The Cheney Hokey-Pokey

Is Cheney up? Is Cheney down? The press corps can't seem to get the story straight.

The job of political journalists is not only to report on Washington, but to discern which way the political winds are blowing. It’s not an easy gig, what with competing, self-interested leaks coming fast and furious from members of Congress, their flacks, and White House staffers with all the skill and underhanded cunning that got them to the capital in the first place.

Those political winds can swirl unpredictably, scattering reporters and pundits to the four corners, producing wildly different accounts of what’s really happening behind closed doors — or a clutch of stories that read exactly the same because to hunt with the journalistic pack is often much safer than to stalk the political wilds alone.

We’ve seen both cases in evidence over the past week or two in the media’s coverage of Dick Cheney. Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Michael Abromowitz wrote a piece whose headline, in a way, misstated the conclusions of the piece that followed it. The hed read, “Cheney’s Influence Lessens in Second Term,” but what Abromowitz wrote is not quite so cut and dried: “There is no evidence that Cheney’s close relationship with Bush has been lessened. But there is also little doubt that the causes he has championed…are being rethought within the Bush administration, according to officials inside the government and experts outside it.” Later, he noted that “Figuring out how much influence Cheney has is a longtime Washington parlor game — but the answer is ultimately unknowable, given that almost all of his advice is offered privately, and both the president and his No. 2 zealously guard the details.”

Doesn’t quite pack the punch the headline advertised, does it? But it represents a truer picture of the situation than the assertive headline was willing to. The larger point here is the “longtime Washington parlor game” of trying to figure out how much power Cheney wields has produced a bunch of stories over the last week that essentially echo one another.

On February 9, the Post’s Peter Baker wrote that “Cheney’s influence within the White House, though still potent, has clearly diminished,” and that “according to some in the administration, the Cheney mystique within the White House has faded.”

At the Los Angeles Times, reporters Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang wrote on Saturday that there is “speculation” inside the Beltway that Cheney “has become a spent force,” although “the ultimate source of Cheney’s influence, his seemingly unique relationship with President Bush, shows no visible sign of change.”

But every coin has two sides, and a group of reporters at other papers see things differently.

On February 12, the Wall Street Journal’s Yochi J. Dreazen penned an article claiming that “Cheney’s diminished popularity outside the White House hasn’t affected his power within the Bush administration, where he continues to hold considerable clout.”

Similarly, this past Saturday the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Silva weighed in that the vice president “has not lost his influence with President Bush,” and “he has retained his stature within the administration.”

Add the Washington Post’s David Ignatius’ column into the mix, and it’s anyone’s guess what’s actually going on with Cheney and his influence. Ignatius wrote on Saturday that “There’s a sense that Cheney’s influence is on the rise again, at least with Iraq policy, but that’s after many months in which his allies say his role was diminished…This month’s change in Iraq policy…may have marked a return of Cheney’s influence.”

Good grief.

All these stories about the vice president recall nothing if not a piece last September, when the New York Times’ David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt essentiallywrote the piece that everyone else seems to be rewriting now. The duo spent five months interviewing people for their piece, which chronicled “a vice president who, while still influential, has seen his power wane.”

Seeing as that piece was written over five months ago, and we’ve seen these hand-wringing articles about “is Cheney out? Is Cheney in?” pop up sporadically since the 2004 election, we’re inclined to agree with Abromowitz and say that for now at least, the answer is unknowable, no matter how many reporters jump on the bandwagon — on either side of the debate.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.