How Bush Decided
His choice of Cheney says a lot about how the Governor sees
himself and what he learned from Texas and from his father
When he sat down with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in a
Chicago hotel suite on July 18, former Missouri Senator John
Danforth assumed he was the only one in the room being
considered for Vice President. After the intense three-hour
meeting ended, Danforth came away thinking he might be offered
the job. It never occurred to him that Cheney, the man in charge
of Bush's selection process, was also his competition. "Cheney
flew [me] up to Chicago," Danforth recalled last week. "I took
that to mean Cheney had declined it."
In fact, by then Bush not only knew he wanted Cheney to be his
Vice President; he also knew Cheney, his father's Secretary of
Defense, would say yes. But that was information neither man
shared with Danforth. He and 10 other would-be running mates had
laid themselves bare before Cheney and his vetting team. They
enlisted accountants, lawyers and doctors to look over their
lives. They answered touchy questions probing for criminal
records, past drug use and illicit affairs. Some of them, like
New York Governor George Pataki, were summoned to private
interviews. The process was so laborious that Senator Chuck
Hagel needed a full two weeks. When Congressman John Kasich was
finished, he couldn't close the flaps on the packing box he had
But no matter how sharp their answers or how earnestly they
stared into the candidate's eyes, the other hopefuls didn't have
what Dick Cheney had: a spot in George W. Bush's comfort zone.
To be sure, Bush wanted a running mate who was ready to be
President. But just as important was a partner who would be
loyal--someone, as Bush said more than once, "who likes me."
Which is why Cheney had such an unfair advantage. Unlike him,
the others hadn't been on the phone constantly with the
candidate for three months, sharing confidences, offering advice
and proving their worthiness. They hadn't visited Bush in the
Governor's Mansion and out at Dubya's new ranch near Waco, where
the two had sat on the porch, taking in the endless view of the
central Texas desert. And they had never bonded, as Bush and
Cheney had, over their love of the West's open spaces, their
shared conservative philosophy and their experiences in the oil
business. No wonder it didn't take long for Bush to agree with
what his father had told him more than once: that Dick Cheney
was not just a "good man" but also a great choice for Vice
The way Bush made the biggest decision of his campaign so far
says a lot about how he operates. By picking Cheney, he showed
he was aware enough of his weaknesses--his lack of patina, his
light resume--but confident enough to pair himself with someone
who has brainpower and Washington credentials. Taking the arm of
an experienced elder is something he learned to do in Texas
when, as a neophyte Governor in 1995, he apprenticed himself to
Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, the late master of
Lone Star politics. Bush is doing the same with Cheney, 59, who,
although just five years his senior, was already White House
chief of staff when the G.O.P. nominee was still drifting
through his "nomadic years" in Texas.
The Cheney choice demonstrates something else Bush learned as
Governor of Texas: caution. He developed an aversion to taking
political risks after his proposed 1997 overhaul of the state's
property-tax law, a highly ambitious attempt to correct some
ancient inequities in the system, ended in a revolt by G.O.P.
legislators and business allies. Bush was able to salvage a tax
cut from the fiasco, but he told Time last fall that the
experience taught him that "the status quo is really powerful.
In times when there is not a crisis, it's hard to get people to
act boldly." And Bush knows from watching his father what
happens when a desire for boldness is applied to a
vice-presidential pick. Two words: Dan Quayle.
If Republicans were happy with the choice, Democrats were
ecstatic. Even before the announcement was made, they had
researched Cheney's public record and were ready with a barrage
of attacks over votes he had cast in Congress in the 1980s. But
when reporters peppered Cheney with questions about those
votes--against banning "cop-killer" bullets, against funding the
Head Start program, against calling for the release of Nelson
Mandela from prison--Cheney and the Bush campaign seemed caught
In his home state of Wyoming on the day after the announcement,
Cheney hedged, pronouncing himself "generally proud" of his
House votes, though he might like to "tweak" some in retrospect.
