Cheney Goes For The Capillary

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Eric Engberg gives Dick Cheney his due: He took off the white gloves and landed some stinging slaps. But a real old-fashioned fight would have been kind of fun.

Quick, tell me what Dan Quayle talked about in accepting the veep nomination at New Orleans in '88. Too far back, you say? Then, how about Al Gore in '92? Or Jack Kemp four years ago? For that matter, does anyone remember who Jack Kemp was?

Vice presidential candidates, especially in years their parties don't win, are beneath the level of footnotes to history. The words they speak don't resound down the corridors of history; they barely make it to the front door of the nearest saloon the delegates retire to after the final gavel.

So Dick Cheney was not at the podium to demonstrate rhetorical brilliance. He was there, in great part, as a 'walking resume.' As his ex-boss, Bush the Elder, might put it: "Message: Steady. Cheney. Solid. Done it. Been there. Good guy."

There was a big movement back in the 50's to the "city manager system" of government as a means of getting away from the presumed evils of "bosses" and their machines. The idea was to professionalize municipal services, get away from patronage and "clout," and make government as clean as a well-run business.

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Cheney embodies what might be called the "Federal Manager System." From his 20's, what Cheney has been is a government professional, earning high marks at a variety of increasingly important federal jobs until, in 1991, he ran a war that put 600,000 troops in the field, about the most responsible government job one can imagine.

In the course of becoming so skilled at what he does that even Democrats respect him, and so articulate that reporters sought him out for information and good quotes, Cheney became the classic Washington Insider. The fact that his House voting record was so conservative went unnoticed by Democrats and most journalists until the "opposition researchers" working for Gore dredged it up.

A longtime Democratic operative said to me yesterday, "I didn't know until now that his record was so far right. When he was in the House, we used to think he was one of the most reasonable guys up there. Next to Gingrich and Armey he was a pussycat." A very typical sentiment.

Cheney's reputation for civility and fair play is so deeply imbedded in the political world, that his convention speech was chosen by the Bush mico-managers as the big moment when the Republicans would actually start to say - excuse the expression - negative things about the Gore-Clinton-Lewinsky ticket.

With all the venom and stem-winding fervor he could command, Cheney pulled off the gloves and went for the capillary.

The cease-fire that has governed this happy-talk convention ended in a most gentlemanly way. But following such a pep-less pep rally, even Cheney's low-key delivery felt powerful, much enhanced by the crowd's pent up desire for a little red meat. But compared to conventions past, Cheney served up carpaccio, not hamburger.

Of the incumbent Democrats he chanted, "It's time for them to go ..." This is exactly the phrase Gore used at the new veep nominee eight years ago, doubtless selected by Cheney as a carefully constructed subconscious reminder of failed vision put forth by a feckless opposition. And it worked.

One could imagine the Barney Police, the Bush team's enforcers of upbeat, multi-racial, multi-gender speak-no-evil politics, turning to their field marshals for guidance on why this likable chubby guy, who looked like an Econ 105 professor, was being allowed to breach the rules and attack the Democrats.

Now, at this point, I must ask: Is it just me, or have the Republicans gone completely loopy?

Bill Clinton and Al Gore are the juiciest, easiest political targets since Dick Nixon and Spiro Agnew - and a lot funnier. The Republicans refuse to really pull the trigger. It's downright un-American. To paraphrase Gore and now Cheney: "It is time for them to tease."

The Republican convention is a twilight zone in lots of ways. But the eeriest is how under Barney's Happy Big Tent, a whole period of American history has been magically and totally erased - the Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton. Vanished. Poof. Didn't happen. Monica who? What Buddhist temple? Cigar?

Investigative reporters, cyber-gossips, opposition researchers, congressional sleuths, amateur wiretappers, and special prosecutors climbed mountains to dig up this kind of material. And what do the Republicans do with it? Nada. Niente. Zilch.

Do you think for one minute that Bill Clinton and Al Gore would show such restraint given this kind of ammo? Spare me.

Yes, I know there are excellent tactical, maybe even moral reasons, why Team Bush insists the convention stay on the straight and narrow.

Yes, Americans are sick and tired of sordid sagas in the town square.

Yes, negative politics are a Cosmo Turnoff.

Yes, the only possible assemblage of characters that could make Clinton & Co. look good by comparison are the Republican headhunters like Ken Starr, Bob Barr, Linda Tripp, and Lucianne Goldberg.

Yes, Clinton's approval ratings are still high and the public credits him with a booming economy.

But as that master of quip and darkness, Bob Dole, used to say, "Where's the outrage?" Cheney, a somewhat unlikey man for the job, took the white gloves off Wednesday night and landed some stinging slaps. But a real old-fashioned fight would have been kind of fun.