"Big Time" Punches In

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ERIC DRAPER/WHITE HOUSE

When the President chats up guests, Cheney listens, inscrutable behind his smirk

In the first days of any administration, the new President's schedule is picked over for clues to his priorities, his management style, his strengths and weaknesses. But this year White House watchers are following not only George W. Bush. Dick Cheney is being tracked with equal intensity. Last week, while Bush displayed his talents in a very public way--announcing new legislation to help the disabled, touring a school with former adversary Joe Lieberman, chatting up the minister while attending services at an African-American church--his Vice President was in the background, less visible but no less crucial to the workings of the new Administration. As a close look at his emerging schedule shows, "Big Time" Cheney's influence is vast, his portfolio unprecedented--just the way his boss wants it to be.

The key measure of stature for any presidential adviser is time spent "in the loop"--the magical, shifting circle of power and influence in which the most sensitive issues are debated, the most profound decisions made. Cheney never leaves the loop. The President not only put him in charge of the transition but allowed him to install allies atop both the Treasury and Defense departments and place former aides at choke points throughout the government. After Bush's smooth first week in office, it was Cheney who appeared on the Sunday talk shows to tout the Administration's success. And last week Bush dealt with the first big crisis of his tenure--California's energy mess--by turning it, and the Administration's national energy policy, over to Cheney.

During the campaign, Cheney would sometimes go almost a week without talking to the man at the top of the ticket. Now they spend as much as two-thirds of every working day in each other's presence. Their togetherness begins at 8 a.m. with an intelligence briefing in the Oval Office. By the time Cheney settles into his yellow chair near the fireplace for that session, he has already received his daily CIA briefing. To maximize efficiency, he is briefed during the 25-minute ride from the McLean, Va., town house where he and his wife Lynne are living while the Vice President's residence is being renovated. In the Oval Office, fueled by a breakfast of black coffee, Cheney reviews intelligence issues with the President, then stays for a National Security briefing with Bush and senior staff.

Out of the Oval Office by 9, Cheney walks in his polished maroon cowboy boots down the hall to his West Wing office, where he huddles with his chief of staff, Lewis ("Scooter") Libby, and other senior staff members to go over the day's schedule. Though Cheney has three other offices in town--two in the Capitol and one in the Old Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House--he, like Al Gore before him, plans to spend most of his time in the one closest to the President. That may be where the comparison between the two men ends. Unlike Gore and most other previous Vice Presidents, including the elder George Bush, Cheney is not treating this job as a stepping-stone. After briefly flirting with a campaign for the presidency in 1995, Cheney--who just turned 60 and has survived four heart attacks--has ruled out running on his own. As the current President happily explained to a group of congressional visitors the other day, "Dick's doing a good job because he's told me he doesn't want to be President."

That's one reason Cheney's stature isn't threatening to the new President. Bush trusts him completely and knows Cheney's power is something he himself created. Bush has often told friends that he put Cheney in charge of his transition because he wanted lawmakers in Washington to understand that the new Vice President would be a major player. "I want Dick to build up some political capital," he would say, "so he can go up to Capitol Hill and spend it." Bob Strauss, a Democratic wise man who was called into a White House meeting two weeks ago, says all the talk about Cheney's overshadowing the President "doesn't bother Bush one goddam bit. He thrives on it." At the Alfalfa Club dinner on Jan. 27, an annual black-tie gathering of the Washington elite, Bush even told a self-deprecating joke about "President Cheney."

With more power than ambition, Cheney doesn't need a big staff. His contingent of 50 is less than half the size of his predecessor's and fully meshed into the Bush operation. Except for Mary Matalin, a former talk-show host and G.O.P. operative who is his senior counselor, Cheney doesn't have a slew of political advisers weighing the impact of each development on his future. "He speaks with the authority of the President," says Matalin, "because everyone understands the Vice President has no personal agenda." According to Libby and Matalin, that means their boss will spend far less time than past Vice Presidents tending the gardens of politics--schmoozing and fund raising and campaigning for fellow party members--leaving him more time to work on the issues. And he is free to embrace politically perilous issues like the California energy crunch, something a future presidential candidate may have wanted to avoid.

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