Then the next morning he said he wouldn't make "any apologies
for" his conservative record. When NBC's Matt Lauer asked him
about his opposition to a gun-control measure that even the
N.R.A. had supported, Cheney quipped, "Well, obviously I wasn't
in the pocket of the N.R.A."
The rocky roll-out of Cheney's nomination suggested his
selection had been so closely held by Bush that it had never
been thoroughly vetted by the campaign. In fact, the only person
to examine Cheney's personal and business affairs was Bush. A
day after the announcement, campaign spokeswoman Karen Hughes
said Bush was still reviewing the Cheney trail, a statement Bush
later made a point of correcting. Even so, it was as if the Bush
team expected Democrats and reporters to accept what Bush
clearly took for granted as universally understood: that Cheney,
by virtue of his role in the Gulf War, was a man of unassailable
No criticism of Bush's decision stung more than the suggestion
that his father had made it for him. Campaign aides had been
struggling over just how to handle the old man standing behind
the dugout since before the primaries. They have tried to
capitalize on the public's nostalgia for the former President
without giving credence to the enemy position that the son is a
mere stand-in for the father.
And while Bush's father is perhaps the most experienced living
consigliere on the matter of selecting a Vice President--having
both been one and picked one--aides are loath to admit that the
Governor ever sought his advice. The elder Bush's only role,
Hughes insists, was "that of a loving father." At the suggestion
that Cheney might be viewed as an old-style Republican more tied
to the former President than to his son, a Bush adviser
bellowed, "That's b_______!" Campaign aides insisted that Cheney
was no different from other potential running mates, all of whom
had some ties to the elder Bush. A spokesman actually argued
that the former President was no closer to Cheney than he was to
Elizabeth Dole, a laughable assertion to anyone familiar with
the long history of friction between the Bushes and the Doles.
But as much as the campaign may at times have tried to distance
itself from the father, his presence was felt throughout this
process in ways that were impossible to deny. It was Cheney's
rich and trusting relationship with Bush senior that gave him
entree into W.'s close orbit in the first place. Even Danforth,
no bosom pal of the son's, owed his close consideration in part
to the recommendation of the father, who nearly chose the
Missouri Senator as his running mate in 1988. And in the end,
the father is wrapped up in the message sent by the Cheney
selection. When Bush aides talk about Cheney as "a leadership
pick" and as someone who represents the "integrity" and
"civility" of a pre-Clinton-Gore era in Washington, they are
using code meant to conjure up positive memories of the original
Which is why, even as they play down the father's role in the
son's campaign, senior advisers can't wait to tell you how the
son benefits from President Bush's 68% favorability ratings.
Internal research has led W.'s team to conclude that the elder
Bush is an asset with the swing voters who will decide the
election. "They know that the Bush brand is not extreme," says
one of the admen shaping the Bush message.
The Cheney brand stands for quiet counsel, which is why he
seemed to be ruled out for the No. 2 spot when he was named to
lead the selection team in late April. For one thing, he had
already told Bush he wasn't interested in the job. For another,
he was seen mainly as a possible bridge builder to his onetime
colleague in the Bush Administration, Colin Powell. The former
general remained the younger Bush's dream running mate long
after Powell had privately made it clear to W. that he did not
want to be considered. As recently as two weeks ago, the
Governor told confidants that he was still trying to find a way
to bring the wildly popular former general onto his ticket.
But with Powell truly unavailable and the freewheeling John
McCain unimaginable, the process moved in May to a second tier
of contenders. The list of roughly a dozen names ranged from
Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating to Tennessee Senator Fred
Thompson to twice-failed presidential candidate Lamar Alexander.
Each contender was given a questionnaire containing more than 80
requests for information, including 10 too sensitive to be
answered on paper. To answer those, candidates were told to wait
for face-to-face interviews.
