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Cheney may be turning into a political liability

Dick Cheney is not your ordinary vice president.

Unlike others who have held that position, Cheney is not easily ignored. He proved to be a big asset to the Republican ticket in 2000 because he had the Washington experience that George W. Bush lacked.

For similar reasons, Cheney's political weaknesses take on more importance.

Questions raised recently about his stewardship of Halliburton Co. are hurting his party more than the foibles of most ordinary vice presidents. And this comes on top of his controversial role in administration energy policy and his refusal to make public the documents used in that endeavor.

While there may not be any evidence to tie Cheney to illegal activity at Halliburton, there is an embarrassing videotape he made in 1996 praising the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen for the assistance it was giving to his company. Both Andersen and Halliburton are under investigation by the SEC for possible accounting irregularities.

In the video, Cheney says that Andersen was providing Halliburton with advice that was "over and above . . . the normal by-the-books audit arrangement." In the current context, his words create the unintended impression that Andersen was recommending the same kind of deceptive accounting at Halliburton that brought down Enron.

Cheney's political liabilities were on display during his recent campaign appearances on behalf of Republican candidates for Congress in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Democrats in those districts seized on Cheney's arrival as an opportunity to blame Republicans for aiding and abetting the various corporate scandals that are depressing stock prices.

While Cheney was stumping in Pittsburgh for state Sen. Tim Murphy, a candidate for Congress, Democrat Jack Machek told reporters outside the building where Cheney appeared: "The essential problem with this event is that Murphy has totally compromised himself. . . . He's totally compromised by big business and Dick Cheney."

Cheney's praise for Arthur Andersen would be of little importance if the business activities of other top administration officials were above reproach. But the president is dogged by questions about his decision as a company director to unload his stock in Harken Energy Corp. more than a decade ago, just before it lost value; SEC chairman Harvey Pitt's ability to investigate corporate crime has been questioned on the basis of his past role as a defender of the accounting firms now under scrutiny; and Army Secretary Thomas White was grilled by a congressional committee last week about his actions as an executive of Enron.

Unless investors regain confidence in the integrity of the nation's corporate executives, these stories will not easily by forgotten on Election Day.

Cheney offers an interesting example of how a much-admired politician can easily squander his popularity by refusing to explain his actions when they are questioned by the public and the press.

When Congress sought documents related to the role of the oil industry in the development of the administration's energy policy, Cheney stonewalled. He argued that the executive branch has a right to consult with special interests in secret. And he has yet to respond to the current questions about his actions as CEO of Halliburton.

As White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford, as a congressman representing Wyoming and as defense secretary under Bush's father, Cheney had a reputation for candor.

Now he seems to prefer to operate like the Wizard of Oz, manipulating the levers of power from behind a heavy curtain.

I, for one, am baffled to explain why a politician whose reputation is so closely linked to the public perception of his party would endeavor to alienate everyone beyond his conservative Republican inner circle.

Of course, Cheney can be helpful to Republican candidates who need to raise money. In Pittsburgh, Republican high rollers paid $3,000 each into the candidate's campaign treasury just to be photographed with Cheney. But his ability to raise money must be weighed against the bad publicity his help can generate for a candidate.

If Cheney continues down this path, he is likely to be a very big liability to Bush when the president seeks re-election in two years. The videotape of Cheney praising the accounting practices of Arthur Andersen is a dream come true for Democratic media consultants.

I would not be surprised if the president's advisers are beginning to think about replacing Cheney with a younger, more attractive running mate in 2004.

_ Sara Fritz can be reached by e-mail at fritzsptimes.com and by telephone at (202) 463-0576.

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