Where's Dick?

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On the first Sunday after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney briefed the country on Meet the Press. He was an authoritative, reassuring leader in a time of national crisis. Then, silence. For the past three weeks no Cabinet officer has been seen less by the public. The ever suspicious press started asking questions. "Everyone wants to know where you are," an aide told Cheney last week. The Vice President offered a thin smile: "Don't tell them."

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He'd been out of sight, but right by the President's side. After Cheney's Meet the Press performance, word leaked that Bush advisers Karen Hughes and Karl Rove thought he had been too good--that he had seemed too fully in charge. Both have denied trying to rein him in, but after that, Cheney faded from public view, while retaining his powerful bond with Bush. (Hughes and Rove, however, no longer take part in the President's weightiest deliberations, because they're not part of his national-security team.) Cheney is the heart of that team--he's the swing vote on Bush's policy councils, the player whose nod often determines where the President will be--as it did last week, when Cheney's recommendation cemented the White House decision to speed its push for a stimulus package heavy on tax cuts. In between meetings with Bush, Cheney works the phones, reassuring nervous allies, advising Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the nuances of Middle East politics and touching up his plan for the new Office of Homeland Security.

The war effort has changed the way Bush and Cheney interact. In addition to frequent meetings, the two now seem to be carrying on a long, rolling conversation throughout the day. Their staffs have been merged; Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, has all but disappeared into Bush's National Security Council. Rare moments carved out for vice-presidential business don't last long. A scheduling meeting last week had just got under way when the phone rang. "I'll be there right away, Sir," said Cheney, leaving for the Oval Office without a word. "What are we, chopped liver?" joked one of his abandoned aides. When Bush rewrote a portion of his Sept. 20 address to Congress, re-framing the Administration's position on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, he made sure an aide called Cheney to run it by him. More often than not, the last question Bush asks before making a decision is, "What do you think, Dick?"

Cheney retains his influence by holding his tongue. In most larger meetings--of the Cabinet, say, or with congressional leaders--he sits silently at the President's side, rationing his words for maximum impact. "The smaller the meeting, the more he says," says Hughes. Cheney puts it another way: "I save my advice for the President." Cheney has been working hard to help Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell weave together a global alliance against terrorism. His past experience is paying dividends. Last week he spoke with Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar, an old friend from his travels building the Gulf War coalition 10 years ago. Cheney traded family updates, made a few inside jokes and then discussed how Qatar could lend the U.S. a hand.

In the war effort, Bush is the emotional leader, the one who weeps with the families of victims. Cheney plans to visit New York City, but he has told aides that he's not particularly comfortable with the emotional stuff. He would rather influence policy from behind the scenes than try to share in the nation's grief. As he told an adviser, "I'm not good at funerals."