JERUSALEM Old joke: Did you hear the one about the parents who had two sons? One went off to sea. The other became vice president, and neither was ever heard from again.
Modern joke: When Dick Cheney is in the hospital, George W. Bush is just a heartbeat away from the presidency.
The way people poke fun at the vice president today says a lot about how Cheney has retooled the job.
Some argue that Cheney is too powerful, but the very fact that people are debating the issue is evidence of how much has changed from the days of Daniel Webster, who, when offered the vice presidency, quipped, "I don't propose to be buried until I'm dead."
Cheney himself isn't sure whether future vice presidents will be as hands-on as he's been.
"I'm reluctant to say it's a trend," Cheney told reporters during an interview Monday in Israel. "If you look at the history of the office, it can go either way.
"You go back and look at how it's developed over the years, it wasn't until really, I guess, Richard Nixon was vice president that he even had an office downtown," Cheney said. "Harry Truman's office was on Capitol Hill."
The role of vice president expanded noticeably when Walter Mondale served as Jimmy Carter's No. 2, Cheney reflected. "Mondale was the first one to have an office in the West Wing. That helped, that sort of helps integrate you with the operation."
With no contract or job description for the vice president, Cheney said the role depends on the wishes of future presidents. He said Bush "wanted me to sign on as a member of the team, somebody who would be an active participant in the governing process, and he's kept his word."
Known as a chief architect of the war in Iraq and a hard-liner when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, Cheney would be hard-pressed to win a popularity contest. His approval ratings are in the mid-30s. But he does not judge his effectiveness by the polls.
"If I wanted to be loved, I ought to be a TV correspondent, not a politician," he joked during a television interview later in Turkey, his last stop on a 10-day trip throughout the Mideast.
Using his stature and long-standing personal relationships with many foreign leaders, Cheney has schmoozed with Arab leaders in oil-rich countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia, bolstered support for Afghanistan's struggling government, nudged the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps toward peace and had a series of private talks with Iraqi politicians as the war enters its sixth year.
When it comes to Iraq, Cheney thinks the administration is possibly more relevant today than it was a year ago because Bush's military buildup has helped reduce violence. There is concern the bloodshed will return as the extra troops go back home between now and July, but for now, Cheney believes the drop in violence has bolstered the administration's leverage in Iraq.
"I don't feel any sense of loss of influence, if you will," Cheney said during his visit to Baghdad. "I think, if anything, the successes that we've demonstrated here have given us greater credibility than would have been the case if we hadn't had the surge and the progress of the last 12, 15 months."
Kevin Kellems, a communications strategist and former Cheney spokesman, said the vice president has a lot of authority on the world stage even as the administration's time runs out and the world's attention turns to the race for the next president.
"He's very aware of the power of his words in foreign countries," Kellems said. "His voice overseas is a big club to swing it has enormous impact. So he carefully calibrates his message."
Kellems doesn't buy the argument that Cheney's influence on Bush has waned either, although he acknowledges that some of Cheney's closest allies are no longer in the administration people like former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
"You could argue that some of his allies and/or staff members have moved on to other things so therefore the dynamic within the administration has changed," Kellems said. "But I see no evidence that the president seeks or listens to his advice in the second term less than he did in the first."
Historians will study Cheney when he leaves to determine whether he has overreached his position.
Gerald Ford loathed being vice president in the Nixon White House.
"He just hated the job," Cheney said. "He always expressed to me the view that the worst nine months of his life were the ones he spent as vice president."
The job, though, suits Cheney, who has embraced his role as secretive, behind-the-scenes power broker. He even laughs at being likened to "Star Wars" villain Darth Vader.
Cheney's lack of presidential aspirations has been a unique aspect of his two-term vice presidency.
"People said this is a source of his strength. He doesn't have a different agenda from the president, but there's a flip side that I think is troubling," said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University who has written extensively on the vice presidency. "A vice president who is not looking to succeed to the presidency is not politically accountable."
Cheney can afford to make the bulk of his public appearances in Republican-friendly forums: conservative talk radio shows; the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington that leans right; or military installations like Balad Air Base in Iraq last Tuesday, where troops greeted him with cheers of "USA! USA!"
"If he were running for president, he would have to be out there talking to a cross section of the American public," Goldstein said. "I'm very hopeful that both parties' presidential nominees will pick somebody presidential and give them the accessibility and responsibility that the nation's second officer ought to have."