Big Time Punches In

As Dick Cheney works the levers of power, a look at the Veep's schedule shows why he's a major league asset to President Bush

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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.

Like Vice Presidents Gore and Dan Quayle, Cheney has a standing weekly lunch date with his President. The one-on-one with the boss is among a Veep's most coveted perks. For all the alleged closeness between Gore and Bill Clinton, Gore had to ask for his lunch and fight to keep it on Clinton's schedule. For Cheney and Bush, however, the Thursday meal is almost superfluous since they spend so much of their day together. (In addition to the morning briefing and scheduled events, they reunite in the Oval Office every afternoon for economic- and domestic-policy meetings.) But the lunch is important because the two men are completely alone. There they discuss issues like whether some adviser has too broad a portfolio or whether a new Cabinet Secretary can handle a looming challenge.

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