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Cheney's unprecedented power

DICK CHENEY is the most powerful vice president in US history. Indeed, there is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that Cheney, not Bush, is the real power at the White House and Bush the figurehead.

The true role of the shadowy Cheney is finally becoming an issue in the election, and it deserves to be. A recent piece in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer lays out in devastating detail how Cheney, while CEO of Halliburton, created the blueprint for shifting much of the military's support role from the armed services to private contractors. The leading contractor, of course, is Halliburton. When Cheney became vice president, Halliburton was perfectly positioned to make out like a bandit.

Cheney, whose prior career was in politics, became a very rich man as Halliburton's chief executive, earning $45 million in just five years, with $18 million still available in stock options. Cheney also went to extraordinary lengths to keep secret the meetings of the Bush energy task force, which included primarily private companies positioned to profit from public decisions. The press treated all this as newsworthy for a time but then backed off.

What is significant about Mayer's New Yorker piece is that it was pieced together mainly from the public record. Cheney's unprecedented role and dubious history are mostly hidden in plain view, just like Bush's. The press needs only to decide that it's a story.

Yesterday the Financial Times reported that the Pentagon has belatedly opened a formal criminal investigation into Halliburton's grotesque overcharging of the Pentagon for oil delivered to Iraq. The oil was deliberately routed through a previously unknown intermediary in Kuwait, which charged Halliburton's subsidiary far above the going rate. The whole deal is fishy because the oil business in Kuwait is closely controlled by the Kuwaiti government, which works closely with the Bush administration.

In December, Pentagon auditors concluded that Halliburton had overcharged the US government for the oil by $61 million. Nonetheless, the same US government has just awarded Halliburton another contract, worth $1.2 billion, to repair oil fields in southern Iraq. If the Pentagon's Defense Criminal Investigative Service does its job, it will be hard to avoid a close examination of the role of Cheney. Though Bush is already on record that he wants to keep Cheney as his running mate this November, I would not be at all surprised if Cheney were dropped from the Republican ticket. For one thing, Cheney could become a real liability.

Second, there are more attractive alternatives. There is already talk among Republican strategists of replacing Cheney with a tactical choice such as homeland security secretary and former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge or former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Why Ridge or Giuliani? Both are Northeastern and Catholic, and Ridge's Pennsylvania will be a crucial swing state this year. Even more important, both are intimately associated with Sept. 11, 2001. As Bush declines in the polls, he will wrap himself ever more tightly in that legacy. The Republican National Convention will be in New York City, almost on the eve of the third anniversary of 9/11, and that event will be invoked ad nauseam.

Cheney, by contrast, is associated with shadowy oil deals and an increasingly suspect Iraq war. Bush could come out of the convention arm in arm with Ridge, born yet again as the antiterrorism president.

But what of Cheney? Would the most powerful vice president in American history go quietly? Perhaps he would, especially if he were persuaded that a stronger running mate would help the Bush regime win reelection.

After all, Cheney enjoys his immense power not by dint of his office (which a prior vice president, John Nance Garner, unkindly compared to a bucket of warm spit) but because Bush depends on him and allows him unprecedented power. The immensely powerful Karl Rove, for that matter, has no constitutional authority either. The former vice president could simply move his office to other quarters and continue to be the de facto president, joining earlier powers-behind-the-throne such as Colonel Edward House in the Wilson administration, who held no formal office.

Cheney is 63, with a history of cardiac problems. He could say he is stepping aside for health reasons for the good of the country. They could announce it during or just after the Democratic National Convention, in July, to steal a little thunder. Master White House ghostwriter Michael Gerson could write the speech in his sleep (and may already have). You heard it here.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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