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Cheney's moment, Bush's boost

    Acceptance speech delivers: Dick Cheney's credentials help bolster a relatively inexperienced presidential nominee.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 3, 2000


PHILADELPHIA -- It was Dick Cheney's momment to shine, but instead he sought to bathe his running mate, George W. Bush, in reflected light.

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"I have been in the company of leaders," Cheney told the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night as he accepted the vice presidential nomination. "I know what it takes. And I see in our nominee the qualities of mind and spirit our nation needs, and our history demands."

Of course, it is not unusual for the No. 2 man on a political ticket to praise the party standard-bearer. But in this case, Cheney was performing the very task for which he was chosen: to call upon his vast experience as a government leader under four Republican presidents to bolster a relatively inexperienced presidential nominee.

Cheney also took on the traditional role of the vice presidential candidate, that of attacking the opposition. And while his attacks were relatively mild, they marked the first time in four days that the Republican convention delegates have heard barbs directed at President Clinton or Vice President Al Gore.

"We are all a little weary of the Clinton-Gore routine," said Cheney, who accused the current administration of depleting America's military power and failing to come up with a plan to reform Social Security.

"What are we to make of the past eight years?" Cheney asked. "I look at them and see opportunities squandered. Saddened by what might have been, but never was."

Then, he turned his attention to Gore.

"Does anyone, Republican or Democrat, seriously believe that under Mr. Gore, the next four years would be different from the last eight? If the goal is to unite our country, to make a fresh start in Washington, to change our politics, can anyone say with conviction that the man for the job is Al Gore?"

He said Bush, not Gore, would repair the damage caused by the Clinton administration.

As a former White House chief of staff, member of Congress representing Wyoming and secretary of defense, Cheney, 59, has a better resume than his running mate. And that is supposed to help him close the so-called "stature gap" between Bush and Gore, who was a U.S. representative and senator before becoming vice president.

"I was there on Aug. 9, 1974, when Gerald Ford assumed the presidency during our gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War," said Cheney, who was Ford's top aide. "I saw how character and decency can dignify a great office and unite a great nation."

He also remembered that as a member of Congress, he watched President Ronald Reagan "restore American confidence." Then as defense secretary, he said, he saw Bush's father launch the Gulf War against Iraq. "And I am proud to say that I'm not the only man on this ticket who has learned from the example of President George Bush," he said.

Yet while Cheney has the credibility to vouch for the GOP presidential nominee, he clearly lacks the polish of an experienced politician. In an era when political pros are tanned, svelte and blow-dried, Cheney is none of those things.

Cheney, a heart-attack survivor who spent the past eight years as a corporate executive, confessed he never expected to be running for office on a national ticket.

"Eight years ago," he said, "when I completed my years as secretary of defense, I loaded a U-Haul truck and drove home to Wyoming. I didn't plan on a return to public office. . . .

"But now I am glad to be back in the arena, and let me tell you why. I have been given an opportunity to serve beside a man who has the courage, and the vision, and the goodness, to be a great president: Gov. George W. Bush."

Cheney made no mention of his more controversial congressional votes that have made his record a lightning rod for criticism over the past week.

Shortly before he spoke, Democrats issued a news release that resurrected a quote from former Speaker Newt Gingrich saying Cheney's voting record "was slightly more conservative than mine" and from Business Week magazine calling it a record that rivaled that of Sen. Jesse Helms, the staunch conservative from North Carolina.

Until now, Democrats were focused only on Cheney's most extreme votes such as those against South African leader Nelson Mandela, in favor of cop-killer bullets and against the Clean Water Act. But as the days have passed, the Democrats' focus has been shifting to issues related to education and Medicare.

In 1988, for example, Cheney voted against a Democratic proposal to protect senior citizens against catastrophic health care costs. In addition, according to a Democratic analysis, Cheney was one of only 12 House members to vote against the Older Americans Act in 1984 and one of 39 House members who voted to cap Social Security cost-of-living increases in 1985.

"Cheney helped bring about the days of deficits, debt and recession in the 1980s; he would help George W. Bush bring them back," said Douglas Hattaway, spokesman for the Gore campaign.

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