Probing for Mr. Nasty


Unlike his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney is no squish ball. He’s not Ivy League, didn’t fool around with Skull and Bones, and didn’t depend on his father to set him up in business. When veep candidate John Edwards takes Cheney on in a debate Tuesday night, he’ll be in a very different kind of fight from the one John Kerry so easily handled against President Bush last week.

Cheney is the most savvy politician in the Republican Party, a survivor who has guided both Bush presidents, father and son. He is the party’s best speaker, with perfect timing, often outperforming Bob Dole. He is gracious, gentlemanly in an old-school way and very personable. While Bush smirks, Cheney ‘s flat assertions are accompanied by just the hint of a wink. Half the time you can’t tell whether he means what he says. Unlike Bush he doesn’t “tear up” and sniffle. He’s not likely to get caught in a corner blathering on about God. You can’t help but like him.

On 9-11, even though he had no authority to do so, Cheney, more or less home alone in the White House bunker, was all action, directing the military “in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing,” as his aide Scooter Libby told the 9-11 Commission, to “take out” aircraft they thought were closing on Washington.

As a veteran politician, Cheney’s staple response to a challenging question is to stonewall. No matter whether your message is true, just stay on it: Keep repeating the line.

How does this translate into his performance in a debate? Kerry beat Bush by taking control from the very beginning and never letting up. From the get-go Bush was dazed, even wobbly; he spent the evening trying to keep upright.

Edwards vs. Cheney should be much different. Edwards is not only a shrewd trial lawyer, but a modern populist. His clients are ordinary little people screwed by the system. He speaks for them. In debating Cheney, this smooth-talking Luke Skywalker faces the unrepentant Darth Vader. Edwards doubtless will work at teasing out Cheney’s latent meanness, hoping the vice president turns himself into laughable caricature.

Edwards is soft and kind in demeanor. Even in this tightly controlled forum, he will be pushing Cheney in a pleasant, gentle way to explain what he means. For example, Edwards might say, the little guy is being torn to pieces by the constantly rising price of oil. Even under Saddam, Iraq has been a substantial supplier of oil to the U.S. Now with Saddam gone, we ought to have a surplus of petroleum. How come the prices aren’t going down?

Other questions for Cheney might include:

When you were Bush’s secretary of defense, you implemented an administration policy of backing off from Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War, of not going in to crush him and take the country. Now, with Bush Junior, you’ve been at the forefront of those arguing for invasion. What turned you around?

Are you ready to pledge to the American people that you will take not one dime from Halliburton or make one phone call in its behalf from the office of the vice president?

You have said Saddam had “long established ties” to Al Qaeda. You also have said Saddam and Al Qaeda “had a relationship.” Now you’re saying Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant thought to be behind much of the insurgency in postwar Iraq, is a “senior Al Qaeda associate.” The evidence, please?