HIS HEAVY LIFTING, Dick Cheney was saying, is as president of the Senate, "my only job." This was moonlighting, then, this posing for pictures. He stood at the end of a long assembly line of party faithful in a closed-off room at the Bellevue Hyatt Regency last Monday, Dec. 22. Eager Republicans inched forward, stepped up, paused, smiled, and departed $8,000 lighter. Outside, at downtown Bellevue's main intersection, pro-Bush and anti-Bush demonstrators waved similar signs proclaiming, "We Love Dick," one meaning capitalized Dick, the other meaning lowercase dick. Back in the hotel ballroom, awaiting the finish of the nearby photo op, the crowd clearly preferred capitalized Dick. With the press safely embedded against the wall in a roped-off, no-exit zone, dolled-up Republicans were free to wander about, slurping wine and grazing on $500 plates of lamb and shrimp. A Bellevue High School choral group sang of a whiteor, considering the terrorist threat level, was it an orange?Christmas. The risk wasn't high enough to send the vice president of the United States off to that secret bunker somewhere, but it was cause enough to ring the hotel and line its hallways with more than 100 cops and federal agents with wired ears. The night was a political fund-raiser for 5th District congressman George Nethercutt, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in 2004. But Cheney, with wife Lynne in tow, can still stick taxpayers with cross-country travel and security costs since he had entertained the troops at McChord Air Force Base hours earlier. He was no Bob Hope, but he did hand out enough medals to make it official business on his expense reportwhich he'll do again when he returns to Seattle for a party fund-raiser next month. George Bush pulled off the trick in August, flying to Ice Harbor Dam in Eastern Washington to give an official address on how his environmental policies have aided salmon runs. He then dropped in for a 96-minute fete at Craig McCaw's
Hunt's Point estate to raise $1.7 million for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, sticking Hunt's Point with a still-unpaid $23,000 security tab. "I don't know who's going to pay that," said state Republican Party Chair Chris Vance. "That's up to someone else."
I HAD WAVED and called Vance over to the peanut gallery after watching him and several hundred other $500-a-plate Republicans feed their faces for almost two hours. "Could the liberal media get some food here?" I asked. Just a joke while marking time. Earlier I had tried to beckon passing waiters who smiled and kept going. I also asked for handouts from Nethercutt's campaign coordinator, Mary Lane, and a wired security agent. Lane laughed, and the agent joked, "We ordered pizza for you guys!" Vance at least reported that there might be some free booze upstairs. Actually, I just wanted to know how long it would be before the words "term limits" came up in Nethercutt's campaign against Murray, known to conservatives as Osama Mama. Nethercutt, the 58-year-old Spokane (and former Seattle) attorney, became the giant killer in Republican political lore for unseating venerable Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994, promising to quit after three terms. He later reneged and said he had accidentally "blurted out" the term-limit promise, earning him the Gary Trudeau-inspired nickname of Weasel King. Well, at least give him a break for "honesty in admitting I made a mistake" about term limits, he reasoned. His conservative 5th District did just that, re-electing him for a fourth and then a fifth term last year. That support, along with hours of prayer, he says (and maybe the gun held to his head by the Republican National Committee), inspired him to seek higher ground as Washington's first U.S. senator in 70 years from the right side of the mountains.
Before Vance could respond to my question, former Sen. Slade Gorton stepped to the microphone and told restless grazers that Nethercutt, a "magnificent" congressman, and Cheney, who is "completely impervious to criticism," would be there shortly. The crowd was led in a prayer to "Mr. and Mrs. Bush, Mr. and Mrs. Cheney, the Cabinet, Congress, the troops," and, last but not least, "the prince of peace," who is Jesus Christ, not Don Rumsfeld. The national anthem followed, and eating and drinking resumed.
"I HOPE THEY bring up term limits all the time," Vance said of the Democrats, "because voters want to hear about issues. Look at any poll or just use common sense: The public's not talking about term limits. The war, the economy, that's what's on their minds. Term limits isn't an issue anymore, and bringing it up will be so off message that nobody will be listening." State visits by Bush, Cheney, White House political director Ken Melman, and other GOP leaders in the past six months, says Vance, show how serious the party is about winning Washington, which went to Al Gore in 2000. "I've been putting this party together for three years," he said. "Now it's up to George and Dino [Rossi, leading Republican gubernatorial candidate]. We just have to execute." Nethercutt coordinator Lane says that although the congressman lags about $3 million behind Murray in early fund-raising, he's on a roll and had a successful Spokane event just a week earlier. "We had Cliff Clavin," she said. The Cheers mailman? "Right, John Ratzenberger. He helped raise about $50,000."
The Cheney photo session next door, $4,000 for one photo or $8,000 for two shots posing with the veep, ended, and Gorton rose again on the podium, introducing "George and his love, Mary Beth," to wild applause. Nethercutt bounded up with his wife, promised to help Patty Murray retire, then introduced "one of the finest American couples in the United States," Lynne and Dick Cheney. March music, applause, more bounding. As they do at other fund-raisers, Lynne talked about growing up in Wyoming and family things, and made a few jokes, and Dick talked about Wyoming and family, and made a few jokes. He spoke of progress on Medicare, education reform, and the economy, and of 9/11 as the administration's defining moment. "There was nothing we did to provoke that attack," he said matter-of-factly. But "we didn't realize they [Al Qaeda] declared war on us. . . . We didn't have an effective strategy. . . . You have to go after the states that sponsor terrorism," Iraq as well as Afghanistan. "If you want to know what I worry about at night," he told the attentive crowd, "it's that cell, that terrorist cell, in the middle of one of our cities," armed with a devastating bomb. It's a dangerous time, he said. "We have to pay whatever the price may be"in soldiers and lost liberties. It was 15 minutes on the world as seen by Bush-Cheney. He was no Cliff Clavin. But the applause rang out. Facing no questions on the Halliburton connection or secret energy policy making, and with no criticisms to be impervious to, Cheney shook some hands and left. Within a few hours he would be winging off to the next official stop, and Nethercutt's campaign coffers would be $300,000 fatter.
After most of the crowd filed out and security unpenned the press, I went past a steamer table and scored a few slices of GOP cheese. In front of me, a woman was putting gingerbread cookies on a napkin. One, twosix of them. She paused, then put the remaining half dozen in a napkin. Getting her money's worth, apparently.