America - Andrew Stephen sees Cheney as a weakness

Dick Cheney once seemed the ultimate Washington insider, full of gravitas and at ease with power. No

I've talked to Dick Cheney only once since he became vice-president. It was at a reception and he said, "Hello, Andrew" - before moving on, in the accustomed Washington manner, to the more important fish that he apparently felt he had to fry. But I see him on countless mornings, too, making the journey from the vice-president's residence on Massachusetts Avenue to the Old Executive Building next to the White House - usually in a ludicrously long motorcade from which secret servicemen thrust their sub-machine guns out of the windows.

I would never take offence at Cheney's personal manner, because Washington is full of people like him. He has been playing Washington power games for nearly three decades, and has perfected the mystique: that of an insider who has information so grave, so uniquely privileged, that he cannot possibly divulge it. He may occasionally let forth a confidence out of the side of his mouth, but that only reinforces the impression of a man of immense gravitas who has been entrusted to know truths which elude the rest of us.

If you take such posturing seriously, you have succumbed to these ridiculous power games. But it worked for Cheney, much as it has done for that other Washington games player, Donald Rumsfeld: Rumsfeld is nearly ten years older than Cheney, and was his mentor in DC for many years. In 1974, when Gerald Ford appointed Rumsfeld as his chief of staff, Rummy chose Dick to be his deputy. Dick succeeded Rummy in 1975. So when Cheney became vice-president, he naturally returned the favours by having Rumsfeld appointed defence secretary. Washington games players look after each other, you see.

I have never quite worked out whether people such as Cheney and Rumsfeld really believe in their own mystique; I suspect that it starts as a contrived manner when they are young men seeking power, but comes to consume them as their lives progress.

Cheney is now 63, but has been projecting that persona since his days in the White House 30 years ago - and, perhaps not coincidentally, he has also suffered four heart attacks while doing so. He survived the end of the Ford administration to become a Republican congressman, representing his home state of Wyoming, in 1978. He was duly re-elected five times, only to be appointed by the first President Bush as - yes, defence secretary.

That meant, inevitably, that on behalf of the rest of us, he nobly shouldered the burden of knowing the inner secrets of the Pentagon's trillion-dollar budget and weapons systems, the first Gulf war, and so on. He spoke only very occasionally of such matters, quietly and always out of the side of his mouth.

The act continued to work wonders with the board of Halliburton, which appointed him chairman of the board and CEO in 1995 - a happy marriage that lasted until shortly after he became George W Bush's running mate in 2000, whence the directors awarded him a retirement package of $33m. Cheney became George Bush's running mate only because he led a committee to unearth the best possible vice-presidential candidate - finally coming up with the magical name of none other than Richard Cheney.

Fast-forward to summer 2004 and Dick was up to his old tricks again, as when he told Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, as they posed for photographs on the Senate floor: "Go fuck yourself."

Yet there has been one significant change: in 2000, the electorate swallowed his self-image totally and believed he added weight to the Bush ticket. Then, his ratings were 51 per cent favourable, with just 14 per cent unfavourable. In 2003, the ratings were 61 and 28 per cent, respectively. Now, they are 44 per cent favourable and 45 per cent unfavourable, and the Kerry team see Cheney as the biggest weakness on the Bush ticket.

Indeed, the Kerry campaign has just unleashed a new ad that highlights Cheney's role with Halliburton and leaves questions over how the conglomerate managed to land a $7bn Pentagon contract for the supposed reconstruction of Iraq. Cheney is quoted as saying, "I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven't had now for over three years" - before it is revealed that he has received more than $2m from the company since taking power.

There is actually a grain of truth in what Cheney says: the payments were frozen into the pipeline before he became vice-president, and he is now receiving parts of his retirement package, staggered over several years and in a blind trust.

In this election campaign, he has adopted a new persona as the administration's official voice of fear - leading one strategist for the Kerry campaign to describe him as "Apocalypse Now". He will confide to small but televised campaign meetings things "we know", such as the whoppers that Saddam Hussein had to be removed because he was actively working with al-Qaeda, or that Colonel Gaddafi ended his weapons programme because he had seen what happened to Saddam. Or he will confide to Republicans in Des Moines, as he did this month, that "it's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on 2 November, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States".

Geddit? John Kerry is a pathetic wimp who, as president, would fail to defend the US against more terrorist attacks. Never mind that Cheney himself received five deferments from military service in Vietnam because, he once said, he had "other priorities" at the time.

A few days after that speech in Des Moines, Cheney "clarified" what he had said: "I did not say if Kerry is elected, we will be hit by a terrorist attack." But last Monday, he was telling a meeting in Pennsylvania that "the danger" for the war on terrorism is that "what you get out there on the other end is confusion, weakness, uncertainty and indecision".

Dick Cheney has thus become the polarising figure of this year's election campaign, admired by an 8:1 ratio by Republicans and despised by Democrats by exactly the same ratio. He is chalking up huge campaigning mileage in his spacious Air Force Two, but adamantly refuses space to anybody from the "liberal" New York Times. He speaks publicly about the plight of his gay daughter, yet she does not appear on the stage when he is celebrating family values with his wife, their other daughter and her four children.

Even more than Bush himself, this divisive figure represents a peculiarly nasty strain that runs deeply through the bloodstream of the Bush administration. If George W Bush wins another four years in the White House, it will be because Cheney helped put him there. Should Bush lose, it will be at least partly because the American public has finally twigged just how empty Washington games players such as Dick Cheney really are. But I will not be holding my breath.