• U.S.

7 Clues To Understanding Dick Cheney

22 minute read
James Carney

When Richard Bruce Cheney was a student at Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyo., he was a solid football player, senior-class president and an above-average student. But he wasn’t the star. That distinction belonged to Lynne Vincent, Cheney’s girlfriend and future wife. A straight-A scholar, Lynne was elected Mustang Queen, the equivalent of most popular girl. She was also a state-champion baton twirler, a big deal in 1950s Wyoming. To begin her routine, Lynne would set both ends of a baton on fire and throw it in the air while her boyfriend stood inconspicuously off to the side holding a coffee can filled with water. When Lynne was finished with her pyrotechnic act, she would pass her flaming baton to Cheney, who, while the audience applauded and Lynne curtsied, would quietly douse the fires by sticking each end of the baton in the coffee can.

(See pictures of Lynne Cheney’s life.)

Inconspicuous, off to the side, backing up a flashier partner, putting out fires when called upon — it’s a role Dick Cheney has played his entire life. Throughout his remarkable career — White House chief of staff to Gerald Ford, six-term Congressman, Secretary of Defense to the first President Bush and Vice President to the second — Cheney’s success has derived from his unparalleled skill at serving as the discreet, effective, loyal adviser to higher-profile leaders. He did once flirt with the idea of twirling the flaming baton himself, considering a 1996 run for President. But the idea of putting himself on that stage — selling himself in sound bites, baring his soul to profile writers and talk-show hosts — would have required a rewiring of Cheney’s political DNA. Instead he took an offer in business, figuring he would retire in the job and then do a lot of hunting and fishing. But George W. Bush had a different plan, one that returned Cheney to the role he plays best. As Lynne Cheney told Time, her husband “never thought that this would be his job. But if you look back over his whole career, it’s been preparation for this.”

1. Action Man
Dick Cheney seems the antithesis of flamboyance. Stout, gray and slightly stooped, his speech measured and monotonous, he comes across as someone who would shun risks. And yet there are stories. There is Cheney the teenager in Wyoming, attaching a rope to the hood of a car and taking turns with his friends water skiing down irrigation canals that ran parallel to roads outside Casper. There is Congressman Cheney in 1983, five years after his first heart attack and a year before his second, catapulting down a treacherous ski slope in Jackson Hole, Wyo., his red scarf flapping in the breeze behind him, as his fellow skiers watched in stunned admiration from the top of the mountain. “That was the real Dick Cheney. He’s not this quiet, laid-back guy,” says a politician who has served and vacationed with him. “Inside, this is a guy who takes risks and is very aggressive.”

So it is with Cheney’s views on national security and foreign policy. Cheney’s logic almost always leads to one conclusion: that it is better for the U.S. to act, even if it means taking the risk of acting alone, than it is to sit still. “It’s not ideological with him. It’s about leadership,” says a senior adviser to Cheney. “If he has a bias, it’s a bias for action.”

During a stint at Yale, Cheney was moved by a course he took from H. Bradford Westerfield, then a self-described ardent hawk who believed the U.S. should use its role as the leader of the free world to fight communism wherever it took hold. Cheney has often told friends that the first author to have a profound impact on his thinking was Winston Churchill, whose multivolume history of World War II impressed upon Cheney the idea that leadership in world affairs is about recognizing dangers and confronting them rather than wishing them away.

See the top 10 George W. Bush figures to miss.

See America’s worst vice-presidents.

Dave Gribbin, a longtime Wyoming friend who worked for Cheney on the Hill and in the Pentagon, traces the Vice President’s take on American exceptionalism to his experience in the Ford White House. “Here you are chief of staff, and one of the things you begin to experience up close is the degree to which America is looked upon to do things that other countries can’t,” says Gribbin. “Not just the use of force, but dealing with hunger and failing economies. He got a firsthand look at the awesome responsibility that that unique position imposes on those who lead.” Rather than shrink from that burden, Cheney embraced it. He reasoned, says Gribbin, “Why not enhance and protect that responsibility? Why not make sure you don’t fritter it away?”

Years later, during Cheney’s tenure as Defense Secretary, his preference for American forcefulness was reinforced when, in the weeks before Iraq overran Kuwait, the U.S. sent mixed signals to Saddam Hussein about the consequences of an invasion. According to friends and aides, Cheney believes that if the U.S. had been more forceful in threatening retaliation against Iraq, Saddam might have stood down and the Gulf War would have been avoided. “You have to be clear and forceful about U.S. intentions,” says a current adviser to Cheney. “That way nobody misunderstands our resolve.”

