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Cheney may be in denial about heart

WASHINGTON — The attention devoted to Dick Cheney's latest heart episode is a commentary on his importance to the Bush administration and raises the question of who would replace him should he resign. Cheney is, without question, the most powerful vice president in the history of the country. Any lingering concerns voters might have about whether George W. Bush is up to the job are eased by Cheney's presence. Republicans privately call him "the prime minister."

There isn't an aspect of government that Cheney does not oversee. He is the first vice president to have an office in both the House and the Senate, signaling his primacy on all things legislative. On the international front, he has expanded the national security team reporting directly to him. Even among heavyweights like Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney is first among equals.

But Cheney is not well. Despite the strenuous effort to portray the procedure that Cheney underwent as routine, there is no getting away from the fact that the vice president suffers from serious coronary disease. He had the first of his four heart attacks when he was only 37 years old. Maybe because he's been dealing with his illness for two decades, he's gotten a little too blase. "His hair doesn't get on fire when something happens," said his spokeswoman, Mary Matalin. "He had these twinges, which amounted to nothing in his mind."

Much has been said about the "unflappable" Cheney demeanor. The day before he checked into the hospital, he said on one of the Sunday talk shows that he was feeling great. He ignored chest twinges over the weekend and dutifully sat through meetings on Monday until he could break free to see his cardiologist. White House spinmeisters, eager to downplay the severity of Cheney's situation, described his angioplasty as an "urgent" procedure but not an "emergency" procedure. In a town that once debated the meaning of "is," this kind of double-talk is routine.

It also suggests denial — a denial that could literally kill the vice president if he should again ignore symptoms. Cheney is at the pinnacle of his professional career. One more trip to the hospital might be hard to explain. He doesn't have the opportunity to take a nap or exercise, the way Bush is known to do in the middle of the day. Taking time out is not an option, and nobody is asking him to. To the contrary, Bush is saying the country needs Cheney, and there's no indication that he is lessening his workload.

Even before this latest medical episode, it was widely assumed that Cheney would step down from the ticket before the next election. One of the reasons Cheney has such authority is his presumed lack of political ambition.

One scenario has Cheney and Powell trading jobs in 2004. Powell would be a huge asset as a running mate for Bush. And Cheney could add secretary of state to his illustrious resume. But Powell, arguably the most popular political figure in America, could overshadow Bush, a fact that could even prompt calls for a Powell presidential candidacy in 2004.

United Feature Syndicate, Inc.