"My wife and I were going back and forth in our minds about
this," says Danforth. "We left politics six years ago and
returned to St. Louis, where we wanted to stay. There were very
strong pulls not to go through with it." In early June, the
former Senator and Episcopal minister called Cheney and withdrew
his name. Bush called the next day, but Danforth stood his
ground. With Danforth out, the list of contenders grew. Cheney
paid a visit to the Capitol Hill office of Tennessee Senator
Bill Frist. Vetters were dispatched to the New York law firm of
Dewey Ballantine to review Pataki's old records and set up
meetings between him and the Texas Governor.
Bush was so secretive about the process that he kept even his
closest aides in the dark. He would poll them at senior staff
meetings--"Give me your top three picks!" he would demand--but
he would never play the game. He flirted publicly with "bold"
contenders like Tom Ridge, Pennsylvania's pro-choice Governor,
but never let on that Ridge had quietly taken himself out of the
running in early July, citing family considerations. And he kept
coming back to the safest option--a seasoned Washington insider
who would please the party faithful and whose fealty to the Bush
family had been tested. "Loyalty," a senior Bush adviser intoned
two weeks ago, "is the top criterion."
Loyalty was probably on Bush's mind at his ranch on July 3, when
he met with Cheney to talk about potential running mates. Over
lunch with his wife Laura and two aides, Bush gestured in
Cheney's direction. "This would really be the best man if he
would do it. I wish he would." After lunch, Bush and Cheney were
alone on the back porch, and Cheney said he had changed his mind
and was willing to be considered. He credits Bush's talent for
persuasion for his conversion. "He grows on you," Cheney told
TIME last Friday. "He's got a very important trait for a leader,
the ability to convince people to set their personal desires
aside for the greater good."
But even though Cheney was in his sights, Danforth had been
coaxed back into the game by two Bush intimates and former
President Bush's pollster Bob Teeter. Danforth described one
call as "a real Uncle Sam poster. It was an 'I need you' kind of
thing." And it worked. In mid-July, Danforth told Cheney that he
was willing to talk to Bush.
But by July 15, when Bush met with Cheney at the Governor's
Mansion, the only obstacle that might have prevented Bush from
picking the former Defense Secretary had been removed. Three
days earlier, Cheney--whose medical history includes three mild
heart attacks and a coronary bypass--had been given a clean bill
of health by his doctors in Washington. For backup, Bush's
father put Cheney's doctors in touch with Dr. Denton Cooley, a
renowned heart surgeon in Houston and a family friend. Cooley
told Bush that Cheney's heart could handle the job. And so, on
the 15th, Bush called his top three advisers to the mansion.
They chewed over the possible risks of picking Cheney, but as
chief strategist Karl Rove later said, they didn't come up with
much to fear.
Though Cheney was now the certain choice, Bush went ahead with
the three- hour July 18 meeting in Chicago with Danforth. Cheney
excused himself after an hour and a half, leaving the two men to
discuss their faith and their governing philosophies. Danforth's
wife even quizzed the candidate about his beliefs. After the
meeting was over, Danforth told Cheney he would serve if asked.
But Bush never asked. The next morning, he called Cheney and
formally offered him the spot.
After an awkward launch, the Bush-Cheney ticket was showing
signs of what former President Bush used to call "the Big Mo."
On Friday, the two men stormed into Arkansas and Missouri,
states Clinton and Gore won twice, and were met with big,
boisterous crowds. Campaign advisers were crowing over polls
showing Bush's lead over Gore expanding, and it was clear that
among Republicans, at least--for whom the memory of the Bush
years burns brightest--the new candidate was a hit. "Mercy,"
said Cheney, a reluctant campaigner who seemed surprised by the
crowd's ecstatic reaction. All week Bush had been talking about
how he picked Cheney not because the taciturn insider would help
win the election but because he would make a good partner in the
White House. On the eve of the Republican Convention, it seemed
possible that Cheney could help Bush do both.
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