IN A PROFILE that aired over the first two mornings of the Republican National Convention, ABC News reporter Claire Shipman asked Vice President Dick Cheney about his alleged distaste for retail politicking. Shipman read a comment from a reporter who covered Cheney. The vice president, this reporter said, would rather visit the urologist than spend time campaigning.
It's the kind of critique that might occasion a frenzy of defensive thoughts in the mind of a typical politician. What will the voters think? There goes my man-of-the-people image. What telling anecdote can I use to demonstrate my eagerness to shake germy hands and kiss babies?
These thoughts apparently did not cross Cheney's mind. "They haven't spent enough time with me," he said. "And they certainly haven't been to the urologist with me."
It was classic Cheney. There were several such exchanges when I interviewed the vice president for 45 minutes at his residence earlier this summer. Shortly before President Bush named Porter Goss to head the CIA, I asked Cheney if he would describe the characteristics of a potential candidate. "Probably not," he deadpanned.
Cheney appeared relaxed and confident throughout the wide-ranging conversation, and discussed at length many of the topics he will address in his speech this evening: the war on terror, the war in Iraq, the economy, and plans for a second Bush term.
Cheney's speech will be more personal than voters have come to expect, though it will never veer off into the touchy-feely. "He's going to put things in a historical perspective," says Liz Cheney, the vice president's daughter and a trusted adviser. "He'll talk about how important this election is from the perspective of a father and a grandfather."
Aides say that while Cheney's speech will offer pointed criticism of Kerry and Edwards, the serious content will keep the tone more reserved than the typical attack-dog rhetoric of a vice presidential convention speech.
That doesn't mean Cheney is going soft. He told me the Clinton administration was "somewhat concerned" with Osama bin Laden, reiterated his position on the threat posed by the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, ridiculed John Kerry's embrace of Carter-era economic policy, and criticized media coverage of the growing economy. Finally, Cheney addressed an issue that has been a concern to fiscal conservatives, promising that a second term would rein in government spending.
Clinton administration officials, said Cheney, "were the ones who articulated and supported the policy of regime change in Iraq that emerged out of Congress" with the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. "They were clearly concerned about WMD. I think some of Bill Clinton's quotes from 1998 parallel what officials in our administration said about the threat-the need to deal with it."
Cheney added that the Clinton officials "obviously were somewhat concerned about [Osama] bin Laden," as evidenced by the firing of cruise missiles in response to the 1998 embassy bombings.
The vice president declined to comment on the Clinton administration's linking of Iraq and al Qaeda, but maintained that the U.S. intelligence community has been able to "confirm" the long-standing relationship between Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda.
That relationship goes back to the early '90s-to 1992-and you know as well as anybody all the various pieces to that that have been in support of the proposition that, yes, there was a link there. I think people sometimes get sloppy and sort of kludge together those two issues-well, there was no proof that Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11, therefore there is no relationship. That's not accurate. There was a relationship. But we have not been able to confirm that there was any involvement in 9/11.
Cheney, who has repeatedly criticized press coverage of the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, offered a similar assessment of economic reporting. Reporters misreport the broader economic news, says Cheney, because of their disinclination to make judgments about the substance of claims made by their sources. "I think a lot of the coverage of the economy has been less than stellar, if I can put it in those terms. A lot of it is that I think reporters . . . are trained to do these sorts of he-said, she-said kinds of stories. Republicans say the economy is good; Democrats say the economy's bad. So they print that and treat them equally."
The result, he says, is that reporters regurgitate the almost-humorous economic analyses of the Kerry campaign. "Kerry has worked hard to try to find some way to portray the economy as bad," says Cheney. "He came up with his own Misery Index, which-amazingly enough-shows the golden years as the Carter administration in the '70s. . . . the era of malaise. . . . Two people think those were the golden years, Jimmy Carter and John Kerry. I think the economy is doing very well, and I think, try as they might, the Democrats are having real trouble trying to portray it as something other than that."
Conservatives have been critical of the Bush administration at several points throughout the first term. Perhaps nothing has been as disappointing to small-government advocates as the increases in federal government spending since January 2001. A recent Cato Institute study found that "nondefense discretionary outlays will increase about 36 percent during President Bush's first term in office." Cheney is unapologetic about the increases, citing a slow economy made slower by the attacks of September 11. Still, without getting specific, he seems to acknowledge that such spending is a problem. "I think we will be relatively tough in a second term with respect to spending limits because it's important to do so, and the president's clearly indicated that it's a concern."
Aides familiar with Cheney's speech say the address this evening will do three things: remind voters that America is a country of opportunity, place this election in historical context, and present voters with what the Bush campaign sees as a stark choice between two radically different philosophies. Like President Bush's speech on Thursday, it will include both a strong defense of the first term and a preview of a second-term agenda. The vice president, picking up on themes in Monday's speeches by Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, will portray his boss as a decisive leader who does not shrink from making difficult decisions.
More than anything, aides say, Cheney will present two contrasting philosophies for governing America in times of peril. The Democratic left may view the Kerry-Edwards team as centrist; Cheney does not. Come November, Cheney believes, Americans will have a clear choice.
Stephen F. Hayes, a staff writer at The Weekly Standard, is author of The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America. (HarperCollins)