Friday, February 17, 2006

Shot heard round world highlights Cheney's secrecy

Shot heard round world highlights Cheney's secrecy
By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It was the shot heard around the world, and the chaotic aftermath has shone new light on the secretive nature of President George W. Bush's powerful, independent-minded vice president, Dick Cheney.

Experts say Cheney's reaction to his accidental shooting of fellow hunter Harry Whittington in Texas last Saturday -- wait until the next day to let the news trickle out and reject White House advice to move faster -- was emblematic of Cheney's power and style.

"It is quite revealing of things that had been suspected about which there had been little clear evidence, about his clout inside the White House," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist and long-time Bush watcher at the University of Texas.

Most experts agree that Cheney made a bad story worse by letting the owner of the ranch where the hunt was taking place announce the news and by waiting four days to break his own silence on the matter.

The hoopla over the shooting cost Bush valuable time this week in trying to push his agenda. His efforts to promote his prescriptions for improving U.S. health care were drowned out in the media focus on Cheney.

Leon Panetta, who was White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said Cheney's behavior "reinforces the image that the public has of him, that he clearly is secretive, is very independent within the administration and kind of marches to his own drummer."

"What it ultimately does is it undermines the administration. You can't have people who are operating on their own and you can't have Cabinet members who do that and very frankly you can't have a vice president who does that. Ultimately it is the White House and the president who pay a higher price," Panetta said.

Cheney's penchant for secrecy is well-known, going back to when he refused to reveal the names of those he met with as chairman of an energy task force in 2001. A heart attack victim, he refuses to release his medical records.

He grants few interviews and his last formal news conference was three and a half years ago, although he does occasionally take questions from reporters when he does take a press pool with him on trips.

But quite often he travels in secret, and indeed most people did not even know he was in Texas last weekend, a sharp contrast to Bush's closely monitored every move.

Some Republicans do not want to say it publicly but believe Cheney's secrecy and dark persona have damaged Bush politically.

Some party loyalists believe Cheney's influence within the White House has waned, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's dominance on foreign policy and the departure of Cheney backer John Bolton from the State Department to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Will Cheney last throughout Bush's second term?

A former speech writer for Republican President Ronald Reagan, Peggy Noonan, wrote a speculative column in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday wondering if some White House officials might like to see Bush replace Cheney with someone who could use the vice presidency to run for president in 2008.

Cheney himself harbors no further political ambitions -- a fact some critics say has meant he no longer considers himself accountable to the American people.

"I suspect what they're thinking and not saying is, If Dick Cheney weren't vice president, who'd be a good vice president? They're thinking, at some time down the road we may wind up thinking about a new plan," she wrote.