Before the September 11 attacks, vice president Dick Cheney was set to quit. President George Bush was preparing to nominate Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge as Cheney’s successor.
A prominent Philadelphia businessman and close friend of Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge has been telling friends that in late summer Cheney went to Bush and told the president that his health was so precarious that he would soon be forced to quit the vice presidential post. Bush had thereupon called the Pennsylvania governor and told him that when Cheney stepped down he wanted to nominate Ridge to the US Senate for confirmation as the new vice president.
With a medical history of four heart attacks since 1978, and a bypass in 1988, Cheney’s condition has been a subject of concern ever since Bush put him forward as his vice presidential nominee at the Republican convention in Philadelphia in July, 2000. Cheney’s health once again hit the headlines in January of this year when he was forced into surgery for an angioplasty amid the stresses of the Florida recount at the start of this year. Cheney had another “mild” heart in March and again went under the surgeon’s knife.
It’s no surprise that Bush called Ridge. Before he himself became the nominee Cheney had been supervising the search for Bush’s running mate and put Ridge at the top of the list. But Ridge is pro-choice and the fury of the Republican right forced Bush to abandon the plan. Even so, in recent months there’s been widespread speculation that Cheney would stand down in 2004, with Ridge as his designated successor. When Cheney was in hospital for surgery after his last heart attack, Ridge was summoned to Camp David, where he appeared at a press conference standing behind Bush.
Cheney’s decision to quit lends another level of drama to the morning of September 11, when a vice president with a weakening heart was running the country while the President was heading for the SAC deep shelters in Nebraska.
On September 12, amid widespread public dismay at Bush’s disappearing act on a day of dreadful national crisis, the White House concocted the story, later reiterated by Cheney, that there had “credible threat” of a plan to attack Air Force One, thus justifying Bush’s zig-zag, belated return to Washington. The White House told New York Times columnist William Safire that after the onslaughts of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a terrorist phone call “using code words” had said Air Force One was a target. Safire leaped to the astounding conclusion that there was a bin Laden mole in the White House. Two weeks later, on September 25, CBS News reported that there had been no such phone call.
In a Meet the Press interview with ABC’s Tim Russert on September 16 Cheney laid great stress on succession as having been very much on his mind in those frantic morning hours of September 11. Four days later Bush told the joint session of Congress he was nominating Tom Ridge as head of the new Office of Homeland Security, thus setting Ridge on the national stage. CP