The Imperial (Vice) Presidency Since Cheney doesn't have a real chance of moving up, he felt he could change the rules. By Jonathan Alter Newsweek Feb. 27, 2006 issue - Fox News's exclusive interview with Vice President Dick Cheney was, as CNN's Jack Cafferty sniped, "like Bonnie interviewing Clyde," but Brit Hume posed some good questions. When asked if he still thinks after everything that happened that he handled the story the right way, Cheney replied, "I still do." To me, this was the most revealing part of the whole episode. Cheney believes in what might be called partisan accountabilityâyou answer only to your own side, on your own terms, not to the jackals of the mainstream media. This is standard in show business, where errant celebrities choose Larry King or other friendly venues to spin their stories. Through the 1920s, presidents also privatized their damage control. President Herbert Hoover would talk to his friend Will Irwin and one or two other friendly journalists, but otherwise answer only a few questions submitted in writing. Then, in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted twice-weekly press conferences and transformed the idea of accountability in Washington. Politicians have felt obligated to accept the press as proxy for the public ever since. President Nixon had to put up with Dan Rather, President Reagan with Sam Donaldson. Bill Clinton learned the hard way that presidents don't get a private life. Before Walter Mondale became the first consequential vice president of the modern era in 1977, no one much cared if the No. 2 wanted to stiff the press. FDR's first veep, John Nance Garner, said the vice presidency "wasn't worth a pitcher of warm piss." (When a reporter changed "piss" to "spit" for taste reasons, Garner called him a "pantywaist.") But in the last three decades, vice presidents have steadily gained power. Their taxpayer-funded traveling retinues have become so large (Cheney even travels with his own medical team) that pretending to be normal citizens wouldn't wash. When Al Gore said there was "no controlling legal authority" on his fund-raising, it was at a hostile press conference, not an interview with The Harvard Crimson. Cheney has simultaneously expanded the power of the vice presidency and reduced its accountability. Because his health made him the first veep since ancient Alben Barkley (under Harry Truman) with no realistic chance of moving up, he felt he could change the rules. Fears of terrorism made his decision to go to an "undisclosed location" understandable, but he has taken secrecy about his whereabouts to inexplicable lengths. News organizations went along with this partly to save money by not sending reporters to cover his trips. They rationalized it by explaining that Cheney never said anything to reporters anyway. So Cheney has quietly figured out how to avoid answering the messy questions that are a vital part of a modern democracy. His message to the Washington press corps is the same as the one he delivered to Sen. Patrick Leahy in the Senate cloakroom, when the Democrat had the temerity to criticize him: "Go f--- yourself." By not holding a press conference since 2002, Cheney is telling the men and women assigned to cover the White House that they are irrelevant. No wonder they went crazy after learning of the shooting accident from a Texas paper. When Cheney shot his friend and the press fired back, the battle for the future of the political coverage was joined. Was his contempt for the "MSM" (mainstream media) so over the top that it will create a backlash against future White House efforts to keep reporters at bay? Or perhaps we are witnessing a variation on the "K Street Project," where congressional Republican leaders would deal only with lobbyists loyal to the GOP. We'll see how Sean Hannity likes it when a future Democratic president or vice president gives interviews only to NPR and The Nation. You can understand why politicians chafe under the old rules of the MSM. The media often focus on relatively unimportant, easy-to-understand stories as metaphors for shortcomings that the normal conventions of the business (and the inattentiveness of the audience) make hard to convey. When reporters wanted the public to see Jimmy Carter was being swamped politically, they focused on how he was attacked on vacation in a canoe by a "killer rabbit." When the press believed that Reagan was tilting toward the rich with his hard-to-explain tax policy, Nancy Reagan's acceptance of expensive White House china briefly became an issue. These feeding frenzies are unattractive, but the alternative is worseâreporters knowing an important truth about politicians and not letting the public in on it. The shooting could hardly be a better metaphor for Cheney. It neatly packages his faulty judgment, insularity and arrogance in a story that is not cataclysmic on its own terms but will prove hard to forget. That's too bad for Cheney, and certainly for Harry Whittington. But it is a blessing for anyone hoping to restore some accountability to a government that increasingly believes it is a law unto itself.