One unusual aspect of the war on terrorism is that its most effective propaganda—on both sides—has come from elusive leaders holed up in secret locations. They surface just long enough to let everyone know they are still alive, still fuming, and still dedicated to the cause.
Osama bin Laden, for example, is said to be hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. In his few public statements, taped and faxed, he has charted out his goals and tried to rally his followers. To be sure, you have to be one of those fanatics to judge bin Laden's effectiveness, but his presentations are certainly easier to take than the screaming rants of his substitute spokesmen. Bin Laden may or may not be media savvy, but I like to think that his is the best impersonation of Dick Cheney this side of Saturday Night Live.
Cheney is, of course, the other warrior who famously sleeps at undisclosed locations. One of wartime Washington's favorite pastimes is trading rumors about the elusive vice president. Where is he? What is he really doing? Have his four heart attacks, cardiac implant, and stress over the war finally caught up with him?
But just as he's written off as dead, Cheney suddenly surfaces and says more in a handful of public appearances than the rest of the administration has said in weeks of babble. If it's answers you want, Cheney's your man. Sure, those answers are often painfully vague, but at least they're short. He makes you wish that some of the administration's other information-mongers would find hideouts of their own. At a minimum, there would be less confusion.
Take the question of Saddam Hussein. President Bush told the world that countries were either "with us or with the terrorists." But what did that mean for countries, such as Iraq, that were already not with us? A grumpy Washington coalition quickly coalesced around The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, who can't believe that the mother of all humiliated regimes isn't in the crosshairs yet. The frustrated Kristol summed up that school of thought in an October 30 Washington Post op-ed: "No ground troops in Afghanistan; No confrontation with Iraq; No alarm at home. The result? No evident progress so far."
There were early reports that one of the hijackers met with a high-ranking Iraqi official prior to September 11. The plot thickened with the anthrax debacle. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson explained that a Florida tabloid employee got the disease from a contaminated stream. Later, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said the strain infecting his office was especially potent, fueling suspicions that a sophisticated, state-sponsored operation (read: Iraq) must be behind the attack. The next day, a health official called the same anthrax sample "garden variety." More press leaks indicated that the anthrax was super-charged with a special chemical process developed in Iraq. The administration denied it.
Compare this cacophony with Cheney's September 16 one-on-one with Tim Russert on Meet the Press. Russert: "Would we have any reluctance of going after Saddam Hussein?" Cheney: "No." Soon thereafter, Russert asked, "Do we have any evidence linking Saddam Hussein or Iraqis to this operation?" Cheney: "No." His responses weren't any more illuminating, but they weren't confusing. A gaggle of government officials spent two months hinting that we'll blast Baghdad in a minute, but only if we get enough proof to persuade our tenuous international coalition. Cheney said the same thing in two words.
A similar mess has arisen around the stupid question, "How long will the war last?" Since such honest answers as "Who the hell knows?" wouldn't play well on TV, officials have been forced to hedge. The results speak for themselves. On October 17, after an interview with the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Washington Post headline read, "Pentagon: Taliban Forces 'Eviscerated'; Key City Vulnerable to Alliance Takeover." One week later, with "key cities" still firmly in the Taliban's control, USA Today resorted to a bit of creative paraphrasing to lead with the screamer, "Rumsfeld: Bin Laden may get away." Whoa.
Re-enter Cheney. On October 18 he surfaced briefly to address the 56th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at New York's Waldorf-Astoria, where he managed to make "Who the hell knows?" sound inspiring. "Americans reasonably wonder, 'How long will it last?'" Cheney said. "The answer is that many of these changes we've made are permanent, at least in the lifetime of most of us. Vigilance against the new threat is not just a temporary precaution, it's a responsibility we all share." Exactly which changes are permanent? What does "lifetime" mean coming from a man with Cheney's shaky health record? These questions require predictions, and the elusive Cheney wasn't about to offer any. It was back to the secret hideaway before anyone could ask.
Yet another sticking point surrounds Attorney General John Ashcroft's decisions to issue warnings about "vague but credible" terrorism threats on October 11 and again on October 29. The administration is struggling to balance the nation's frazzled nerves against the need to say something about what it thinks it knows about terrorist threats. Ashcroft, homeland security chief Tom Ridge, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, and company are vulnerable to the accusation that they are covering the administration's ass in their press briefings. Not Cheney. In a lengthy Bob Woodward cover piece in the October 21 Washington Post, the veep spoke plainly. "You have to avoid falling into the trap of letting it be a cover-your-ass exercise," he said, while stressing that decisions about whether or not to share threat information with the public would always be "tough calls."
Is there a trend here? Yes: If you want to know the latest administration position, you can either stay glued to cable and glean what little you can from the cacophony, or you can tune in once a week to get the latest from Dick Cheney. Neither option tells you all that much, but the latter is a lot more efficient. The well-spaced Cheney sightings seem calculated to provide more than a few simple answers, however. While peppered with plenty of patriotic rhetoric, Cheney's campaign also serves to stamp out stubborn rumors about his health. To battle them, Cheney not only appears—he shows up in good spirits.
On October 17, for example, Cheney delivered a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at a posh awards banquet in downtown Washington. Staying just long enough to make his speech, the vice president lightened the mood by starting out in jester mode: "I'm just passing through this evening," he said with a wink and a nod. "I am going back to my, uh, undisclosed…" He was immediately drowned out with laughter, during which he referenced his recent roasting on Saturday Night Live. (The show speculated that the veep was really holed up in a cave in Afghanistan.) Cheney continued the act the following night at the Alfred E. Smith dinner. "It's nice, for a change, to be at a disclosed location," he said, adding, "the Waldorf is a lot nicer than our cave" and "I did not sneak out for cosmetic surgery, although I'm not prepared to rule that out as an option."
Part of Cheney's informational function is to relax a tense public even as he restates administration positions succinctly. Compare his performances to the dodge-and-weave Pentagon briefings, to the sometimes hectoring White House news conferences, to the muddled mess that the public health team has left behind. It might be Washington heresy, but sometimes less is more.