WASHINGTON—He accidentally shot a hunting buddy. His job-approval rating is abysmal. His former chief of staff was charged with lying to a grand jury. And he remains an unapologetic cheerleader for the unpopular war in Iraq.
None of it cramps Vice President Dick Cheney's style.
Cheney remains Cheney, a quiet, stoic force at the heart of the Bush administration. Despite rumors earlier this year that President Bush might ask him to resign, he still has Bush's ear, and his fingerprints still turn up on all manner of policy decisions, from war and domestic spying to spending "earmarks" for allies.
When Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., wanted telephone company executives to testify earlier this month about the National Security Agency's use of private phone records in the war against terrorism, Cheney quietly lined up other Republicans on Specter's committee to oppose their chairman's move. Specter huffed and puffed in anger, but Cheney prevailed.
When the White House wanted to spank Russian President Vladimir Putin for backsliding on democratic reforms, it was Cheney who did the slapping in a speech last month in Lithuania.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says Cheney is his go-to guy in the White House whenever South Carolina needs something. When Graham noticed that $27 million for a port security program in Charleston was missing from Bush's budget, he telephoned Cheney. The $27 million is now in the budget.
"He's very good at understanding how to make things happen," Graham said.
Recent White House meetings on Iraq with members of Congress left no doubt where Cheney ranks: right beside the president, sitting silently, listening intently.
"Every time I've been there, Cheney was there," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. "He still has the president's confidence; the president still listens to him. I don't think he's lost his luster in the administration."
Cheney's shine has long since faded for most Americans. Only 34 percent had a favorable opinion of him in an April USA Today/Gallup poll.
"Some people don't like him; the media doesn't like him," said former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., a Cheney friend for more than 30 years. "He's a lightning rod; cover of The New Yorker, cover of Time, cover of Newsweek."
But low public-approval ratings haven't stopped Cheney from being a major draw on the fundraising circuit. Conservative true believers still rally behind him. Since February 2005, he's headlined 66 Republican fundraisers, pulling in $22.3 million for GOP candidates and organizations.
"I couldn't have had a better fundraiser," said Brian Bilbray, who won a California U.S. House seat earlier this month that came open when former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham was convicted of bribery. Bilbray benefited from a $250,000 cash infusion that Cheney generated for him in a visit last month. "He brings in big crowds. All the shots he has taken only endear him more to the core."
Cheney's getting a new flurry of publicity as a central figure in "The One Percent Doctrine," Ron Suskind's new book about the Bush administration's war on terrorism. The title refers to the operating principle that Cheney forged shortly after Sept. 11: that "if there was even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction ... the United States must now act as if it were a certainty."
Suskind argues that Cheney's approach aborted the traditional policy-making process of analysis and debate and made suspicion, not hard evidence, the basis for military action.
Some Republicans suggested quietly earlier this year that Bush replace his vice president to rescue a White House that was wallowing in bad news, with Cheney producing his share.
The indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, last October on charges of lying to a grand jury about the leaking of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity to the media drew an unwanted spotlight to the vice president's office and put the scandal squarely in the West Wing.
Cheney's secretive nature made the White House look bad again in February, when he accidentally blasted Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old lawyer, with birdshot while the two were quail hunting in Texas. Cheney didn't speak with Bush or top White House aides the day it happened. He left it to the owner of the ranch to alert the news media the next day. The resulting media firestorm didn't help.
A little more than a month later, Bush began a staff shakeup that shifted power in the White House, most notably stripping political adviser Karl Rove of his domestic policy portfolio. But the sweeping changes appear to have had little impact on Cheney.
"He is still one of the centers of gravity within the administration," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who received an unsolicited call from Cheney during the controversy over a now-aborted deal in which management of six major U.S. port terminals would be turned over to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates. "I've seen no diminution of his standing in the White House."
Cheney can be stubborn, Graham said, especially in his drive to reclaim executive authority that the presidency lost in the 1970s Watergate scandal.
"Their view of executive power ... I just don't buy, so we butt heads on occasion," Graham said, breaking out in a smile. "He's a worthy adversary. Good ally, worthy adversary."
Cheney shrugs off all the commentary.
"I don't think I've changed any," he said in a CNN interview Thursday. "I think I've been very consistent over time."
Cheney told CNN that he's intent on pursuing the "very serious business" of the war on terrorism. "And I suppose sometimes people look at my demeanor and say, well, he's the Darth Vader of the administration."
He told CNN that his actions, and Bush's, aren't aimed at boosting popularity. "We're not trying to improve our standing in the polls. We're not out there trying to win votes for ourselves. Neither one of us will ever be a candidate again. We're doing what we think is right. And I'm very comfortable with that."
(The USA Today-Gallup poll cited in graf 10 was conducted April 28-30 and was based on interviews with 1,011 adults nationwide 18 and older. The margin of error was plus-or-minus 3 percentage points.)
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Dick Cheney
Need to map