At Last, GOP Faithful Get What They Came For

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Posted August 2, 2000 1:15 a.m. ET

Dick Cheney is not a different kind of Republican. He's not a compassionate conservative. Two of those on the same ticket, after all, would make a lot of the faithful a little nervous. Dick Cheney is a round, bald, middle-aged, rich white man with a monster résumé spanning two decades of staunch Republicanism, when it was Republicans who ran the greatest nation on earth.

Most of those Republicans think America was a lot greater back then. Dick Cheney is in this thing to reassure those Republicans: Elect us, and things will change. Yes, they will change, but they will also change back. "I have been in the company of leaders," he said — twice — in a sedately eloquent acceptance speech on the GOP convention's penultimate night. "George W. Bush will repair what has been damaged. On the first hour of the first day, he will restore decency and integrity to the Oval Office."

Restore — the code word for everything Republican that's gone away, from military might to tax cuts to civility. Dick Cheney knew the glory days and, just like the hard-right Wyoming congressman he was in the Reagan years, he knows his constituency. George W. Bush can worry about the size of the tent. Cheney is here to guard the poles.

The Republican old guard knew him already, but Wednesday night, the rest of America got to meet him, if they cared to tune in. The unveiling of Dick Cheney at this exquisitely scripted affair was — you guessed it — exquisitely scripted. Cheney's résum´ (Ford's chief of staff, Reagan's lockstep congressman, Bush's secretary of defense and Colin Powell's old boss) doesn't need any padding, but it did submit to some smoothing. His wife, Lynne (checking her own sharp edges at the door), introduced him as a fisherman and father, and Cheney took it from there.

Gore will paint him as a Texas oilman; Cheney mentioned Wyoming four times in the speech's first hundred words. Gore will paint Cheney's years in Congress as mean-spirited ones. Cheney only remembers that he "learned the meaning of leadership" from Ronald Reagan, when a "man of integrity lived in the White House," and left to work for that man's vice president. Now he wants to be the running mate of that running mate's son.

In case you didn't get it, Cheney has been in the company of leaders. He knows one when he sees one. And he knows a thing or two about succession. He's prospered mightily as an oil-services company CEO in his eight years since leaving Washington. But to the adoring delegates he explained his reluctant return (and, for the first time, brushed up against one of the house slogans) in the terms of his kind: "These have been years of prosperity in our land, but little purpose in the White House." Sure, I did fine. But America lost its shine. Elect us, and the future will be the best of the past.

This First Union crowd that thumped and chanted for Cheney didn't come to Philadelphia for a different kind of Republican, just a winning one, and amid the week's polished expansionism of the GOP brand — Minorities! Women! Race relations! — they were clearly craving a Clinton-hating steak-and-cigar man who would stir their utterly partisan hearts. Cheney, whose Secret Service handle under Ford was "Back Seat," will not be Bush's attack dog in the fall. It's not his thing, and not the ticket's, either. But Dick Cheney wasn't about to send these nice folks back home with the proverbial lousy T-shirt. He gave them some red meat.

"We are all weary of the Clinton-Gore routine," Cheney intoned to near-hysterical applause — and then stole Gore's own line from 1992: "It is time for them to go." He strode calmly through a them-and-us litany and wound up with an old-fashioned call-and-response aimed at killing the Gore separation campaign in its crib: "And now as the man from Hope goes home to New York, Mr. Gore tries to separate himself from his leader's shadow. But somehow we will never see one without thinking of the other. Does anyone, Republican or Democrat, seriously believe that under Mr. Gore, the next four years would be any different from the last eight?"

The crowd lustily roared no, and as the converted filed out of First Union, transported, some worried that Cheney's eerily calm rabble-rouser — a speech that actually read a little better on the page than it sounded — would be a hard performance for George W. Bush to top.

But Cheney is the straight man. The warm-up act. The headliner is on tonight. And he knows the audience he must speak to. The press. The undecideds. The people for whom the past of either party was not quite good enough. And they, with the exception of the press, of course, are not in Philadelphia this week. Bush will talk to them tonight.