Dick Cheney, one of the most consequential and controversial vice presidents in American history, finds himself with an even lower profile than usual, traveling with a small press corps and offering promises of a graceful transition to President Barack Obama.
In one sign of how media attention now is relentlessly focused on the incoming administration, the Monitor was the only news organization traveling with the vice president on Saturday, when he flew on Air Force Two to Virginia Military Academy (VMI) to speak at the college’s Military Appreciation Day. (The Monitor is part of a pool of newspapers that travels in the Washington area with the president and vice president and files reports to other news organizations.)
The day before the trip to VMI, Mr. Cheney's office had announced that upon the vice president's return to Andrews Air Force Base Saturday afternoon he would be going to a facility at the base for a medical exam. Earlier in his term, that alone might have triggered national media interest.
The trip also was also a notable example of how, while media attention may have shifted, the logistics of moving the second most powerful person in the US government remain formidable. Scores of Secret Service agents, armored limousines, helicopters, and squads of intersection-blocking local police were deployed during Cheney’s brief journey.
There were some lighthearted moments during the outing. The vice president’s brilliant, bearded chief of staff, David Addington, smiled and clapped along as the school fight song was played at the end of the formal ceremonies at the VMI parade grounds. Mr. Addington has played a key role in the heated debate over appropriate use of presidential power in fighting terrorism. US News & World Report called him “the most powerful man you've never heard of.”
The day’s events began as two green-and-white Marine helicopters arrived at Andrews Air Force Base under overcast skies shortly before 8 a.m. The vice president, wearing a dark gray suit, white shirt, and red tie, exited his copter, posed briefly for pictures at the steps of Air Force Two, and boarded the Air Force C-32. The blue-and-white plane, with United States of America printed on the side, is similar to a Boeing 757.
Shortly before takeoff, Lea Anne Foster, assistant to the vice president for communications, came to the back of the plane where press seats are located to say that the vice president was “battling laryngitis.” During the flight, Cheney’s traveling physician could be seen going through several cases filled with medical supplies.
The sun had come out by the time Air Force Two touched down at Roanoke Regional Airport, after a 42-minute flight. A 10-vehicle motorcade – including the vice president’s armored limousine and an identical decoy limo – left the airport for a 54-minute drive through miles of rolling green Virginia farmland.
Roughly five miles from VMI, a woman stood by her van clapping and waving an American flag. At the campus entrance, a man held up a white sign saying, “Cheney and USA deserve a fair trial.” It wasn’t clear what that meant.
The motorcade arrived at the VMI campus at 9:50 and the vice president met with various college dignitaries. Founded in 1839, VMI was the first state-supported military college in the US.
After about half an hour, the vice presidential motorcade pulled up to the parade grounds, which are roughly the size of a football field. The 1,350-member cadet corps marched onto the field wearing gray coats, white pants, and black hats with tall black tassels, as the VMI regimental band and a bagpipe unit played. The bagpipe players wore red tartan kilts. This reporter, in ill-fitting blue blazer, felt severely underdressed.
At 10:48, the vice president walked to the podium as the VMI regimental band played ruffles and flourishes and as a 19-gun salute boomed from 105-millimeter howitzers at the end of the parade field. Cadet officers marched in review, and then the band played the national anthem as the gunpowder haze from the howitzer salute finally cleared.
Cheney began his remarks by apologizing for the quality of his voice. “The good news is it is going to be a short speech,” he said. It was: He spoke for about four minutes.
The vice president lauded VMI for its “immense contributions to the defense of the nation.” He said America's terrorist enemies “reject and despise” the principles of a civilized life. Cheney said he and President Bush “will assure a smooth and graceful transition of power” to President-elect Obama. His biggest applause line was “those who hate America are no match for those who love America.”
As the formal ceremonies concluded, Cheney shook hands and posed for pictures with the nine top-ranking cadets before moving to a lunch that was closed to the press.
After lunch, the vice president’s motorcade pulled up to the George C. Marshall Museum on the VMI campus. Marshall was a 1901 graduate of VMI and its most famous alum. The vice president spent 45 minutes in the Marshall Museum viewing an array of exhibits about the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former Army chief of staff, secretary of State, Red Cross president, and secretary of Defense.
Hands in his pockets, Cheney examined an exhibit called “Urgency to Succeed,” which showed Marshall’s old Army uniforms. Further along, the vice president removed his glasses to take a closer look at an exhibit called “Soldier of Peace,” tracking the work for which Marshall won the Nobel Peace Prize. He paused in front of an Army jeep above which were Marshall’s words from March 1940: "We are going to take care of the troops first, last, and all the time.”
It was hard not to notice that in a building filled with displays, the vice president was himself an exhibit. As he toured, he was trailed by watchful Secret Service agents, members of his staff, and this reporter. No wonder the man does not smile all the time.
Before Cheney left the museum, an Air Force B-2 stealth bomber was spotted overhead, on its way to make a flyover at the home football game VMI was playing against Liberty University. It helps to have the vice president as a visitor if you want that kind of military display at a college football game.
A minute after Cheney said his goodbyes to VMI officials, the motorcade was rolling on its 55-minute drive to Roanoke for the brief flight back to Washington.
Citing concern for the privacy of other patients, the vice president’s office did not invite the press to accompany Cheney on his ride to the Malcolm Grove Medical Center at Andrews.
About half an hour after Cheney left for the exam, the vice president’s assistant for communications said, “The Vice President has completed a scheduled X-ray evaluation of long-standing knee arthritis. The films are pending interpretation by his doctors at George Washington University Hospital. The vice president is returning to his residence in St. Michaels to resume his normal schedule.”
Shortly after she spoke, the vice president’s motorcade pulled onto the tarmac at Andrews. He climbed into a helicopter and flew to his weekend getaway on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, leaving most of his staff and the press behind.