By Thomas M. Defrank
Dick Cheney returned to his old Congressional haunts last week with a new, robust heart - and sporting what amazed friends and colleagues call a literally miraculous makeover.
Four months after a coronary transplant in the Virginia suburbs, the former vice president interrupted a vacation at his Wyoming mountain hideaway to urge senior Republicans to oppose massive yearend defense spending cuts.
A onetime eight-term congressman and secretary of defense, Cheney warned during a 25-minute dropby that the automatic cuts, triggered by last year's budget deal, will cripple both U.S. national security and the limping economic recovery.
"With Dick Cheney it's all business, which I like," said New York Rep. Pete King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "He made a determined case with that voice of experience and intensity."
Many legislators were also struck by Cheney's vitality and good cheer after decades of struggling with a faltering heart that brought him near death's door.
Several congratulated Cheney, in fact, on how well he looked - prompting no reaction except the trademark half-smile that enraged political opponents in the Veep years.
"If you hadn't known he'd been sick," King told the Daily News, "you would never know it."
Anyone who has encountered Cheney in recent years would be shocked at his physical transformation since the transplant. The color has returned to his face, and the heart pump and cumbersome battery pack that kept him alive have been jettisoned.
He's lost so much weight that a longtime acquaintance inquired at a recent Washington dinner about the last time he'd been so trim.
After looking at Lynne Cheney, his wife of 48 years and high school sweetheart, Cheney proudly told The News: "Back in high school."
"I feel great," he added. "I'm very fortunate."
A year ago, friends were shocked by his frailty at a Capitol dinner honoring former President Gerald Ford. He was short of breath, walked haltingly and became agitated at one point when separated from daughter Mary.
A few months earlier, Cheney was so weak on a quail hunt he had to give up the chase, unable to summon the energy to tramp through the grass where the birds hide.
Not long before his March 24 surgery, one of his oldest political friends dropped by for a visit and was aghast.
"He looked like a mechanical man," he shuddered. He was a mess. I thought he was terminal."
His odds of a normal life expectancy have improved drastically with his donor heart. But at 71, Cheney faces a lifetime of medical cocktails to ward off his body's rejection of the new organ and life-threatening infections.
Still, old pals are cheered by the physical turnabout.
At a Ford administration class reunion in June, one old friend was so amazed at the demeanor change that he blurted out: "Dick, you've finally got a heart (back)."
Cheney, who was Ford's chief of staff, laughed heartily at the good-natured crack.