The 'evil genius' is forced out of his hole

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 February, 2006, 12:00am

This past week should have been a tough one for US President George W. Bush. There was fresh controversy over conditions at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, as well as a Republican backlash over Hurricane Katrina and increased calls for the president to speak up about his alleged ties with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Instead, the spectres haunting Mr Bush's second term were momentarily shunted out of the limelight thanks to the suspect aim of Vice-President Dick Cheney and the gunshot wounds of lawyer Harry Whittington, 78, a generous supporter of the Republican party who was peppered by 200 shotgun pellets from Mr Cheney's rifle in a quail hunting accident.

As a result, Mr Cheney has once again become the talk of US media for all the wrong reasons. Yet the media aren't crying 'fowl' because the vice-president shot his friend - Mr Cheney created the uproar himself by failing to personally address the matter for four days.

'With American soldiers dying in Iraq,' thundered The New York Times, 'Five-Deferment Dick 'I Had Other Priorities in the 60s Than Military Service' Cheney gets his macho kicks gunning down little birds and the occasional old man while W rides his bike, blissfully oblivious to any collateral damage.'

Indeed, the handling of the event has only fuelled suspicions the administration is sleeping on the job. In any other nation, the mere fact a senior member of government was engaging in a blood sport would be news in itself - yet in the US, only the fact that a fellow hunter was shot made it a newsworthy story.

When Mr Cheney finally broke his silence to Fox News, his words were carefully chosen.

'Ultimately, I am the guy who pulled the trigger and fired the round that hit Harry. You can talk about all the other conditions that existed at the time, but that's the bottom line,' he said.

'It's not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else.'

The irony wasn't lost on those who recalled the vice-president's aggressive assertion that a smoking gun would be found in Iraq, betraying Saddam Hussein's hidden weapons of mass destruction.

Such attention sits uneasily with the man Mr Bush refers to simply as 'Vice'. The Republican party's Senate leader, Harry Reid, noted that the last time Mr Cheney gave a press conference was in 2002. His distaste of the media is well known.

Insights into Mr Cheney's character are rare and therefore memorable. He has done little to shake off his image as the gruff, hard-nosed puppet master to presidential policy. His fearsome reputation as Washington's most uncompromising politician was offset only by his history of frequent heart trouble.

'What's wrong with my image?' he asked journalists during the 2004 election race.

'Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It's a nice way to operate, actually.'

Yet this week, 'the evil genius' was indeed forced out of that hole thanks to an unlikely catalyst. While the damaging debate over Hurricane Katrina rumbles on, the potentially ruinous Plame affair - which alleges that the vice-president may have authorised his former chief-of-staff, Scooter Libby, to leak classified information on the identity of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame - infers dishonesty at the highest level.

Yet despite such pressures, the biggest challenge to Mr Cheney's political career has been brought on by a bird slightly smaller than a chicken. By all accounts, the quail he missed is still alive and has since turned into an albatross. Mr Whittington, who is now on the mend, suffered a heart attack as a result of his injuries.

If the vice-president had dealt with the issue immediately, chances are it would have quickly faded away. And police yesterday cleared Mr Cheney of any wrongdoing and closed the case, saying no charges would be filed.

But he chose to remain in the shadows of a situation he created, allowing a bizarre mishap to acquire a disproportionate gravity. Suddenly a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later has become crystallised.

Mr Cheney was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on January 30, 1941, but grew up in Caspar, Wyoming. Earning degrees from the University of Wyoming, he avoided the draft in the 1960s by receiving a series of deferments. A veteran of the Republican administrations of former presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Mr Cheney was elected to the House of Representatives from Wyoming in 1977.

Re-elected five times, he served as defence secretary under the elder George Bush and oversaw the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. When Bill Clinton brought the democrats to power in 1992, Mr Cheney served as chief executive officer of oil services giant Halliburton until 2000, when George W. Bush invited him back into the political fold.

Mr Cheney is credited with tutoring George W. Bush, a two-time governor of Texas, in foreign policy issues, and it is this bond that provides the basis of their working relationship. Mr Cheney has been something of a mentor, and yet his refusal to court the press and his penchant for getting on with the job has meant that he has never eclipsed the president either, being regarded more as the family friend.

Mr Bush joked in 2004 that Mr Cheney's was 'not the prettiest face in the race'.

'I didn't pick him for his looks. I picked him for his judgment, his experience, his ability to get the job done,' he said.

How strained this relationship has since become is under debate. The vice-president's approval ratings are already among the lowest in the administration - just 24 per cent in a recent poll. Evidence also suggests that the president disagreed with Mr Cheney's initial decision to remain silent about the shooting accident.

'You can always look back at these issues and work to do better,' said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, maintaining that he was 'speaking on behalf of the White House and the president'.

The only other time a visible crack between the two has appeared was when the president supported an amendment to the constitution that would ban same-sex marriages. Mr Cheney, whose daughter is openly gay, claimed in 2000 that a constitutional amendment would not be necessary.

The president is known to prize loyalty and discretion, while Mr Cheney has sought to exert his influence behind the scenes, yet it's fair to say the president may have been frustrated by Mr Cheney's recent behaviour. Yet Mr Bush will be keen to keep close his allies in the belief that the US is now in the midst of a war against extremism. The 9/11 attack was crucial in creating this bond, and the religious unrest that is sweeping the world only fuels the Bush administration's stance against the terrorist factions claiming Islam for themselves.

And with Mr Cheney's heart condition and recent blood-clot operation, he has no presidential ambitions of his own. In light of recent events, perhaps that's just as well.