The Political Risk of a Private-Sector Life

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Dick Cheney campaigns in Bakersfield, Calif.

Let the media melee begin. With just 10 weeks left in the campaigns, Philadelphia and Los Angeles are receding into memory, and editors are champing at the bit, desperate for a new angle on an aging story: the candidates themselves.

Thursday's New York Times gets the post-convention ball rolling, throwing a distinctly unflattering spotlight on Cheney's five-year tenure as CEO of Halliburton, an oil-field service and construction company based in Texas. According to the Times story, Halliburton's stock suffered several substantial hits during Cheney's watch — setbacks that can be traced either to market fluctuations or to Cheney's own lackluster business sense.

There's nothing particularly damning about the Times piece, no record of serious ethical lapses or insider trading. Instead, Cheney comes off as an affable but middling sort of executive, more interested in assigning work to others than in sinking his teeth into the nitty-gritty of corporate life. And that's fine — after all, what is a vice president but an affable but middling member of the executive branch?

The main problem with Thursday's exposť, as far as Cheney and the rest of the field is concerned, is that it signals a new phase in the election year game: The gloves are off, and reporters are going to dig to their hearts' content, scrabbling for dirt and trying to uncover exactly the sort of October surprise every candidate wants to avoid.

Who's got the most to worry about? Gore, who has spent his entire adult life in politics, being picked apart vote by vote, has probably weathered the worst of the prying already. Likewise, Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman, is a longtime professional politician who has had his record thoroughly dissected throughout his career (and, as the press has discovered, the Connecticut senator has the annoying habit of standing by his decisions).

Both Republican candidates, on the other hand, have spent much time in the private sector (or, in Cheney's case, in the relatively protected executive branch) — a path that leaves more deliciously unturned stones for the press to plunder.

Cheney remains something of an enigma, at least as far as his post-White House career goes (he was both a chief of staff and a defense secretary). The Times article goes a long way toward answering some of the lingering questions about Cheney's corporate career: Was he a forceful leader? (Not particularly.) Did he slave away behind his desk? (Nope. See "fishing" under "Cheney hobbies.") Was he a pretty nice guy when he was actually in the office? (Apparently, yes.) Is he the kind of guy we want as second in command? (That was a trick question, best left answered by the American electorate.)

One way or another, of course, all the candidates will face the firing squad of media scrutiny. However, some (Gore, Lieberman) have spent the better part of the last three decades face-to-face with their would-be executioners, developing helpful emotional callouses, while Bush and Cheney come into this fight with very few battle scars. But if the Times story is any indication of what's to come, they'll earn their battle stripes quickly enough.