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Even if Cheney is Bush's extra set of eyes and ears, he's not the only one. Cheney may have the biggest Rolodex, but Bush is the master of the information game. "He's got a lot of portals for data," says a former Cheney aide about Bush. "He plays them off against each other. That's smart: he hears from Powell, then he'll go to Cheney. And Cheney is always the last sounding board." But that doesn't mean Cheney will always carry the day. When Bush's Republican rival, Senator John McCain, showed up at the White House the evening of Jan. 31, 2001, he expected to discuss his campaign-finance-reform bill privately over a drink with Bush in the residence. Instead, he was directed to the Oval Office, where Cheney was waiting as well. Despite his hostile rhetoric during the campaign, Bush had never studied McCain's proposal carefully. Cheney stayed silent as McCain leafed through the 38-page bill to explain its provisions, insisting that it would not hurt Republicans. Bush asked a lot of questions; he seemed intrigued. Cheney was not. He sat impassive throughout the presentation. Bush finally turned to Cheney. "So what do you think?" he asked.
"Yeah, you haven't said anything," McCain prodded. "I'd like to hear it."
"Well, I'm for full disclosure and no limits," Cheney would only say, which was essentially the opposite of McCain's approach. Bush and McCain both laughed. "Well, it's a good thing I'm handling this issue," Bush said, chuckling. Just over a year later, he signed McCain's bill.
It took about three months in office to see that Cheney was not Perfect in Every Way. He knew how to organize a task force; he did not know how to unveil one. There was something garage-floor quirky about him: the master mechanic knows how to build any car by hand, but he doesn't have a clue about how to sell one. Bush gave Cheney the energy portfolio, only to inspire complaints (and lawsuits) about his secrecy in handling it and his clumsiness in promoting it. In one of the rare moments when Cheney went front and center, he made news by deriding conservation as a "personal virtue," as opposed to a pillar of any effective national strategy. Maybe because he is from Wyoming, where the center lies to the right of just about everyplace else, and because he has not run for office in 14 years, Cheney seemed not to realize that protecting the environment had become a core value to voters in both parties.
This was, even to the Bush team, something of a surprise. "He's pretty tone-deaf on this stuff," conceded a senior White House official at the time. Counsellor Karen Hughes, meanwhile, who was the nearest thing to a centrist on the environment in the West Wing, was appalled. She immediately went to work on damage control, forcing the President into a series of photo-op events designed to show how much he cared about the environment. She also made sure Cheney receded into the background, something the Vice President, burned by the experience, was happy to do.