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Will Cheney just keep on ticking?

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WASHINGTON — A year ago, when reports breathlessly predicted that George W. Bush was about to choose Richard Cheney as his vice president, some of the then-Texas governor's supporters shook their heads in disbelief, some even opining that this probably was a "red herring" to throw the press off the scent of the real prospect.

The concern was not about his political or philosophical credentials or even to the fact that he was seen as adding no geographical advantage to the GOP ticket. Quite openly, it was directed at his health. These veterans who had served with him in previous Republican administrations viewed him as a big risk for that reason alone.

"How in the world," one inner-circle policy adviser confided, "can he choose someone who has had Dick's history of heart problems for the last 20 years?" He then went on to speculate accurately that Cheney could not count on the relaxed atmosphere that generally accompanies the vice presidency. The stress, he said, would be far greater because Cheney would be expected to take the point while Bush was learning.

"If Bush is elected, he's going to lean on this guy big-time," he predicted, adding, "While that may be fine for Bush, it can't be good for Cheney."

The macabre, not funny joke at the time was that Bush would be only one heartbeat away from the presidency.

Now, with almost six months having passed in the Bush/Cheney administration, the vice president/prime minister is faced with convincing Americans generally and some nervous Republicans specifically that he can handle a full work schedule despite yet another serious heart dust-up. His doctors have assured him, he says, that the device installed over the weekend to keep his heartbeat regular will permit him to carry a full load for his boss.

Speculation, of course, centers on whether he would want to remain on the ticket — even if he survives the next 3 1/2 of heavy lifting — for another term. Some observers believe his tasks will lighten as Bush becomes more comfortable and confident in the job, allowing Cheney to take a more traditional vice president's role in a less-pressing atmosphere.

Perhaps. But having watched Cheney since he was a member of Congress from Wyoming and through his years as a top White House aide and his service to both Ronald Reagan and Bush's father, I wouldn't count on him backing off as long as he is in the job. His personality doesn't permit it despite the seeming calmness with which he approaches most issues and controversies.

Heart problems at this level aren't anything new. Dwight Eisenhower is a perfect example, having had a history of cardiovascular incidence even before he was elected to his first term and suffering a major heart attack halfway through it. Franklin Roosevelt's blood pressure was off the charts when he ran for a third term, making him vulnerable to a stroke at any time. It was a miracle that he lived through another five years and one more election.

During the last months of Woodrow Wilson's tenure, he was utterly incapacitated, having suffered a cerebral incident. His wife actually served as president because his vice president declined to step in.

Lyndon Johnson had a major heart attack while serving as Senate majority leader before his election to the vice presidency in 1960. He lived only a few years after completing his presidential tenure. Alben Barkley, Harry Truman's vice president, also had cardiovascular problems and died shortly after leaving office.

The toll taken by the White House on even our healthiest of presidents is enormous. Cheney gets counted in here because of the unusual nature of his position. At this juncture, he has a hand in almost every decision. As the head of Bush's energy task force, he is in the direct line of fire of one of the most political explosive controversies the Bush presidency is likely to face.

The question now being asked by the same advisers who worried about him in the first place is simply should he back away now, causing Bush to look for a substitute who would have to undergo confirmation in a Senate controlled by Democrats, or stick with him even at the risk of something even more serious occurring?

The answer seems to be emphatically the latter. Let's hope it is able to stay that way.