Just as Cheney believes bad things happen when the U.S. acts meekly, he believes the converse as well. “The reason that the 20th century ended with the forces of communism and fascism defeated and with capitalism and democracy increasing as the political and economic models people aspire to is due in no small part to U.S. leadership, backed by U.S. military force,” Cheney recently told Mary Matalin, a top aide. “Our leadership and our might shaped the events of the last century.”

When Bush needed a new national-security strategy for the post-9/11 world, he turned to Cheney, who had been carrying one around in his briefcase for a decade. As Secretary of Defense, Cheney had commissioned two top aides, Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, to draw up a plan to reorient U.S. defense policy after the cold war. When word of the strategy was leaked, its muscular call for the U.S. to prevent the rise of hostile powers and act pre-emptively against states developing weapons of mass destruction was met with an uproar in the foreign policy establishment. But what was considered right-wing fringe thinking a decade ago is currently U.S. policy. Wolfowitz is Deputy Secretary of Defense today, and Libby is Cheney’s chief of staff. The strategy they drew up for Cheney then reads like a blueprint for the Bush doctrine now.

2. Late Bloomer
On a personal level, Cheney was not always a bull-by-the-horns guy. After Cheney graduated from high school, Tom Stroock, a local oilman who was impressed by the young man, arranged his entrance and full scholarship to Yale. After four semesters, Cheney’s grades were so bad, the university asked him to leave. David Nicholas, who has known Cheney since junior high school and who went to Harvard, thinks part of the problem was that the Casper schools had not prepared the boys for Ivy League academics. “We were competing with kids who went to Andover and Exeter, and they knew what it was all about,” Nicholas observes. What’s more, say those who knew Cheney then, he spent more time “in the bend-your-elbow club,” as a former Yalie puts it, than in the library. Cheney hung out with his cohort on the freshman football team, stayed up late playing cards and drinking beer. “Dick wasn’t big on studying,” remembers Jacob Plotkin, one of his roommates.

Cheney got a union job laying power lines in the blue-collar town of Rock Springs, Wyo. He stayed in constant touch with Lynne, who was in college in Colorado; he had had to endure teasing from Plotkin for writing her almost daily from Yale. On occasion, he drank too much — a practice that led to two DUI arrests within a year. Cheney told Nicholas years later that the arrests motivated him to get his career on track. In addition, Lynne, according to Stroock, “was firm that she did not want to spend the rest of her life married to a lineman.”

See TIME’s Dick Cheney covers.

See the top 10 regrettable e-mails.

Lynne persuaded Cheney to go back to school. This time, he started small, enrolling in Casper College for a semester, then transferred to the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where he majored in political science. There Cheney landed his first political gig, an internship in 1965 with the state senate, which was controlled by the G.O.P. It was his first engagement with the Republican Party. His father, a career federal bureaucrat with the Soil Conservation Service, and mother, a homemaker, were staunch Democrats who were proud their son shared a birthday with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But Cheney would never leave the embrace of the G.O.P. When he was a Republican Congressman, his father would kid him that “you can’t take my vote for granted.”

Dick and Lynne Cheney were just ahead of the baby boomers. They were married (in 1964) and had two daughters (in 1966 and ’69) as the grand social transformations of the 1960s were heating up. The responsibilities of a new family might have dissuaded them from joining the experiment of hippie culture, but that was not their wont in any case. “It was a time of great upheaval,” remembers Celeste Colgan, a friend since the mid-’60s. “We talked about it a lot — Dick particularly. He was worried about the direction of the country. It was a tremendous wake-up call, and all of us got really serious really quick.”

Cheney, who avoided military service in Vietnam with education and then marriage deferments, arrived in Washington for the first time in 1968 as a University of Wisconsin graduate student on a fellowship. His patron, Wisconsin Congressman Bill Steiger, sent Cheney on a fact-finding mission to university campuses that had experienced violent anti — Vietnam war protests. As Cheney told the New Yorker in 2001, it was while he was attending a faculty meeting at his own school that he realized he no longer wanted to finish his Ph.D. and become a professor. The faculty members, he thought, were full of hot air, critical of everyone but unwilling to act. That, Cheney decided, was not for him.

