A few weeks ago, outgoing White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten gathered nearly a dozen former chiefs of staff in his corner West Wing office and held a courtesy orientation session for Rahm Emanuel, the next man to assume the second hardest job in Washington.
The idea was for each former chief to give Emanuel some practical advice on how to function in his new role. And so around the table they went: Donald Rumsfeld reminded Emanuel that no one is indispensable. Sam Skinner talked about the importance of taking Sundays off. Former Reagan chief Ken Duberstein urged Barack Obama's incoming chief to remember that the President is always the chief and everyone else, by contrast, is merely staff.
Then it came time for Dick Cheney, who like Rumsfeld had served more than three decades ago as Gerald Ford's chief of staff, to offer his thoughts. Sitting at the end of the table, the 67-year-old Wyoming native looked at the august group and said in his usually dry style, "Above all else, control your Vice President." (See America's worst Vice Presidents.)
Cheney played the line for laughs and the room understandably collapsed in howls when he delivered it. For it is widely believed among those who have closely studied the Bush 43 White House that sometime in his first term President George W. Bush ceded too much authority to his No. 2 and only learned in the second term to take it back. That is an enduring subplot in Angler, Barton Gellman's excellent book about Cheney, and it is widely believed by some of Bush's oldest, and most devoted, political allies.
In their view, Cheney was something like an unseen hand at the tiller, exerting a steady nudge on Bush's instincts. It wasn't absolute, nor did it come into play on every issue. But across a wide spectrum, Cheney's voice was often the last one Bush heard on hard decisions and as a result, the one that mattered most. Cheney exerted his influence on the selection of key members of Bush's Cabinet (Pentagon boss Rumsfeld and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill). He moved early in the Bush transition eight years ago to put his own people at key choke points in the Pentagon, on the National Security Council and elsewhere. And his own staff, particularly his longtime aide David Addington and former chief of staff Lewis (Scooter) Libby, ran an almost shadow West Wing when it came to the issues of energy and national security.
Cheney's clout only deepened after 9/11. In most cases, Bush was fully on board with Cheney's approach, particularly in the first term, as the war on terrorism took shape. But as the drawbacks of Cheney's vision became manifest overseas and at home, the President began to side with other views. By the end of Bush's second term, Cheney's influence had been greatly curtailed.
It will be months and probably years before the full scope of Cheney's power where it started and stopped will be fully understood. Many Bush critics have traced the biggest failures of the Bush presidency like the obsession with weapons of mass destruction as a reason to invade Iraq to the office of the Vice President. But Cheney leaves Washington as the most powerful Vice President in decades, perhaps ever.
Yet Cheney is also one of the least popular Vice Presidents ever. A New York Times/CBS News poll gave Bush a final 22% favorability rating, which was nearly twice that of his Vice President, whose approval rating stood at an anemic 13%.
But while Cheney will leave the Vice President's quarters at the Naval Observatory in Washington, he isn't going very far away: Cheney will move to a house in McLean, Va., that he and his wife have just finished building (by design, it is within a few miles of both sets of grandchildren). He is expected to write a book that draws on what one adviser described as "his 40 years of experience" in Washington; it will almost certainly, the source said, be an extended reflection on the appropriate exercise of power in times of peace and war.
Richard Cheney turns 68 next week.