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I Won't Dance, Don't Ask Me

Cheney signed on as the heavyweight. No wonder he isn't light on his feet

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When Dick Cheney arrives in your state, he comes with instructions. Don't send him to a rally--he doesn't like crowds. Don't send him to a county fair--he doesn't like shaking hands. And no one wants a repeat of the "polka incident," when a woman at a Polish festival grabbed a grimacing Cheney for a dance. He'll go to fund raisers, but don't expect any schmoozing. Last Wednesday night at the Senate's annual dinner for major donors, he sat with lobbyists at a table guarded by the Secret Service and then slipped away without slapping one back. At a Labor Day parade in Illinois, as George W. Bush careened from side to side pressing the flesh, Cheney kept in formation like a drill sergeant.

You're a lot more likely to catch Dick Cheney on the campaign trail if you're a seven-year-old. The man likes a school and listening to his wife Lynne read The Very Hungry Caterpillar--a captive audience under adult supervision, and no rope line. Cheney's staff quickly penciled in a school last week when they realized they would be in Pennsylvania for two days doing nothing but fund raisers. They cobbled together an event at Academy Park High School in Sharon Hill, Pa., which the principal didn't learn about until 3 p.m. the day before. The gym was only two-thirds full.

Cheney, chosen for his governing potential and his Desert Storm credentials, was preceded onstage by a onetime Veep contender, Governor Tom Ridge. The Governor spoke more than twice as long as the candidate did, and with 10 times the animation. When his brief turn came, Cheney ventured out from behind the lectern with a hand mike, but this just gave him the air of an infomercial host faking enthusiasm for his product. He concentrated largely on the campaign's latest theme--"education recession"--and then touted the benefits of joining the military. A student asked Cheney what he would do first if the President were to die. Cheney said he would make sure the guy was dead. "You don't want to take the oath of office and find out the report was wrong."

He wasn't joking, and it was as off-key in its own way as Dan Quayle's response in 1988 that the first thing he would do was pray. Like Quayle, Cheney has come to be seen as a drag on the ticket, violating the first rule of Veepdom: do no harm. First, there was his uncompassionately conservative record, voting no on everything from Head Start to college-student aid to the Older Americans Act, which offers support services to the elderly. This prompted the joke that Cheney's never met a welfare program he liked. When the New York Times examined his stint at Halliburton, it found that he was more an ambassador attracting business through government contacts than a hands-on executive. He's had to explain his past support for OPEC's pinching off supply to boost prices and his company's overseas policy of Americans-only rest rooms. He dithered for weeks over the company's parting gift to him of about $20 million before pledging to forgo part of it should he win. He skipped voting in 14 of the past 16 elections in Texas and cited pressing "global concerns" when it was pointed out. Chosen to bring gravitas to the ticket, Cheney looked like a gee-whiz adolescent when he chimed in, "Oh, yeah, big time," after George W.'s unprintable insult about a reporter.

He has warmed a bit to his task. He occasionally comes to the back of the plane to chat with reporters, but he mumbles so much that the press had to set up an amplification device in the aisle to try to catch what he's saying. He joined in singing Happy Birthday to his press secretary, Juleanna Glover Weiss, and was ready with a penknife when she couldn't open Cheney's gift to her, a CD by Peter Gabriel featuring the song Big Time, a nicely self-deprecating gesture. This gave his wife, temperamentally a dead ringer for Dr. Laura, a chance to joke that she would have to vet the lyrics. Lynne Cheney, a former culture czar and her husband's primary handler, has been more voluble during the campaign than her husband, especially in denouncing Hollywood. Like the independent counsel putting all the dirty stuff into the Starr Report to assure its widest possible dissemination, she actually recites the X-rated material she wants banned. One Sunday on CNN, trying to counter the news that Bush had served on the board of a company that produced slasher movies, she practically sang Eminem's Kill You. It was quite entertaining.

After two months, Bush-Cheney still comes across as a ticket, not a team. Bush's folks admit the two talk only once a week. While Joe Lieberman brought a sense of joy and excitement with him, Cheney brought a sense of entitlement--the one thing Bush didn't need more of.


Cover Date: October 9, 2000



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