GWEN IFILL: Vice President Dick Cheney has been George W. Bush's right-hand man since last summer, when, while overseeing the search for a Bush running mate, Mr. Cheney ended up with the job himself.
GEORGE W. BUSH (in 2000): I didn't pick Dick Cheney because of Wyoming's three electoral votes... (Laughter) although we're going to work hard to earn them. I picked him because he is, without a doubt, fully capable of being the President of the United States. And I picked him because he will be a valuable partner in a Bush administration. (Cheers and applause)
GWEN IFILL: Now, three months after taking the oath of office, Mr. Cheney is being called one of the most powerful vice presidents ever. He ran the president's efficient and rapid transition process, installed several of his allies in key Cabinet posts, and remains a top and trusted west wing adviser. With a portfolio that exceeds even the one held by his activist predecessor Al Gore, Mr. Cheney weighs in on foreign policy, national security, and domestic policy issues. When the California energy crisis threatened to become a national one, Mr. Bush put Mr. Cheney in charge.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: This is the first in a series of meetings which will be chaired by Vice President Cheney.
GWEN IFILL: And as the Bush agenda makes its way through Congress, Mr. Cheney, who served a decade in the House, is the president's chief lobbyist, his tie-breaking Senate vote giving Republicans control over the evenly-divided Senate. And if real estate is power in the nation's capital, the vice president is powerful indeed, with four offices: Two on Capitol Hill, one in the west wing, and another across the street from the White House. Is he redefining the vice presidency?
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: I don't know that redefining the role is the right way to put it. I mean, I clearly have a constitutional responsibility-- it's the only one, actually-- as the President of the Senate. And so that is a privilege. It's an opportunity. I have spent a lot of time on the Hill. I've got a lot of great friends up here. And the president has asked me to devote a portion of my time to working with the Congress generally, across the board, on a range of issues.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cheney says he merely serves as the president's lieutenant, and harbors no ambition to be president himself. He also dismisses concerns that his health-- he has survived four heart attacks-- will affect his ability to do his job.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: I've got a job to do that the president asked me to do it, and I will do it as long as he’s comfortable having me doing it. I've signed on for a four-year term, and whether or not he wants me to serve in his second term, that’s a decision he'll make it at the appropriate time.
GWEN IFILL: To assess this vice president's unprecedented role, we are joined by three former White House insiders. All were chiefs of staff to vice presidents; Ron Klain with Al Gore, Richard Moe with Walter Mondale, and Craig Fuller with George Herbert Walker Bush. Craig Fuller, we have heard all of the terminologies by now: Co-president, deputy president, shadow. Is Dick Cheney any of those? All of those?
CRAIG FULLER: Well he probably resists all those titles, but he is definitely serving in a way that's unprecedented. All of us, each of us, served vice presidents who were very much a part of the agenda every day in the White House, complete access to the president they served, but Dick Cheney is setting the agenda -- I think more than those people we served. I think he's playing a role that is unique in anything we've seen in history.
GWEN IFILL: How is that allowed to happen? How has that role changed? Just by edict?
CRAIG FULLER: I think this might be a big of an accident of history. We have a president who reaches out and picks very strong people to surround himself with. I think he identified Dick Cheney as somebody he wanted to bring into this administration at a high level. He was able to get him in this role. He got very comfortable with him throughout the whole transition process -- the campaign transition process. It's not something we've seen before. We haven't had a vice president who frankly has not always had in the back of his mind seeking the office himself. So I think it's rather remarkable. I don't think it's a bad thing. I think it's the way many of our large corporations in America run. I think this is bringing very strong, talented people together in one place to pursue the agenda that they ran on.
GWEN IFILL: Richard Moe, what is your thought about that?
RICHARD MOE: Well, I think Craig is right. We all served vice presidents that we thought were breaking new ground and were fully involved and they were in their time. But this is an office that's evolved a lot in the last 25 years. And it's still evolving. But Vice President Cheney has three advantages that none of our vice presidents had. He had a prior relationship with the president he's serving. He wasn't picked to help win the election. He was picked to help govern. And he's not seeking the office himself. He's taken himself out of that. All three of those factors I think add immensely to his credibility and authority in the role that the president has given him.
