Ex-Bush aide: No good trying to advise Cheney


by Andrew Malcolm

We wrote earlier about the surprisingly blunt critiques of the Republican presidential field made by Dan Bartlett, who was President Bush's counselor until July.

Well, the Washington Post's Al Kamen has published a little bit more of Bartlett's critique, which came in a September speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These Bartlett remarks were about Vice President Dick Cheney and, frankly, how much trouble it is to work with the taciturn, determined Washington veteran. "Team player" is not the term that comes to mind. Indeed, Cheney was a wrestler (as, interestingly enough, was his longtime Washington buddy and colleague, Donald Rumsfeld).

Bartlett, one of Bush's most-trusted loyalists from the early days of his Texas governorship, was for years in charge of political rapid response, which translates into damage control when something unexpected and usually bad happens. Bartlett, like most such professionals, is a believer in the really rapid response approach, meaning assemble all the bad news and your reaction as quickly as possible and get it all out at once and over with. Leave no lingering loose ends.

So as the 2000 Republican National Convention got underway and the vice presidential nominee-designate was en route to Philadelphia, Bartlett learned that Cheney's lesbian daughter, Mary, intended to travel with her father's campaign. Bartlett smartly anticipated considerable press interest in this and wanted to discuss the Bush-Cheney campaign response.

During an awkwardly quiet limo ride, Bartlett described the upcoming itinerary and said he'd heard that Mary would be traveling with them, and mumbled something like, "I just want to let you know -- perfectly fine -- but I just want to let you to know that the press is going to really focus on this; they're going to maybe intrude more into your lives than you may be prepared (for). Well, I just wanted to put that on the table for you."

And the future vice president turned to Bartlett and said, "We won't be talking about my daughter."

And Bartlett said, "Okaaay, thank you very much."

Then there was the Cheney hunting incident in south Texas, when he accidentally blasted a buddy in the face with birdshot. Now years before, Bartlett had faced another bad-news hunting incident when a stalking Gov. George W. Bush was photographed shooting a bird, which upon closer examination by the photographer turned out to be a protected species.

As soon as he got that news, Bartlett sprang into action, and by the time the newspaper presses were ready to run that night with the photograph, the incident had already been officially reported to state authorities, a fine was paid and Bush had issued an apology. The result: a one-day story that you, in fact, probably never heard of before reading this.

The way Bartlett describes the Cheney incident, it took a long time to reach anyone with Cheney, and the White House aide discovered to his horror that they'd been strategizing themselves for 24 hours and planned on giving the story to a local reporter for the Corpus Christi newspaper, except that, it being the weekend, no one could find him.

Bartlett finally reached the vice president himself and urgently presented another option: getting the vice president on the phone with a national press pool to explain the entire incident in his own words ASAP. "We need to work this out," an excited Bartlett said.

There was dead silence on the phone. Then, the vice president intoned he would handle it his way.

Cheney did.

And, not coincidentally, his embarrassing hunting story is still the subject of late-night talk show jokes.