Vice presidential power was a term of mirth in governments past. Not anymore. Vice President Cheney may be the nearest thing we have had to a deputy president.
But anyone can learn Cheney's methods. Here's an executive summary of the Cheney Rules.
1. Fly Under the Radar.
When candidate George W. Bush asked Cheney to help choose a running mate in 2000, Cheney devised the most intrusive vetting process ever used in a presidential campaign. He insisted on waivers giving him unrestricted access to the medical, IRS and FBI files of each contender. He asked them to specify in writing whether they were vulnerable to blackmail and, if so, why. But when Cheney became Bush's choice, he did not fill out his own paperwork. The cardiac surgeon who vouched for Cheney's heart says he never met him nor reviewed a page of his records.
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2. Winning Is Easy When the Other Side Doesn't Know About the Game.
See Rule No. 1. As White House chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, Cheney emphasized letting all the president's advisers be heard in policy debate. But as vice president, Cheney cared more about winning. Just ask Colin Powell, Christine Todd Whitman, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft and other very senior Bush aides. All learned of historic, Cheney-driven shifts of policy only after the fact.
3. You Can't Be Fired.
Cheney styled himself no more than an adviser to Bush, but he served at his own pleasure, not the president's. The vice president is a “constitutional officer, elected same as he [Bush] is,” Cheney said. It takes a lot to push a veep overboard. Bush kept Cheney on the ticket in 2004 but did lose some confidence in him that year when Cheney's attempt to overrule the Justice Department on domestic espionage nearly brought about a mass exodus of Bush appointees.
4. Everyone Else Can Be.
Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey and other people you've probably never heard of became obstacles to Cheney and lost their jobs. Most people learned to get out of his way.
5. Silence Is Powerful.
Cheney has a way of spooking people with no more than an expressionless stare. His longtime aide David Gribbin described an encounter with Stephen Hadley, now national security adviser, after Hadley had just finished a briefing. “You know, Cheney somehow intimidates me,” Hadley told Gribbin. “He's not trying to intimidate me, but when I'm sitting there briefing him, I'm talking a little fast, and my voice is a little high.”
6. Shouting Is Powerful, Too.
One day, a pair of lawyers from the National Security Agency drove to the Justice Department to check on the legality of a program they supervised. David Addington, Cheney's counsel, showed up uninvited and bellowed at them, “You are not going to see the opinions!” Addington had no authority over anyone in the room, and the lawyers could have told him to mind his own business. Somehow, that just about never happened to a member of the vice president's staff.
7. Know Thine Enemy.
It took three years for people on the National Security Council staff to learn that their e-mails and policy memos were bcc'd to the vice president's office. One of Rice's advisers discovered the secret arrangement after preparing a speech in which Bush would denounce the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners at Abu Ghraib and demand an explanation from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney slipped the proposal to Rumsfeld, who mobilized a counterattack before the memo even found its way to Bush. Nor was this type of intelligence-gathering limited to e-mails: Cheney's office sometimes used NSA transcripts to keep track of what policy rivals were saying overseas.
8. Don't Write It Down.
When Cheney's advisers did use e-mail, they omitted subject lines. For printed documents, they made up official-looking stamps that said, “Treated As: SECRET/SCI.” Though the stamps had no legal basis, they instructed future archivists to protect routine paperwork – for instance, the talking points for Cheney's press office – as though it were “sensitive compartmented information,” a designation used for the innermost secrets of national security.
9. Watch the Boss's Diet.
Cheney often told the White House staff to keep problems off the president's plate as much as possible. If Cheney cared about an issue, he did what he did with barbecue when his wife, Lynne, wasn't looking: He piled his own plate high. When Cabinet officers brought spending complaints to the White House, Cheney, not Bush, chaired the review panel.
10. The President Really Is the Decider.
Just after the 2001 inauguration, Dan Quayle called on Cheney with some friendly advice: Expect to see a lot of state funerals and rubber-chicken fundraisers. Cheney replied that he had “a different understanding with the president.” In his productive years, Cheney was the engine of historic change, from the shape of tax cuts to the war in Iraq. But toward the end, Cheney's power has become more like a foot on the brakes, slowing the reversal of his previous success. Seldom now does Cheney have the wheel.
Even amid setbacks, the No. 2 need not despair. The vice presidency comes with its own seal, its own anthem and the power to make everyone stand when you arrive. Everybody takes your calls.
Note to Biden and Palin: If you make it to the White House, keep Cheney's West Wing real estate. He declined the perk of a corner office, preferring a spot located exactly between the national security adviser and the chief of staff. Literally and figuratively, he stood astride the corridors of power.