Here’s a crazy tale from Washington. A rich establishment guy, a 59-year-old Republican, becomes vice-president of the United States. But bad things happen: he has a weak heart and in the midst of bedding a glamorous, famous TV reporter, he expires “in carnal arrest.”
Such is the premise of an eminently forgettable capital potboiler titled The Body Politic. Forgettable, that is, except that it’s the fictional fruit of one Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick— who is, of course, a rich establishment guy, a 59-year-old Republican within a dangling chad of becoming vice-president of the United States. Dick Cheney, as the world knows, also has a troubled ticker. When his wife’s novel was first published in 1988, he had his third heart attack and underwent bypass surgery. The Body Politic was reissued a few weeks ago by a publisher clearly hoping to cash in on the serendipity of it all—and almost immediately Cheney was felled by a fourth attack. Any more literary success from Lynne, and Dick might not make it.
Cheney’s latest attack turned out to be the mildest possible—good news for both him and his boss, the putative president George W. Bush.
Last week, it was looking more and more likely that Bush will finally be able to claim the White House. AÍ Gore’s lawyers suffered setbacks in their fight for yet another count of the ballots in Florida, and the state legislature’s Republican majority prepared to step in on Bush’s side if Democrats drag things out too long. But even as Bush inched closer to the presidency, something curious happened: he got smaller and smaller.
Gore was everywhere, taking his case for “patience” to the public, giving five network TV interviews in a single day. But the front man for the Republican camp wasn’t the one at the top of the ticket, it was the pasty-looking guy just out of the cardiac ward: Dick Cheney. On Monday, with only a weekend to recover, Cheney was announcing that the Bush forces would open their own “transition” office (since the Clinton administration wouldn’t hand over the keys to the official one). Bush himself was back in Texas, silent and almost invisible.
For the next two days, Cheney was out front again, plotting the Bush revival in Washington. George W was off at his ranch near Waco, out of sight. He reappeared on Thursday
for a few minutes to pose before the TV cameras with another of his dad’s old stalwarts—Gen. Colin Powell. Even then, Powell seemed to overshadow him and he made a small but telling slip, referring to the longed-for time when “Dick Cheney and I will be president and vice-president.” Uh, isn’t it the other way around?
Cheney was supposed to give the callow Bush instant gravitas when he became his running mate in July. He’s the quintessential old-guard Republican. He held posts in the administrations of presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush Senior (he was defence secretary during the Persian Gulf War), and served in Congress during the Reagan years. He’s been through five presidential transitions. The adjectives usually ............................... used to describe him include “reassuring,” “calm,” “mature.”
That may be just the thing to bolster confidence during an unsetded time. The downside is that the other guy—the one who’s supposed to be president—looks insubstantial by comparison. His late-night TV address on Nov. 26, when he claimed victory in Florida after the vote there was officially certified, was notable as much for his nervous blinking as for anything he said. Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist with an unerring instinct for everyone’s weakest spot, calls him “MiniMe”—an Austin Powers-style shrunken clone of his father.
Bush’s supporters insist all this is just a sign that he will be a great delegator when—still if—he reaches the White House. And during this strange in-between time, while his fate is still being setded in the courts, they say it would be unseemly for him to openly assume the mande of presidentelect. But it does look odd to have No. 2 seem so much more comfortable with command than No. 1—a perception that is hardening even before Bush can officially claim victory.
At the beginning of The Body Politic, Lynne Cheney and her co-author, Victor Gold, quote the noted Florentine spin doctor Niccolö Machiavelli as saying: “The great majority of mankind is satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and is often even more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.” In the United States’ strangestever post-election period, Bush has flunked that venerable test. All he had to do was appear presidential. Instead, he sent out one of his dad’s old friends to do even that.
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