Our Feel-Good Veep

Hey, you! The snarl in the suit! Yeah, you, Dick Cheney: Go **** yourself!

Phew! I feel better already, and I used only asterisks. Our vice president gets a rush when he goes in for the stronger stuff, the kind of words to which we columnists would never expose our thoughtful readers. But we have it from Cheney himself that after he encountered Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy on the Senate floor and told him what to do, he "felt better afterwards."

If that justification came from the mouth of a Democrat, of course, it would be a sign of moral laxity and lack of seriousness. How many conservatives have told us that Bill Clinton was a feel-good guy devoid of all discipline? And how many have chastised Dick Cheney for invoking the justification they constantly accused Clinton of succumbing to?

Besides, this isn't the sole instance of Cheney justifying himself in the manner of Clinton in his recent "60 Minutes" interview. When Dan Rather asked Clinton why he had involved himself with Monica Lewinsky, the former president allowed as how he did it "because I could" -- a justification he acknowledged as the worst imaginable.

Consider now Cheney's case for last year's dividend tax cut, a budget-busting giveaway to the rich that came on top of the administration's previous budget-busting giveaways to the rich. In his memoir, Paul O'Neill -- the longtime Cheney buddy whom the veep had recruited to be Treasury secretary -- recounted his attempt to convince Cheney that yet another tax cut would spell fiscal ruination. "We won the [2002] midterms," Cheney responded. "This is our due."

The answer gives a whole new meaning to the term "entitlement program," but then, so does the Bush presidency.

Considering that he's out of the public eye most of the time, it's remarkable that Cheney has become just as much of a polarizing figure as his boss. But then, Cheney is a master of high-impact public appearances. When a guy continues to insist, for instance, that there was a relationship between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and al-Qaeda, despite the bipartisan 9-11 Commission's report that it has found no evidence of such a link, he begins to convey an impression. In this case, it's that of one of Alfred Hitchcock's obsessional lunatics.

A lesser president might seek to jettison such a running mate, but not George W. Bush. Cheney still has a signal virtue: Unlike Tom Ridge or Rudy Giuliani, he's no threat to brother Jeb's presidential prospects in 2008. Whatever peril Cheney may pose to the planet, he remains no obstacle to the George-'n-Jeb succession -- the least impressive dynastic duo since Willy of Prussia and Nicky of Russia.

John Kerry, meanwhile, is fast approaching the day when he must announce his own running mate. And just as the Democratic Party settled on Kerry as its most electable presidential choice, it has settled on John Edwards as its most electable veep. Whether Kerry has settled on Edwards, of course, remains the deepest of mysteries.

Besides Edwards, the only potential vice presidential pick with a voluble group of champions is Dick Gephardt. The presidents of a number of unions, chiefly in the manufacturing sector but led by Teamster chief Jim Hoffa (who was Gephardt's law school classmate), have rallied behind the Missouri congressman. But the support of Gephardt, even among union presidents, is far from unanimous.

All of labor is grateful for Gephardt's more-than-decade-long leadership of the fight against the kind of globalization that pays no heed to labor or environmental standards. But many union leaders are quick to point out that when Gephardt ran fourth in January's Iowa caucuses and was compelled to withdraw from the race, he lost even the factory towns to Kerry and Edwards. Great guy, good message, bad messenger, these presidents say. Edwards's "two Americas" talk, by contrast, has electrified Democrats -- and, if the primary results are any indication, many independents as well -- in search of a resonant explanation of what has gone wrong in an increasingly plutocratic America.

Kerry is rightly concerned, of course, that his vice presidential pick have credibility in matters of national security. The mystery is that anyone still feels that Cheney, and his boss, have any. They invaded Iraq because they believed erroneous evidence (and may still believe it, all actual evidence to the contrary) or, more plausibly, because they could, because they knew they'd feel better afterward. Of course, because they discarded the occupation plans developed by the State Department, the CIA and the military and opted to go into Iraq with no occupation plan whatever, they don't feel better afterward. The place is a bloody mess. No wonder they're cussing at Democrats. It's one of the few small pleasures their current life affords.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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