Vice President Dick Cheney is featured in a new bestseller, and he isn’t very happy about it. He is front and center in Ron Suskind’s book, “The Price of Loyalty,” an insider account of the Bush administration written with the cooperation of former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. Based on information provided by O’Neill, Suskind implies that Cheney is the key source of authority in the Bush administration.
It is safe to say Cheney is not your old-time vice president. Quietly, behind closed doors, he has greatly enhanced a job that John Adams, himself then a vice president, once called “the most insignificant office ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Under Cheney, the vice presidency has become an extension of the presidency itself.
Adams was not alone in his views of the vice presidency. Many of the 45 men who succeeded him have said much worse. The humorist Finley Peter Dunne, in the guise of saloon keeper Martin J. Dooley, perhaps captured the office best when he said that the vice presidency was “not a crime exactly. You can’t be sent to jail for it, but it’s kind of a disgrace. It’s like writing anonymous letters.”
The Founding Fathers never conceived of a personal dimension for the vice presidency. Indeed, they never imagined a president who would give much responsibility to his vice president. Cheney and Bush have changed all that. Never in the past has there been a relationship between a president and his vice president as close as this one.
It’s a relationship based in large part on respect, loyalty and discretion. Bush has great respect for Cheney’s ability to accomplish common goals without drawing attention to himself. The president also admires Cheney’s loyalty to him personally and to the office of the president.
Cheney’s impact on foreign affairs is well known. But few Americans realize his influence on the new Bush health care plan as well as the energy plan that is bogged down in Congress. In fact, it is hard to know where Cheney’s mark leaves off and the president’s begins.
Such influence over administration policy was not typical of most vice presidents before Cheney. Those men were little more than political afterthoughts — men selected to balance national tickets in the hope of winning a few more electoral votes in presidential elections. Never were they considered powerful in the office.
Of course not all vice presidents were duds. At least two — Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 and Harry S. Truman in 1945 — became great presidents. Yet neither Roosevelt nor Truman would have achieved greatness had it not been for the sudden death of their respective presidents. As vice presidents, they too had been excluded from the inner circle of power.
Beginning with Richard Nixon, the vice presidency received increasing measures of attention and more authority. Election as vice president of the United States no longer was seen as the end of a political career. In fact, it has become something of a springboard to the presidency. Four of the nine men who have served in that office over the past 50 years have gone on to the White House.
Other changes came with the election in 1976 of Walter Mondale to the vice presidency. With the support of Jimmy Carter, Mondale became a key adviser. In fact, Mondale enhanced the office by taking on duties traditionally performed by the president. Mondale’s successors — Bush, Quayle and Gore — further expanded the duties of the vice president by accepting such tough assignments as the space program and government inefficiency.
But Cheney has taken the office to yet a new level of power and influence. In his own unobtrusive way, Cheney has expanded the vice presidency into a vital center of power and authority within the administration. And he did it in a position that was little more than an afterthought at the constitutional convention in 1788.
Will future vice presidents inherit such power and influence? They will if they set aside their political ambitions, work behind the scenes and become extensions of their administrations. Cheney’s power is inextricably tied to Bush’s fortunes as president. He has shown that when the two offices function in tandem, the vice presidency is more than the “insignificant office” occupied by John Adams.
Timothy Walch is director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, and the editor of "At the President's Side: The Vice Presidency in the Twentieth Century" (1997).