News & Politics

A Heartbeat Away


WASHINGTON, D.C. Vice President Dick Cheney’s trip to the hospital November 13 to check out his heart was dismissed by his office as a non-event. But Cheney has been in and out of the hospital so many times on account of his fritzy ticker that it’s hard not to wonder if he can make it through the next four years. What happens if he becomes incapacitated or dies while in office?

Under those conditions, the president would appoint a new veep, subject to congressional approval. This has happened twice before, in the Watergate period. When Richard Nixon’s second, Spiro Agnew, was brought up on criminal charges, he resigned, and Nixon appointed Gerald Ford to replace him. Then, when Nixon quit and Ford became president, he appointed former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Should Cheney leave the picture early, Bush may well have the opportunity to elevate the next Republican presidential candidate to a position where he or she would be hard to beat.

Cheney’s problems began with a heart attack at age 37 during the 1978 primary, when he was seeking a congressional seat from Wyoming. Four years later, he suffered another while in Congress. The doctors said it was minor, and soon Cheney was back at work as House minority whip. He had a third in 1988, which precipitated a quadruple bypass.

On November 22, 2000, with the Florida balloting and the outcome of the national election hanging on a few hundred votes, Cheney checked into George Washington University Hospital complaining of chest pains. Doctors inserted a coronary stent to prop up a narrowed artery, following what Cheney called “a very slight heart attack.” Doctors then said Cheney should be able to resume all normal activities, although one doctor warned it was a “wake-up call” and put Cheney on notice that he should lose weight and exercise more. On March 5, 2001, the now vice president checked himself into GWU Hospital a second time, again with chest pains. He underwent what was described as an “urgent” procedure to reopen the artery, which had become blocked again.

On June 30, 2001, Cheney received a “pacemaker plus” device to normalize an irregular heart beat. At the time, he said the procedure was “an insurance policy,” given his history of heart problems, but word from the doctors was a bit alarming. They claimed to have observed four episodes of abnormal heart rhythms during the weekend of June 17. On the occasion of his annual heart checkup on May 11 of this year, doctors said the pacemaker was working normally and had never been called on to assist his heart.

Most recently, on November 13, Cheney went to the hospital for medical tests after experiencing shortness of breath. Initial tests showed no abnormalities. The pacemaker indicated no irregularities during the preceding 90 days. And an electrocardiogram showed no change.

Should his condition go south, any number of politicians could get the nod, but many of these possible fill-ins carry bad baggage. Let’s consider four of the realistic possibilities:

BILL FRIST, the Senate majority leader from Tennessee: Because of his warm ties with Karl Rove, Frist would be the most likely candidate, and would use the vice presidency as a springboard for a presidential run in 2008. Like Bush, he is a “compassionate conservative.” He comes from a family with deep ties to the medical business, always a hot-button issue, and he is a strong supporter of capping tort lawsuits, especially when they pertain to doctors. He’s against abortion, sex education, international family planning, emergency contraception, and fetal-tissue research. He led the fight against human cloning.

Frist opposed legislation banning job discrimination on the basis of sex and came out against a bill reserving 10 percent of highway contracts for firms owned by women or minorities. Inside the Beltway he is considered extremely likable, running marathons and contributing his time as a doctor in the poor sections of Washington. When someone suffers an injury on the Capitol grounds, Frist is more than likely to be the first doctor on the scene.

His father, Dr. Thomas Frist, founded the hospital conglomerate HCA, which later merged with the Columbia health network. The senator’s 2001 financial disclosure form puts the value of his Columbia/HCA shares at between $15,000 and $50,000, with $5 million to $25 million more in a blind trust whose holdings are unknown. In the last election cycle, reports the Center for Responsible Politics, the senator took in nearly $1 million from doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, and pharmaceutical companies. In 1993 federal investigators searched the HCA offices for evidence of fraud and overcharging, including kickbacks to doctors in the Medicare program.The company eventually pled guilty to 14 felonies.

MARC RACICOT, former governor of Montana: By far the most appealing candidate, Racicot in this last election served as chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign. His fellow citizens hoped Bush would make him attorney general, and when he was passed over in favor of Alberto Gonzales, they shifted their focus to a Racicot appointment to the Supreme Court.

Racicot grew up in Libby, Montana, a mining town. He is the son of a basketball coach. As governor, he cut spending, downsized government, and came up with a budget surplus. He is low-key, driving his own car and keeping his phone number listed.

Best of all, from the Republican point of view, the former governor wants to revive the Tenth Amendment, which reserves power for the states. But Racicot might not pass muster with the Christian right. As a Catholic he is, as the Helena Independent puts it, “no fan of abortion,” but “lacks a history of pro-life stridency. His record as governor shows a practical streak that chose to sidestep such divisive issues as abortion and right-to-work in favor of a broader, more unifying approach.”

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, California governor: Banned along with other foreign-born citizens from becoming president or vice president, the Austrian-born former bodybuilder and actor has become the focus of a furious campaign by supporters in Silicon Valley to open the way to the White House with a constitutional amendment.

Republicans salivate at the very thought of superstar Arnold as president, but in Schwarzenegger’s case, it inevitably would once more raise the delicate subject of immigration, an issue no one in Congress is volunteering to touch.

DON NICKLES, senator from Oklahoma: In the party’s leadership for 14 years, Nickles could have a shot at the job. Known as the one politician who can be counted on to keep the conservative flame alive, Nickles fought to deregulate the oil and gas business, repeal the windfall profits tax, and nix the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. He has opposed increases in the minimum wage, and sought to weaken ergonomics laws and cap tort and product liability suits.

A pro-lifer, he went out of his way to knock out Oregon’s assisted-suicide legislation. In the successful fight to dump Trent Lott as majority leader, Nickles called Lott’s praise of former segregationist Jesse Helms unacceptable, but he himself voted twice against the Martin Luther King Day holiday and backed Helms’s effort to provide tax-exempt status to private schools like Bob Jones University, where interracial dating was banned. He later joined Helms in supporting the elder George Bush’s veto of a Civil Rights Act amendment that would have banned workplace discrimination.

Additional reporting: David Botti, Laurie Anne Agnese, and Nicole Duarte

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