- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

In choosing Dick Cheney as his runningmate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has sent a message and passed a test. The message is crucial to Mr. Bush's chances of becoming the next president of the United States. The test tells us quite a bit about what kind of president he would be.

Mr. Bush will be chosen by the Republican convention next week as his party's candidate. As the son of a popular former president, he has the immense advantage that his name is as well-known as anyone's in American politics. He has no problem in getting people to remember who he is.

But Mr. Bush is known for his family rather than for himself. Fairly or unfairly, he has the reputation of a lightweight, even though he is governor of the large state of Texas, the second largest in area in the union after Alaska.

In selecting Mr. Cheney, Mr. Bush has sent the message that he values substance. Only a serious politician, a serious man of government, he is telling us, would want such a serious person to serve with him. Of all the people whom he might have chosen, Mr. Cheney is the political heavyweight.

The test that Mr. Bush has passed is that he is not afraid to have big people working for him.

Mr. Cheney has more relevant political and governmental experience than Mr. Bush. At the age of 59 he is the older man, and in different circumstances he might have been the one running for president.

He was defense secretary under Mr. Bush's father, President George Bush, during the 1991 Gulf War. Before that, as one of the congressmen for the small state of Wyoming, he was one of the Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, with the ambition to become majority leader and then speaker some day.

I have known him for 20 years and he is one of the last people I would ever accuse of being a dreamer, but I do recall suggesting to him on one occasion this was in the mid 1980s that this seemed rather a fanciful ambition. He could not hold either of these posts unless the Republicans won a majority in the House, and that was a remote prospect. Not at all, he responded; he was hopeful this could be achieved by 1992.

In the event, he was only two years out. He had developed his political judgment as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford from 1975-77, a heavy responsibility for a young man in his 30s. But it means that if he becomes vice president he will bring to the office a quite remarkable range of experience in an earlier White House, as a leading figure in Congress and as head of one of the most important departments. Throughout it all he has kept an impressively level head.

Purely by chance, I happened to be in his congressional office on the afternoon that President Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt in March 1981. We were deep in conversation when his secretary phoned through to tell us that we ought to be watching television. So for the rest of the afternoon we watched the drama unfold, and I later wrote an editorial for The Times of London in his outer office.

In that time I was able to witness at close quarters two of his most outstanding qualities: his capacity for swift and shrewd political assessment and his ability to remain cool at a time when some other distinguished figures appeared notably less calm.

His cool demeanor is at once both his greatest political strength and a potential liability in a national campaign. Above all, it inspires confidence. At times of crisis he does not get rattled, and he does not rattle others.

He is a strong conservative who, in my experience, has always described himself as such in private as much as in public.

But I have been surprised and impressed in all the time I have known him by the respect he commands across partisan political boundaries in Washington, which is not a town known for the generosity of its judgments.

He has won and kept this respect because he is a reasonable man firm in his own beliefs, but ready to listen to the opinions of others. In the best sense of the term he is an insider's politician, most appreciated by those who see him at close quarters.

But he is not the most exciting running mate that Mr. Bush could have chosen. Sen. John McCain, the former Vietnam prisoner of war who was Mr. Bush's closest and fiercest rival for the Republican nomination, would have brought more glamour and more anxiety, to his own side as well as, perhaps, to the opposition. There are still others who might have brought more sparkle to the Republican ticket. Mr. Cheney is not a flashy politician. Nor does he come from a large state whose support might be decisive in a close-fought election. He is not associated with any vital political constituency. What Mr. Cheney offers are the solid virtues. He is a team player. He inspires trust. He is well-informed. He understands government. It will be interesting to see how he performs in the glare of a national campaign, but it may be more significant that in his first and most important appointment Mr. Bush has gone for substance rather than shine.

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