Cheney's rules: 10 tips for the next VP

Posted: Wednesday, October 22, 2008

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. For busy aspirants, I offer 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 (via the Freedom of Information Act) 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 now says he never met the man nor reviewed a page of his records. Cheney "went down through everybody's negatives," former Vice President Dan Quayle told me. "And everybody has negatives. ... And nobody really vetted him on what his negatives were."

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. "Be an honest broker," he advised a successor. 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 of whom learned about historic, Cheney-driven shifts of policy only after the fact.

When Rice's lawyer, John Bellinger, complained in 2002 to David Addington, Cheney's hard-driving counsel, that he had not been consulted about the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, Addington made no apologies for cutting out the National Security Council staff: "I'm not going to tell you whether there is or isn't such a program. But if there were such a program, you'd better go tell your little friends at the FBI and the CIA to keep their mouths shut."

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 is," Cheney said, referring to Bush. It takes a lot to push a veep overboard. Bush kept Cheney on the ticket in 2004 but did lose some confidence in his No. 2 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 - for instance, a CIA analyst named Benjamin Miller working on the National Security Council's staff - 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, in a Pentagon hallway in the early 1990s 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.

While reporting for my book "Angler," I did not find a single occasion when the vice president raised his voice. But that does not go for his counsel. 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. Addington showed up uninvited and bellowed at them, "You are not going to see the opinions!" The towering, glowering 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 his old friend Rumsfeld, who mobilized a counterattack before the memo even found its way to Bush. Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's deputy, called Hadley to complain, and the draft speech never reached the Oval Office. 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. When Attorney General John Ashcroft objected to military tribunals for alleged terrorists, he found Cheney, not Bush, awaiting him in the Roosevelt Room. A top adviser to the president could always insist on a meeting with Bush, but how many times does anyone want to dip into that well? Ashcroft turned left as he left the meeting, away from the Oval Office and back out onto the street.

10. The President Really Is the Decider.

Just after the 2001 inauguration, 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, and your rank will get you inside just about any room.

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.

• Barton Gellman, a reporter for The Washington Post, is the author of "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency."

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