Vice President Dick Cheney is such an appealing and popular figure that Republicans decided to dispatch the “Darth Vader” of American politics on an “urgent” international mission rather than invite him to last week’s party convention in St. Paul.

So Cheney, whose personal approval ratings are significantly lower than the bottom-of-the-scale ratings for President Bush, watched from afar. And the vice president who would be king liked what he saw.

No, Cheney, who has never particularly liked Arizona Senator John McCain, was not any more enthused about the party’s presidential pick.

But the most authoritarian and abusive vice president in American history had plenty of nice things to say about Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the party’s pick to replace him.

“I thought her appearance at the convention was superb. I watched that with great interest. I loved some of her lines – what was the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? It’s lipstick,” Cheney, who is not known for his light side, told reporters traveling with him on a time-killing trek across Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Italy.

Palin’s pitbull line has Cheney guffawing out loud.

But for those of us who are students of all things Cheney, his own line on Palin was even more amusing.

“I think (Palin’s) a good candidate and I don’t see any reason why she can’t be an effective vice president,” the vice president declared with as straight a face as he can manage.

Cheney, who as the head of George Bush’s 2000 vice-presidential vetting team scanned the list of Republican prospects and determined that only he had the qualifications needed in a No. 2 for Bush,came to the vice presidency as a former congressional and Cabinet aide, White House chief of staff, six-term congressman, Secretary of Defense and corporate CEO.

So what does he think about handing the keys to a woman who until recently was primarily responsible for setting hours at the town dump in Wasilla?

“We’ve had all kinds of vice presidents over the years and everybody brings a different set of experiences to the office and also a different kind of understanding with whoever the president is,” Cheney says. “Each administration’s different and there’s no reason why Sarah Palin can’t be a successful vice president in a McCain administration.”

Translation: Don’t be ridiculous, the woman is unqualified. But I’ve got too many skeletons locked in the vice presidential closet to hand this office off to a Democrat. So count me in as a Palin backer.

(John Nichols authored a critically-acclaimed biography of Cheney, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) and is currently writing a history of the vice presidency.)