GWEN IFILL: Ron Klain, eight years ago at about this time Al Gore was being described as the most powerful vice president in the nation's history. Here we are saying the same thing again about Dick Cheney. Which is true? Both? All?
RON KLAIN: Well, I think at that time eight years ago Al Gore was probably the most influential vice president to date. I think Dick Cheney is taking it another step as both Dick and Craig have suggested. He clearly is functioning in a way broader than any previous vice president has. I heard the term chief operating officer used at one point in time during the transition. He certainly has broad, cross-cutting responsibilities for not just, as Craig said, not just being part of the agenda but setting the agenda, managing the White House and managing the direction of the Bush administration.
GWEN IFILL: You used the term chief operating officer, a very corporate COO term. Does a corporate sensibility work well in a political institution like the White House?
RON KLAIN: Well, I think there are questions about Dick Cheney's role that way. I think it's great for the Vice Presidency and great for Vice President Cheney but our vice presidents also...were pretty doing jobs the way they did them. The question in my mind is what's being lost because Dick Cheney is doing this job? President Bush I think has an enormously capable staff, very talented White House staff. I think a lot of them could do the managing that Cheney is doing. And in turn Cheney's lost to the stump, he's not out in the country selling the program the way some of our bosses did. He's not out there practicing the part of politics that advances the president's agenda the way some of our bosses did. And I really wonder about the trade-off and the perspective of the Bush White House.
GWEN IFILL: On the other hand, this president has been on the road 15 days, or something like that.
RON KLAIN: Exactly.
GWEN IFILL: So maybe that’s not necessary – maybe the president -- Craig Fuller, has the vice president's role in that respect changed, or are we losing something by having him be the chief operating officer?
CRAIG FULLER: Ron makes a very good point. I've been wondering how they're going to deal with the process of congressional races next year because I know and I think in all of our cases, I know certainly in the case of Vice President Bush he traveled as much during congressional election years as he did for his own presidential campaign. It's an enormous schedule that typically a vice president has assumed to support his president and to support his party. They're going to have to wrestle with that a little bit. I think that this is a kind of problem though you want to have because, again, Vice President Cheney is somebody who has served in the Congress, served in the White House, served in the Cabinet, and is extraordinarily valuable to a president who as you suggest doesn't mind getting out around the country. In fact I think he probably enjoys it by seeing some of the footage in selling his own programs. They'll have to find other surrogates because you can't set the agenda, manage the budget process and manage a lot of the congressional relations and still campaign in 50 states.
GWEN IFILL: Richard Moe, there’s been much made about the fact that Dick Cheney has made clear he has no ambitions to be president. Compare that to your boss, Vice President Walter Mondale who clearly wanted to be president. All of your bosses did. How does that make a difference?
RICHARD MOE: Well I think it made a huge difference. I think you need to go back really to the Eisenhower administration when Richard Nixon as vice president really started this process, started this evolution of the vice presidency. Before that, the vice presidency was really a political backwater, really the subject of jokes for the most part. But he persuaded President Eisenhower to give him an airplane and a few things to do. He parlayed that into the Republican nomination in 1960. And every vice president since that has sought his party's nomination has gotten it except one. So it's become primarily a stepping-stone to the presidency, to the party's nomination. But I think Vice President Cheney credibility in the assignments that President Bush has given him is enormously enhanced by the fact that he doesn't aspire to that nomination because there's no hidden agenda here.
GWEN IFILL: Nobody is giving him the evil eye.
RICHARD MOE: Exactly. There is no agenda other than the president's. And I think the other point that's worth making here is that the vice presidency is an office of total dependency. There's only one assigned responsibility and that's to preside over the Senate and break ties. Otherwise, a vice president is only as influential as the president wants him to be. So therefore every president, every vice president redefines this relationship. And I think they have redefined this relationship in ways that come closer to fulfilling the promise and the potential of the office than any other administration.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Fuller?
CRAIG FULLER: I think this is a very important point. And I think you would agree. This translates down to the staff as well -- because if you're serving a vice president who has ambitions to be president, a staff just naturally wants to make sure their candidate is front and center more often than not. It creates some tensions. We worked through that. The chief of staff tends to have a much easier time working through it than others. But I think that Cheney's role has been defined in such a way that the staffs are very collaborative. They're working very closely together by all signs that I’ve seen. I think that will help too. I think it makes a big difference when the vice president is not seeking the office of the president.
