The Un-Clinton

“I’m feeling like a president.” George W. Bush was standing greeting New Yorkers before a speech 12 days ago in Manhattan. He was tanned, smiling, looked like he’d been getting his jogging in. A sinus infection that had left him gobbling Advil from New Hampshire through South Carolina was finally gone. He was feeling good.

I leaned toward him, not hearing in the hubbub, and he repeated what he’d said. (Actually: “Uhm feeln lahk PRESSdint.”) I had written once of how his father had started to feel like the president after Election Day 1988, that suddenly he was standing straight and filling out his suit. I looked at his son, who said, “That’s what the primaries are for, in part. What the long season is for.” To give you time to become what you mean to be. And he wanted it known he was becoming it.

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I thought of that yesterday when Gov. Bush took the podium in Austin, relaxed and in something like command. These days he’s Bush in bloom, expansive and settled, and the selection of Dick Cheney reflects his new confidence. Some bad luck (a Concorde down, a Mideast peace process gone bust) and some leaking (never let your father call the doctor and expect the neighbors not to hear) dulled the impact of the announcement, but it was still the story of the day, not only on its own terms but because of what it revealed about Mr. Bush. He didn’t choose someone who’ll help him win, he chose a man who’ll help him govern. He is certain he is going to win. He is thinking of the future.

Thus the choice. If you were president, Dick Cheney is precisely the kind of man you’d want working down the hall. He was chief of staff to President Ford a quarter century ago at age 34, was Wyoming’s only congressman for six terms, was President Bush’s successful secretary of defense for four tumultuous years encompassing a major war in the Persian Gulf. Talk about been there, done that.

But he was not an obvious choice. He is the darling of no part of the party, does not bring a big state, brings nothing to the Electoral College, is not a political pugilist and will not go after the other team hammer and tong. No one has ever called him a great campaigner, and he looks like one of those public servants who find shaking hands on the stump mildly embarrassing, if not germy. He brings nothing to the ticket but seriousness, experience, integrity, maturity, wisdom and a thoughtful conservatism.

Mr. Cheney is the un-Clinton. Bill Clinton is dramatic, full of sparks; he loves to pose reaching for hands and being engulfed in the love of the people. Dick Cheney does not appear to want or need public adoration. Those who know him say he will prove to be a gifted debater, but I see no sign of that. He keeps his own counsel and ponders, does not thrust and parry, does not love the cha-cha of politics, the dance. That’s why he wound up in public service—not what the Clintons and Kennedys call public service, by which they mean politics, but real public service, i.e., serving the public.

A small anecdote about a large facet of his personality. Once, in the summer of 1992, I was invited to a dinner upstairs in the White House. I’d never been there before, and wondered what I’d see. I saw a handful of people talking politics, commenting on the upcoming election, and sat near Dick Cheney, whom I did not know and who was sitting quietly on a sofa listening to everyone. He looked grave and friendly. President Bush’s sister turned to him and said she hoped he would someday write a book, and hoped he was keeping a diary. He sort of winced, and looked down. No, he said, “unfortunately you can’t keep diaries in a position like mine anymore.” He explained that anything he wrote could be subpoenaed or become evidence in some potential legal action. “So you can’t keep and recount your thoughts anymore.” We talked about what a loss this is for history. It concerned him. It was serious; so is he. Then everyone started talking politics again.

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There would be problems with any GOP vice presidential choice because the media, which got one of the great stories of the 1980s with “Dan Quayle is a numbskull,” is looking for another good story, and who’s to blame them. It’s summer, we need a good story. The best shot with Mr. Cheney was touched on by a weatherman on Fox News Tuesday morning who jokingly pointed to a weather map full of clouds and rain and said, “Cheney fever is sweeping the nation!”

He looks like a boring, white, middle-aged male Republican. And though he’s famous to some, he’s wholly unknown to many and has been out of the public eye through most of the 1990s. If you are older than 45 or so, you might think Dick Cheney is a gifted public servant with a long history of dazzling achievement. If you are in your 20s or 30s, he’s a round guy with a bad ticker. Mr. Cheney will have to be introduced to a significant portion of the electorate.

And because he was famous long ago, and because even in his mid-30s he had premature gravitas and seemed 50, a lot of people think he’s old. It is amazing to think he is only five years older than George W. Bush. He seems five years older than Gov. Bush’s father. His cardiac problems will have to be addressed clearly and honestly again and again. Doctors say he’s fine after his triple bypass, but a heart problem can be a political problem. It didn’t help Bill Bradley. It didn’t hurt Lyndon Johnson, however: He had a massive heart attack three years before JFK chose him as vice president. He got out of the hospital, stopped smoking, lost weight, and a year into his own active presidency people had forgotten he’d ever been sick.

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The not-so-secret weapon, and the growing story will be Mr. Cheney’s wife, Lynne Vincent Cheney, who is something new as a vice presidential spouse. She will probably be somewhat controversial, not in the usual tabloidy way of vice president’s wives—“Betty Ford’s Addiction,” “Tipper’s Secret Agony”—but because she is an authentic intellectual, a scholar engaged in the culture wars, a brilliant writer and thinker with a doctorate in British literature (her dissertation was on Matthew Arnold).

She has operated the past 20 years not through the power derived from a successful husband but through her own independent efforts. She was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and wrote “Telling the Truth,” about the tendency of modern academia to allow politically correct thinking to shroud and obscure the truth. As the second lady, she will be news. Mrs. Cheney is currently at work on a book about problems in public education, including fuzzy math, creative spelling and the abandonment of phonics. Maybe later we will finally get a White House memoir written by a principal that is not only informative, but literature.

Looks like she’s the un-Clinton, too.

The choice of Dick Cheney seems so grounded, mature and constructive that, as a citizen, I am astonished. An adult has been picked for an adult job. We appear to be entering a new era. Perhaps it will be called the restoration.