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A Scrooge's View Of Christmas Politics


Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2001

Having traveled to Washington, D.C. for the holidays, I found myself driving up the wide, embassy-lined boulevard that skirts the edge of the Naval Observatory, where the Vice President of the United States traditionally resides. There was no way of knowing, of course, if Dick Cheney was at home. Indeed, as the news media is beginning to notice, these days Dick Cheney's daily whereabouts have become something of a state secret, with his press aides mysteriously reporting that, once again, the man who was once the Administration's most public face is working at an "undisclosed location."

In the aftermath of George W. Bush's judicially imposed election, some conspiracy theory types suggested that Cheney, plagued with a degenerative heart condition, had cut a deal with his running mate: I'll get you elected, but I'll only serve until you've established yourself in office.

I never put much stock in such tales, and don't now. But the Vice-President's virtual disappearance raises disturbing questions about his well-being. It also, however remotely, makes it conceivable that this country, despite its wartime glow of unity, may be edging towards another bizarre, deeply partisan constitutional showdown.

The Problem with the Security Explanation For Keeping Cheney's Location Secret

One thing is certain. The Administration's explanations for keeping Cheney's whereabouts secret don't make much sense.

Various aides have explained that Cheney has been absent from the White House for security reasons. It would be too inviting a terrorist target, they tell us, for both Bush and Cheney to be in the same location at once. Fair enough. But while the security rationale explains Cheney's separation from Bush, it does not explain why the public can't know where (separately) Cheney is spending his time.

After all, the President's whereabouts are public. So are those of every other top advisor, including all the cabinet secretaries who are playing such an essential role in the war effort. Surely whatever security concerns apply to Cheney would apply to these folks as well.

A Political Explanation For the Secrecy About Cheney's Location?

Perhaps there is a political explanation that the White House is loath to reveal. It is no secret that Bush aides have worried from time to time about the polished and experienced Cheney outshining a less experienced and sometimes bumbling Chief Executive.

The political explanation, though, doesn't hold much water either. Even sharp critics of Bush must concede that he has forcefully established himself in the wake of September 11 — and he has the approval ratings to prove it.

Surely Bush's camp has stopped fretting that Cheney might upstage their man. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is on television every night charming the pants off the press corps, yet Bush's team doesn't seem to care. And even supposing that Bush's advisors do still worry about Cheney stealing too much of presidential spotlight, that might (to some extent) explain Cheney's low profile, but not the secrecy that shrouds his daily movements.

Is Cheney's Health the Real Explanation for the Secrecy?

In the absence of a credible explanation from the White House, naturally other theories arise. As is well known, Cheney has suffered four heart attacks as well as two significant pulmonary events in the last year. As is also well known, the Bush-Cheney team has been less than forthcoming about the Vice-President's health.

Under the circumstances, it does not seem so terribly far-fetched to think that Cheney, although able to make the very occasional public appearance (as he has), may simply not be well enough to play an active role in the exhausting, nerve-testing process of waging the global war against terrorism.

Serious health problems would certainly explain Cheney's resort to secrecy. In terms of foreign policy, it makes perfect sense that the Administration, as it projects an image of American power across the globe, would not want to show any internal weakness. Nor would it want to allow the nation's enemies to enjoy the psychological triumph of knowing that the pressure of war had sidelined the Vice-President.

Another Constitutional Crisis in the Making, with A Vice-President's Replacement?

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Cheney's health problems carry with them the prospect of shattering the veneer of good will that now precariously covers the deep partisan divisions that, in the last three years, have twice brought us near the brink of constitutional crisis.

In an amnesia induced by national tragedy, we have all but forgotten that this partisanship, in the form of a $50 million political inquisition, led us to impeach a President for only the second time in our history not because he abused the powers of his office but because he was less than candid under oath about sexual escapades with a White House intern. Similarly, we no longer seem to care that a narrow and partisan majority of the Supreme Court injected itself into a presidential election and, on the basis of no valid articulated reason, called that election for the political candidate of its choice.

But if it emerges that the Vice-President is too ill to fully function in office, these dim memories will surely be resurrected. Under the procedures laid down by the 25th Amendment, a majority of both houses of Congress must approve a President's selection to replace an elected Vice-President. That means that the Democrats, who control the Senate, will have a veto over the President's choice.

We know from recent history just how destructive the nomination and confirmation process can be to our institutions of government. And with Democrats still smarting over an election stolen from their grasp, the fight over Cheney's successor, should it come to that, might well prove the most destructive of all.

As demonstrated by Congress' failure last week to pass an economic stimulus package before recessing for the year, even war and economic hard times have failed to create sufficient common purpose to overcome the deep political differences that pull us apart. For that reason, we must hope that the mystery of Cheney's retreat from public view has some innocuous explanation -- for if it does not, our political system, stunningly resilient though it is, will likely endure another unfortunate and rigorous test.

Edward Lazarus writes about, practices, and teaches law in Los Angeles. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of two books -- most recently, Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.

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