GWEN IFILL: Does the vice president run the risk of stepping on a lot of toes here if he's sitting in on the national security meetings and he’s going to lunches at the Senate and doing all these things, at what point do feelings begin to get hurt whether he has political ambitions or not?
RON KLAIN: Well, I don’t know about feelings being hurt. I agree with what Craig said a minute ago, though, which is that if you are going to give him this ongoing day-to-day operational management responsibility, how that's going to conflict against the political burdens of the vice presidency, even if he himself isn't running for president, the burdens of advancing his party's cause in the midterm elections, ultimately advancing President Bush's efforts to get re-elected making those trips to Iowa and New Hampshire if not for his own benefit, to assuage party activists but on behalf of the sitting president. All that work will have to be done if not by him by somebody else. And if by him, then the question is: What sort of management structure will be in place to deal with the erraticness of him being there and him not being there. Again, what I’m struck by is this is a White House with people like Andy Card, Josh Bolden, Karen Hughes, very, very strong, talented people. And having a vice president managing that process, it's not clear to me how well that will work over time.
CRAIG FULLER: But Dick Cheney, Dick Cheney was part of building this team. I think that's what makes this so doable. You couldn't give all these assignments to somebody who sort of came in on January 20 and simply... then you would have people stepping on toes. I think actually because he was part of the transition, ran the transition indeed, I think that gave him the authority to run the budget review process which is sort of inside the beltway but it's a remarkable thing. Cabinet officers had to come in front of the vice president and defend their budget. We never saw that kind of activity when we were there.
GWEN IFILL: The late night comics have had a field day with the idea that Dick Cheney is overshadowing the president, that he’s really the president. Is there a risk of that perception?
RICHARD MOE: I don't think so. There's really only one president. Dick Cheney knows that. Everybody knows that. So I really wouldn't worry about that. Don't see it as an issue.
GWEN IFILL: How about the health concerns?
RICHARD MOE: Well, I think those are out there for everybody to see. And those are decisions that he has to make with his physician and family and the president.
CRAIG FULLER: He’s been straightforward about it. And frankly, he's teaching America a lot about the condition he's dealing with, which is shared by a lot of Americans. He certainly is robust and active and I think I completely agree with Dick, there is only one president. Any time the President of the United States walks on to that stage he gets full attention. I think it's again the two of them have worked this relationship out now for several months. They seem quite comfortable with it. And that's good enough for me.
GWEN IFILL: Have we reached the point now where we're never going to see a vice president who is relegated to going to funerals for foreign heads of state anymore?
RON KLAIN: I don't know, Gwen. I think that as Dick said before this job is really defined by what the president makes it to be. Clearly in this case President Bush feels very comfortable with a very strong and active role for Vice President Cheney. But you can imagine in another time a vice president selected by political necessity to ticket balance or because of a deadlocked convention and that vice president not being so well suited to the president. I don't think there are any guarantees here. I think that each relationship between a president and a vice president is unique. It speaks to a specific set of people, a specific point in time in history and a specific set of needs. And I don't think there's any guarantees that the next pair will work the way these two are working.
GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that?
RICHARD MOE: I think that's largely true. But I think that the country as well as most people who observe this office understand that this, for most of our history this office has been an underused asset. That's really what struck President Carter when he defined a new relationship with Vice President Mondale because he's the only other nationally elected official who can speak with the authority of the president as an elected official. And he's the only person in the government of high stature that doesn't represent a bureaucracy or doesn't represent a particular point of view. That's why in Mondale's case he decided he would be the across-the-board advisor to the president. And the president said, "I want you to have access to all the information that I have. I want you to have a standing invitation to any meeting that I have." He told his staff, "anybody fooling around with the vice president is out of here." That had been a problem before. Vice President Humphrey and others had been badly treated by earlier staffs. So I think those things have largely changed. And the thing that has made it possible to change is that vice presidents aren't chosen by conventions anymore. They're chosen by the presidential nominee in almost every instance. That makes it almost certain that it will be a good relationship.
GWEN IFILL: Well, we will leave it there then for now. Thank you, gentlemen.