West Wing Story: Eminence Grise

There is a lot of frightening stuff happening at the White House. So much so there's even a scary new lexicon that has crept into the West Wing: "aerosolized" (when anthrax particles are small enough to get into the air); the Orwellian-sounding "Domestic Consequences" group (which deals with the economic fallout of Sept. 11); the "evil one" and the "evil-doers" (how the president refers to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda respectively).

The "Office of Homeland Security" has raised the most hackles around town. Even one high-powered Republican consultant, who has worked with his share of right-wingers, finds the name too draconian. "We always tried to stay away from those kinds of names," he says. "It sounds like Der Vaterland."

Perhaps what is most spooky is the fact that Vice President Cheney has disappeared again to his "secure location"--though you can feel his presence lurking almost everywhere. Nothing has become a more frightening sign of an imminent terrorist threat than Cheney going literally underground. While the precaution is part of a plan for "continuity of government" should something dreadful happen, his absence is unnerving. The avuncular vice president is probably the most reassuring public figure the administration has. When he went on NBC's "Meet the Press" the weekend after the Sept. 11 attack and talked about the orders he had issued from his bunker, he comforted America with his calm confidence.

But some top Bush advisers think Cheney can be overly confident. They weren't happy with the NBC interview, which unintentionally overshadowed Bush. Cheney has only done one TV interview since, with PBS, but that was partly motivated by the need to quash rumors that he was ailing. The vice president's press office gets inundated with questions about his health every time he's out of the public eye. Cheney remains one of the few top administration officials who says what he thinks without looking over his shoulder. He can be too blunt. Way back when, during the energy debate, his comment that conservation was nothing more than a "personal virtue" made him look arrogant and suggested that he can have a tin ear for politics.

He never relished his out-front role during the energy crisis. He gets more done when he's behind the scenes. It was there, in the background, that he pulled his old buddy Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy Defense secretary, aside and told him to stop yammering about expanding the war to Iraq, for now. Even out of sight, Cheney is in no way out of the administration's mind. His people are everywhere that's important. His chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, is one of the few nonprincipals who regularly sit in on National Security Council meetings (closed even to top Bush aides like Karen Hughes and Karl Rove). The new deputy for Homeland Defense, Adm. Steve Abbot, also worked for Cheney. Abbot headed up the vice president's "national preparedness" task force--the forerunner to the unfortunately named Office of Homeland Security. It seems Cheney prefers being a specter in the White House.