A heartbeat away from disaster?

I broke one of my own rules last Monday by surfing the 24-hour news channels. We were, as usual, enveloped in a world of constant, menacing threats - with the day divided into three distinct parts. First, we were warned of the perfect storm about to envelop us for ever in monstrous snow drifts; but when we were dramatically taken over to the CNN reporter reporting from the eye of the storm in Pennsylvania, the snow did not seem to cover even the soles of his shoes. Then we were taken to California, where some wretched 15-year-old had pulled out a gun and killed two fellow high-school pupils. Finally came the story of the day, one to get the channels exploding in hysteria: had Vice-President Dick Cheney suffered yet another heart attack?

By Tuesday, it hardly seemed to matter whether he had or not. Compassionate Boy George, asked in Chicago whether his deputy should now cut back on his workload, responded: "No, he shouldn't - because he's needed." Without quite realising it, Dubbya had put his finger on the point about Cheney: that the 60-year-old Bush family retainer is, by far, the most powerful vice-president in US history. Clinton liked to boast that he kept Al Gore in the loop; Bush Sr represented himself as a significant deputy to Reagan, as did Walter Mondale under Jimmy Carter.

But no vice-president has ever amounted to more than this, in what John Nance Garner, FDR's first vice-president, famously denounced as an office not worth "a pitcher of warm piss" (the last word is invariably reported as "spit", so as not to offend American sensibilities), just as LBJ's comment about Gerald Ford being unable to "walk" and chew gum at the same time was similarly censored. Alben Barkley, Truman's vice-president, liked to tell the story of two brothers - one of whom went to sea, one of whom became vice-president, and neither of whom was ever heard of again.

But not Dick Cheney - the man appointed to head a committee to find a vice-presidential candidate for Dubbya, who then managed to come up with the magical name of . . . Dick Cheney. It was a telling moment last month when a disturbed man opened fire near the White House in mid-morning. Boy George, the nation was solemnly assured, was safely inside the White House at the time - "working out" in the gym - while Dick Cheney was hard at work at his desk.

Cheney is the head of a crucially important task force to develop a national energy policy (more vital than it sounds, considering that California has been suffering serious power cuts), due to deliver an interim report in November and then more fully next year. He chairs National Security Council meetings, which are not even attended by Boy George.

Every morning, before 7.30am, he is briefed by a CIA man about overnight events around the world. He is in charge of the Budget Review Board, and has acted as a kind of one-man appellate court for aggrieved cabinet members seeking larger slices of the budget in the wake of Boy George's newly proposed tax cuts.

He is also speaker of the Senate, with the casting vote in a chamber currently split 50-50 (but perhaps not for much longer: on the Republican side, Senators Strom Thurmond, 98, and Jesse Helms, 79, are ailing fast). Every Tuesday, Cheney has lunch with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, trying to pre-empt challenges from the Congressional right. On Wednesdays, he lunches with Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld (the defence secretary) and Condoleezza Rice (national security adviser). On Thursdays, Boy George himself gets a chance to learn what's going on when he lunches with Cheney, alone. Before the end of the week, Cheney visits a suite of offices he has been allocated just off the main floor of the House of Representatives - the first time anybody can remember a vice- president having offices there - so that he can keep in touch with Republican rumblings there, too.

A heavy workload? Cheney has now suffered four heart attacks, undergone quadruple-bypass surgery (in 1988) and received what we were assured was "urgent" but not "emergency" treatment to reopen an artery that was 90 per cent clogged last Monday. So the vice- president's health - and Boy George's judgement in appointing him as his deputy - is being ferociously debated in Washington. Cheney had his first heart attack while campaigning for Congress in 1978 - and his most recent (not counting last Monday's little kerfuffle) shortly after he learnt last year that the order had been given for a recount in Florida (an order subsequently rescinded by the US Supreme Court). He strenuously denies, however, that stress played any role in what his cardiologist described last Monday as "chronic coronary artery disease".

I have written here before that the success of the Boy George presidency will lie mainly in how successfully he can delegate the serious business of governing to grown-ups like Cheney. Now Cheney's cardiologist will say only that there is "a very high likelihood" that he can "finish out his term" in office; note the use of the singular, it somehow being a given that two terms would be too much to expect from a man clearly not physically well.

Whether Cheney can continue to run national security, plan the nation's energy strategy, liaise with Congress and act as frontman on most heavyweight domestic issues - as well as brief Boy George on what is happening and travel the globe to attend funerals of world leaders, in the time-honoured fashion of vice-presidents - is now seriously in question. Boy George may make light of his deputy's health problems, but they could well come back to haunt him in a way he never envisaged when he made his fateful choice last spring.

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.