered away in an "undisclosed location" for security reasons.

Some close to him say he has always been most comfortable behind the scenes - his Secret Service code name was "Back Seat" when he was chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford - and most uncomfortable dealing with the press.

"He's set up the job so he doesn't do things he doesn't like," Matalin says.

Another confidant says that Cheney, being a "practical politician," has probably bent over backward to maintain a low profile because of the reports early on in the administration suggesting that he was the real power behind the throne.

Others say Cheney's low visibility has been part of the Bush administration's style and strategy of controlling access, especially in times of controversy.

"He's had to step back occasionally because he's taken some hits," says Stephen Hess, a government fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But his fingerprints are all over the place."

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