July 24, 2000 -- Former Missouri Sen. John Danforth signaled that he would join Texas Gov. George W. Bush on the Republican ticket if asked — but said he expected another prominent candidate to be offered the coveted post.
“It would be pretty tough to turn down,” he told ABCNEWS on Sunday. “But that’s not going to happen. I think it’s [former Defense Secretary Richard] Cheney.”
ABCNEWS has learned that Danforth joined Cheney on Bush’s final short list of possible vice-presidential running mates after the three men staged a secret meeting last Tuesday.
At the Sheraton hotel in Chicago, Bush met alone for several hours with Danforth, his wife Sally, and Cheney, who is said to have participated in the meeting in his capacity as the head of Bush’s running mate selection effort, not as one of the final candidates. The meeting was so secretive that even most of Bush’s traveling aides were prevented by the Secret Service from even getting close to the ninth-floor suite that was used as a meeting room.
One source described the meeting as a “get to know each other” session. After the four of them met, Cheney left the room and allowed Bush and the Danforths to talk privately.
Mrs. Danforth’s presence is notable, given that Danforth took himself out of the running in June, saying that he and his wife were enjoying their private life.
But lately, friends of the couple say, Mrs. Danforth has “softened” her opposition to her husband joining the ticket. In addition, this was the first known instance of Bush meeting with the spouse of a potential running mate.
Asked by ABCNEWS last week how familiar he was with Danforth, Bush conceded that he barely knew the former senator. Indeed, although Danforth is a close friend and long-time associate of former President Bush, Gov. Bush and Danforth had spent very little time together before last Tuesday.
Bush ‘Impressed’ With Danforth
Meeting over coffee and soft drinks, Bush and Danforth had what one source who has talked to both men called a “good discussion of their shared experiences.” And Bush is said to have been “impressed” with Danforth.
Bush has recently met privately with several other Republicans who, sources have said, were under consideration at some point in the process, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and New York Gov. George Pataki. But none of these meetings were shrouded in such secrecy and were, in fact, revealed publicly after the fact.
Although he is retired, Danforth still has high name recognition in Missouri, which campaign strategists for both Bush and Vice President Al Gore say is one of the two or three most important battleground states for the general election. Danforth earned a reputation for absolute probity and bipartisan comity during his three terms in the Senate — both of these are themes Bush is stressing in his campaign.
Danforth is, by any measure, a conservative. A former staffer for current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, he was the judge’s staunchest supporter during the controversial Senate confirmation process. Danforth has also urged the adoption of a resolution calling on local education agencies to encourage a “brief period of daily silence” for students — a measure backed by supporters of school prayer.
But Danforth has also strayed from conservative orthodoxy on a number of occasions. He played a key role, for example, in passage of the 1991 Civil Rights Restoration Act, angering many social conservatives. And, although he opposes abortion rights, Danforth advocated removal of the anti-abortion plank from the Republican Party platform in 1993, arguing for a more inclusive approach. He also opposes capital punishment, which has emerged as an issue in the campaign.
Last September, Danforth was appointed special counsel by Attorney General Janet Reno to head-up an independent investigation into the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. At a press conference Friday where he announced the results of his inquiry, Danforth implied that his vice-presidential prospects may have influenced the timing of the announcement.
“In May, an unexpected political possibility was sort of thrust my way,” he told reporters, “and at that time, it was clear to me that if there was any chance of that coming to pass it would mean I would have to step down as special counsel — and I didn’t want to step down as special counsel without taking responsibility for the work product.”
Now, even as he signals a willingness to become his party’s vice presidential nominee, Danforth insists that he is reluctant to re-enter elective politics.
“I really want to be in private life, not public life,” he said on FOX News Sunday. “I am very, very reluctant to get back in public life. If it were a matter of duty, that’s a different question.”
