Why Cheney could be a liability

How unpredictable the world of politics always turns out to be. "We're going to have a nice day," Lynne Cheney trilled at home in Texas on 25 July, soon after her husband, Dick, received a call from the Boy George at 6.22am, confirming that he would be Dubbya's vice-presidential running mate. Thus the choreographed scenario was set: the Cheneys would fly to Austin, hold a smiling press conference formally announcing the Bush-Cheney ticket, which would then dominate US news coverage for at least the next 24 hours. The news channels were duly gabbling on non-stop about Cheney - until flight AF4590 went down, after which Bush and Cheney were relegated, not only behind the Concorde tragedy, but even behind the breakdown of the Middle East talks.

Indeed, when Bush, Cheney and their respective spouses strode on to the stage, grinning and waving amid Stars and Stripes pompoms, the images sat very uneasily alongside those of the furiously burning flames of AF4590. True, Dubbya began by asking for a moment's silence for the Concorde victims - and it was only a moment, lasting barely ten seconds - but then switched into his set speech, replete with bursts of applause and laughter at Dubbya's wit. "Well, this is obviously a very special moment for Lynne and me," Cheney then gushed. From parochial Austin, it may have seemed great stuff - but to any experienced PR man, the timing was a media nightmare.

Dubbya had promised an "electrifying" choice, one that would make "your eyes pop out" with excitement. Who could it be? Madonna? Arnold Schwarzenegger, perhaps? Britney Spears, then? No, Dick Cheney. So let us savour those two charismatic words, "Dick Cheney", rolling them around our tongues with excitement and anticipation. To the watching world, when they made their ill-timed announcement (why didn't they delay it 24 hours?), the pair looked like a father-and-son team: Boy George, the eager young pup, and Cheney, the balding, walking personification of gravitas.

That is the idea of the Bushies: what Boy George lacks in experience and depth, a safe pair of hands such as Cheney's will make up. The highly unelectrifying and, at first sight, safe choice (I will come to why that isn't actually so in a moment) confirms something a senior Bushie told me months ago: that Bush Sr and his cronies are playing much bigger roles in Dubbya's campaign than is generally known. A revealing little factoid that did slip out, however, was that it was Bush Sr who asked a leading cardiologist in Houston to report on Cheney's fitness to be his boy's running mate. (Having had three minor heart attacks doesn't affect Cheney's ability to run, but it does carry PR risks, as the late-night talk shows have already shown: "In the time it took me to walk out here, Dick Cheney had five more heart attacks," Jay Leno chortled in a talk show watched by the voting masses.)

That father-and-son image, however, is what could turn out to be dangerous for the Republicans. Cheney is actually only six years older than Boy George, but is decades older in experience and manner: at an age (34) when Boy George was still trying to decide what to do with his life, Cheney was President Ford's chief of staff. By 37, he was a congressman, rapidly rising to become the number two Republican in the House before becoming Bush Sr's defence secretary at 49 - whence he ran the Pentagon during the Gulf war. And Dubbya? Well, he was footling around in the oil business in Texas and, er, buying a baseball team.

That is danger number one for the Republicans. But as I said last week, it all gets very Freudian. The Bushies are determined not to repeat Bush Sr's mistake by choosing a vacuous pretty boy such as Dan Quayle. But are they making the mistake made by Bush Sr's doomed opponent, poor Michael Dukakis, when he chose as his running mate the immensely gravitas-laden Senator Lloyd Bentsen? Voters ended up saying: "If it was Bentsen instead of Dukakis heading the ticket, I'd vote for them." The peril, therefore, is that, rather than complement Boy George's inexperience, Cheney will end up inadvertently highlighting it.

Danger number two is that, while Cheney comes over as a genial fellow, his record is actually that of a far right-winger. He voted against abortion, the 1983 Equal Rights Amendment for women, gun control and even against the establishment a department of education; he opposed US economic sanctions to bring down the apartheid regime of South Africa, earning him a "nearly perfect" voting record with the American Conservative Union. Like Dubbya, he's also enmeshed in the murky world of oil; last month, he quietly sold his $5.1m in shares at Halliburton, the controversial oil company he headed.

And like so many military hawks, Cheney's own military record is as blank as Bill Clinton's. At least Al Gore served in Vietnam - albeit in a cushy role as a media liaison officer - but Cheney managed to get five deferments of military service: first because he was a student (who flunked out after a year at Yale before ending up at the University of Wyoming), and then because he was married. Put together as a package and skillfully exploited by a clever and ruthless Gore, Cheney's record could thus turn into a serious liability for the Bushies.

On 3 August, the generational baton will pass not only to Boy George, but also to Franklin Graham - son of Billy - who will deliver the opening benediction at the Republican convention. Then, in a week or so, it will be the turn of Al Gore to announce his running mate. Ex-Senator George Mitchell, 66, fresh from Belfast, perhaps?

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Tony Blair is a Bobo