Mr. Vice President, It's Time to Go

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

February 16, 2006

It's time for Dick Cheney to step down — for the sake of the country and for the sake of the Bush administration.

Mr. Cheney's bumbling conduct at the upscale Armstrong Ranch in South Texas seemed hilarious at first. But when we learned that Harry Whittington had suffered a mild heart attack after being shot by the vice president in a hunting accident, it became clear that a more sober assessment of the fiasco at the ranch and, inevitably, Mr. Cheney's controversial and even bizarre behavior as vice president was in order.

There's a reason Dick Cheney is obsessive about shunning the spotlight. His record is not the kind you want to hold up for intense scrutiny.

More than anyone else, he was fanatical about massaging and distorting the intelligence that plunged us into the flaming quagmire of Iraq. He insisted that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and was hot on the trail of nukes. He pounded away at the false suggestion that Iraq was somehow linked to Al Qaeda. And he spread the word that the war he wanted so badly would be a cakewalk.

"I really do believe," he told Tim Russert, "that we will be greeted as liberators."

Well, he got his war. And while the nation's brave young soldiers and marines were bouncing around Iraq in shamefully vulnerable Humvees and other vehicles, dodging bullets, bombs and improvised explosive devices, Mr. Cheney (a gold-medal winner in the acquisition of wartime deferments) felt perfectly comfortable packing his fancy 28-gauge Perazzi shotgun and heading off to Texas with a covey of fat cats to shoot quail.

Matters went haywire, of course, when he shot Mr. Whittington instead.

That was the moment when the legend of the tough, hawkish, take-no-prisoners vice president began morphing into the less-than-heroic image of a reckless, scowling incompetent who mistook his buddy for a bird.

This story is never going away. Harry Whittington is Dick Cheney's Monica. When Mr. Whittington dies (hopefully many years from now, and from natural causes), he will be remembered as the hunting companion who was shot by the vice president of the United States. This tale will stick to Mr. Cheney like Krazy Glue, and that's bad news for the Bush administration.

The shooting and Mr. Cheney's highhanded behavior in its immediate aftermath fit perfectly with the stereotype of him as a powerful but dangerous figure who is viewed by many as a dark force within the administration. He doesn't even give lip service to the idea of transparency in his public or private life. This is the man who fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep his White House meetings with energy industry honchos as secret as the Manhattan Project. (Along the way he went duck hunting at a private camp in rural Louisiana with Justice Antonin Scalia.)

This is also the man whose closest and most trusted aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, has been indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice as a result of the investigation into the outing of a C.I.A. undercover operative, Valerie Wilson.

Mr. Cheney is arrogant, defiant and at times blatantly vulgar. He once told Senator Patrick Leahy to perform a crude act upon himself.

A vice president who insists on writing his own rules, who shudders at the very idea of transparency in government, whose judgment on crucial policy issues has been as wildly off the mark (and infinitely more tragic) as his actions in Texas over the weekend, and who has now become an object of relentless ridicule, cannot by any reasonable measure be thought of as an asset to the nation or to the president he serves.

The Bush administration would benefit from new thinking and new perspectives on the war in Iraq, the potential threat from Iran, the nation's readiness to cope with another terror attack, the development of a comprehensive energy policy and other important issues.

President Bush's approval ratings have dropped below 40 percent in recent polls. Even Republicans are openly criticizing the administration's conduct of the war, its response to Hurricane Katrina and assorted other failures and debacles.

Dick Cheney is a constant reminder of those things the White House would most like to forget: the bullying, the intelligence failures, the inability to pacify Iraq, the misuse of classified information and the breathtaking incompetence that seems to be spread throughout the administration.

Mr. Cheney would do his nation and his president a service by packing his bags and heading back to Wyoming. He's become a joke. But not a funny one.