Cheney Makes the Cut
The revelation about Danforth comes as speculation also centers on Cheney. On Friday, Cheney traveled from Texas to Wyoming, where he served as a congressman for 11 years, to personally change his voter registration. That development, which removed a possible constitutional barrier to a Bush-Cheney ticket, stoked already furious speculation that Cheney was being considered as a possible running mate.
Cheney, 59, served as White House chief of staff under President Ford and secretary of defense under President Bush, the Texas governor’s father. In April, Bush tapped him to head-up his search for a running mate — a move intially thought to have lessened the chances of him being chosen for the slot.
When contacted by ABCNEWS, Cheney refused to answer questions about his vice presidential prospects. “He’ll make his decision this week,” he said of Bush.
Bush has said often that the two most important qualifications for the person he’ll ask to run with him are a willingness to work as a loyal No. 2 and the ability to serve as president. Cheney, a highly respected party elder with vast experience in both the executive and legislative branches, would fit the bill on both counts, while also bringing foreign policy expertise to the ticket.
“Secretary Cheney is an outstanding person,” Gov. Pataki told reporters Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y. “He has a tremendous record of service for the people of this country. He played a very important role in the Gulf War and exhibited tremendous leadership under pressure … [He] would be a great choice if that is who Governor Bush picks.”
One potential drawback is that Cheney does not hail, as Danforth does, from a crucial electoral state. Wyoming, with its three electoral votes, is unlikely to play a significant role in the general election.
Another area of concern is Cheney’s health. The former cabinet secretary has suffered three heart attacks and, in 1988, underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Dr. Denton A. Cooley, a prominent Houston cardiologist and family friend of the Bushs, told ABCNEWS that he spoke to Cheney’s physician in Washington, Dr. Jonathon Reiner, and subsequently concluded that Cheney is fit to run and serve. Denton made the call at the request of the governor and former President Bush — a further indication that Cheney is under serious consideration.
ABCNEWS has also learned that former President Bush has been recommending for weeks that Cheney join his son on the GOP ticket. In addition, the senior Bush was instrumental in bringing Cheney on board as head of the governor’s veep-search team.
The revelations about President Bush’s apparent involvement in the process is somewhat surprising given his son’s attempts to downplay his father’s role. Friday, Governor Bush told reporters that his father was not acting as an adviser to him on his choice of a running mate.
“He’s not that anxious to find out,” Bush said. “He wants to know the decision, but he doesn’t need to be the first person to know — He trusts his boy to make the right decision.”
Reports of Cheney and Danforth being on Bush’s final short list have allowed the Bush camp to largely regain control of the media firestorm surrounding the selection process, which for two days was dominated by reports of efforts to promote Arizona Sen. John McCain as the nominee.
McCain, Bush’s rival during the GOP primaries, has insisted publicly that he is not interested in running for vice president. But last Tuesday, in a phone conversation with Gov. Ridge, a close Bush ally who has himself been considered as a prospective running mate, McCain said he was would serve if asked.
Decision Expected Soon
Choosing his running mate may prove to be Bush’s most important decision of the campaign. He is spending the day at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and has pledged to make the much-anticipated choice by the end of the weekend.
“I’m going to think long and hard about the vice-presidential selection,” he told reporters on Friday. “The days of speculation are over.”
Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove said the governor had not yet settled on who his running mate will be.
“When I talked to him last night, he said he hadn’t made a decision,” Rove said on ABCNEWS’ This Week.
He added that the candidates on Bush’s short list are “a group of people he’s very comfortable with.”
Others thought to have been under consideration include Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, New York Gov. George Pataki, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Ohio Rep. John Kasich.
Bush said he would first call the person he has chosen to join him on the ticket and then contact other candidates to notify them of his decision. He is expected to announce his running mate as early as Tuesday in Austin, Texas, in an effort to build enthusiasm for the ticket just prior to the start of the Republican National Convention, which is set to begin in Philadelphia at the end of the month.
Mark Halperin is the political director for ABCNEWS.