Politics

Finally, a Balanced Portrait of Dick Cheney

Much has been written about Vice President Dick Cheney in recent years, and little of it has been flattering. Liberals see him as a power-mad hot head who, along with a cabal of neo-conservative hawks, sold the nation on an unnecessary war and spends his free time trying to figure out how to undermine our constitutional rights.

A new biography of the Vice President, Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President, by the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, paints a very different picture of the man and does a good job of countering many of the Vice President’s critics. The Dick Cheney that emerges from the pages of Hayes’ book is loyal, low key, very smart, willing to listen and deliberate in his views, conclusions and advice.

Consistent Conservative Influence

The bottom line of both this biography and a recent detailed Washington Post report on Cheney’s influence within the Bush Administration is that Richard Cheney has been a consistent conservative influence on government policy and, indeed, that without his being there this administration might have gone completely off the rails.

I say this in spite of the fact that I certainly don’t always agree with Cheney. His dedication to maximizing the power of the executive is institutionally and personally understandable, given his experiences during the Ford Administration, as reported accurately by Hayes, but I for one think he may be a tad too single minded about the whole thing. I’m also convinced that in his laudable zeal to defeat America’s enemies in the days following 9/11, he too willingly accepted the formulations of the boys and girls at the Weekly Standard. Moreover, though I understand where he’s coming from, I’m not nearly as enthusiastic as some with the way he and the President he serves have been willing to sacrifice both limits on government power and the safeguards on individual rights that are so integral a part of the uniqueness that defines us in their desire to collect intelligence on our enemies.

On the other hand, those on the left who whine that he is at the center of some sort of conspiracy to undermine the Constitution simply don’t know the man. No one is right all the time, but Dick Cheney, over a long career, has managed to be right most of the time, and that is no mean accomplishment.

Some of his critics have wondered publicly if today’s Dick Cheney is the same man they knew and admired in the 70s, 80s and 90s. This book should help dispel such speculation. The man Hayes describes as “America’s most powerful and controversial Vice President” is the very same Dick Cheney who came to town to work for Wisconsin Republican Rep. Bill Steiger and stayed to work for Don Rumsfeld at the controversial Office of Economic Opportunity and the Cost of Living Council during the Nixon years, as President Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff in the 70s, got himself elected to Congress in the wake of his bosses defeat, and quit Congress to serve as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of Defense in the late 80s.

Quite a Career

It’s been quite a career for a fellow who was asked to leave Yale and got serious about his studies and life only because his high school sweetheart and love of his life informed him that she had no intention of spending her life with a man without either ambition or the gumption to better himself. That was enough for the young Dick Cheney who was, at the time, working as a utility lineman (and living like one). He cleaned up his act, went back to college and was on the verge of getting his Ph.D. when he opted, instead, for the real world of politics and experience.

We are all lucky he did, because his contributions have almost always been right and he’s spent a lifetime in public service loyal to those with whom he’s worked as well as to his own beliefs. Most of that time has been spent in staff positions of one kind or another where he’s been careful to avoid appearing to disagree with those for whom he toiled. In a sense, it has been a career devoted to the plaque Ronald Reagan kept on his desk as President that declared, “There’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”

Most people who have focused on Cheney as Vice President have concentrated on his impact on the Bush Administration’s foreign policy and particularly on Iraq, but his influence on domestic issues, including the environment, has been just as important.

Indeed, the vaunted Bush tax cuts might never have come into being without Cheney, who has been a tax cutter since his days working for Bill Steiger, an earlier era’s congressional champion of capital gains cuts.

Cheney left Washington for his native Wyoming when Jimmy Carter and the boys from Georgia took over the White House in 1976, and he managed to win a congressional seat after overcoming the doubts of many Wyoming conservatives still smarting from his boss’s defeat of Ronald Reagan at the 1976 Kansas City Republican convention. He had, after all, served as Ford’s chief of staff and had played an important role in the Ford campaign.
They soon discovered, however, that their new congressman was a rock-solid conservative vote in the House.

Hayes stresses Cheney’s friendship with then-Minority Leader Bob Michel (R.-Ill.) to suggest that Cheney came to Congress as a moderate who later moved right for a variety of reasons. In fact, however, Cheney was as consistently conservative as Jack Kemp (N.Y.) and Trent Lott (Miss.), two men who began climbing the House GOP leadership ladder at about the same time.

Hayes apparently never looked at the American Conservative Union ratings for those members serving at the time Cheney was in Congress. If he had, he would have found that Cheney always rated in the lower 90s, along with his friends Lott and Kemp. For example, in 1982, Cheney was rated right 91% of the time as compared to Lott’s 85% and Kemp’s 91%. Just how conservative he was didn’t really attract much attention until he ran for Vice President because he was also well liked by colleagues on both sides of the aisle and managed to stand by his principles without being obnoxious about it. His lifetime ACU rating was 91%, compared to Kemp’s 89%.

Hayes does a masterful job detailing the way in which Cheney’s experience in the House, the White House and the Defense Department shaped his thinking on the ability of government to solve problems, executive power, the need for intelligence and the nature of America’s enemies. One can disagree with some of Cheney’s conclusions, but none of them is the conclusion of an intellectual dilettante or political gas bag. They are the conclusions of a man who has spent a lifetime grappling with life-or-death issues and feels strongly about them.

Hayes, himself, writes for Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard and must hope, as does his boss, that Dick Cheney shares their belief in the ability of an armed and powerful America to remake the world in her own image. But as an honest reporter and biographer, Hayes isn’t quite able to find a Wilsonian crusader beneath the skin of the hard-headed patriot whose commitment is to protect his own country at all costs rather than to lead a world democratic revolution.

Substance Over Politics

Hayes stresses the importance of the fact that Cheney came to the vice presidency without any desire to succeed to the top job as a major reason for his influence within the Bush Administration. He’s never had a desire to upstage his boss or to take a position for political rather than substantive reasons.

Years ago, while then-Sen. Bob Dole (R.-Kan.) was contemplating one of his several bids for the White House, he called me at home for advice on a vote he was going to have to cast in the Senate. He and his colleagues were debating aid to Turkey, and he wanted my advice on what he should do. I asked him if he wanted my advice as to what position I thought he should take from the perspective of this nation’s national security interests or that of his own political interests. That is a question one would never have had to ask Dick Cheney and not one that would even occur to those dealing with him in his present position.

I remember when he was heading the committee George W. Bush set up to find a suitable running-mate, and it was becoming increasingly clear, not only to Bush but to a lot of those around him, that the chairman of the search committee would make a far better candidate than any of those he was vetting. The problem was that he had no desire to get back into elective politics. He had served in Congress and the cabinet. He’d been chief of staff at the White House and had even briefly considered running for President himself.

But he had put all that behind him, was happy shuttling between Texas and his beloved Wyoming and could finally spend time fishing and hunting. Those of us who know him knew that above all, but when I raised the question of whether he’d even want to run, one who knew him even better turned to me and said, “Dick’s a good soldier and will do what he has to.”

He is and he has.

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