3. Power Hoarder
If you’re in politics and you believe in leadership and action, the Executive Branch of government is the place to be. Cheney was happy and effective in his 10 years as a Congressman, and he rose to be the second-ranking Republican in the House, with a real chance of one day becoming Speaker. But when President Bush in 1989 asked him to be Secretary of Defense instead, he leaped at the offer. Even when he was in the House, Cheney displayed a strong bent — atypical in that chamber — for Executive privilege. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Congress had moved aggressively to trim back presidential powers and expand its own. Cheney was opposed. In 1987 he was the top Republican on the committee investigating the Iran-contra affair, which concluded that Ronald Reagan had overstepped his powers as President. Cheney’s minority report was a full-throated rejection of that view.

Cheney, as Vice President, is still fighting the battle for Executive perquisites. That struggle moved to the courts when Cheney refused to identify the energy-industry officials who were consulted last year by his task force on energy policy. Members of Congress directed the General Accounting Office (GAO) to sue. Some outside interest groups also filed suit. But Cheney, with Bush’s support, refused to yield, citing the need to protect private advice to the President and Vice President. When Matalin told him calls were coming in even from allies begging Cheney to compromise, he told her, “Suck it up, Mary. If a principle is worth having, it’s worth fighting for.” A federal court ruled Dec. 9 in Cheney’s favor against the gao, which is likely to appeal.

After 9/11, Cheney supported Bush in aggressively applying the President’s unilateral powers — for example, creating military tribunals through a presidential order rather than seeking legislation from Congress. Cheney was the Administration figure who pushed hardest against Democrats on Capitol Hill who wanted to launch a probe into the intelligence failures before 9/11. They eventually got their way, but Cheney stalled them for a year.

See the top 10 vice-presidential debate moments.

See TIME’s politics covers.

Cheney’s critics argue that his defense of Executive privilege is a smoke screen that masks a contempt for Congress, the media and, by extension, the public. Even some of his friends think he takes it too far. Cheney, says one, “has a kind of Father Knows Best attitude about government: We’re in control, and we know what we’re doing even if you don’t.” But Cheney is unapologetic in his view. In an appearance last February on the Tonight Show, not the usual forum for constitutional issues, he complained to Jay Leno about “a continual encroachment by Congress in the Executive Branch” and vowed, “The President and I are bound and determined not to allow that to happen on our watch.”

4. Universal Adapter
Whether in Congress, the Pentagon or the White House, Cheney has made a career out of being the consummate No. 2, the trusted deputy or operations man who carries out his assignments with smooth efficiency. “You plug him in, and he works anywhere,” says Mary Kay Hill, a longtime aide to former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, who worked with Cheney on Capitol Hill. “He just has a real good way of fitting in and working his environment.”

Once Cheney got to Washington, his rise in politics was like a vertical blur. Representative Steiger, fatefully, made his young charge the point man for an informal group of new G.O.P. members that was trying to create a fresher, more appealing face for the Republican Party. It was nicknamed “Rummy’s Raiders,” after its leader, Illinois Representative Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney got to know the boisterous and driven former fighter pilot well enough that when Rumsfeld was tapped by President Richard Nixon to run the Office of Economic Opportunity, Cheney wrote him an unsolicited memo outlining how he should handle the job. Rumsfeld hired Cheney on the spot as his lieutenant.

Rumsfeld was ambitious, imagining himself in the Oval Office one day, and he saw in Cheney a loyal and effective aide but not a rival. When Nixon sent Rumsfeld to run the Cost of Living Council, Rumsfeld again brought Cheney along as his deputy. And when Ford took over for Nixon, appointing Rumsfeld chief of staff, Cheney was at Rumsfeld’s side as No. 2; his Secret Service code name was, appropriately, “Backseat.” Finally, in November 1975, after Rumsfeld was named Ford’s Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney became the youngest White House chief of staff in history, at age 34.

Even as an elected official later on, Cheney found himself in the position of serving another. Cheney was — or could have been — his own man politically after being elected to Congress in 1978. He could have associated himself with some hot-button issue or authored a major piece of legislation bearing his name. Instead Cheney followed the same pattern in the House that had worked for him to date: he quietly made himself useful — and then indispensable — to the higher powers in his party. Bob Michel, the G.O.P. House leader, repaid Cheney’s loyalty by making him his No. 2, the G.O.P. whip, in late 1988. When President Bush called Michel in March 1989 to say he was nominating Cheney to be Defense Secretary, Michel was distraught. “I said, ‘Mr. President, you’re taking my right arm,'” he recalls.

5. Loyalist
Nobody successfully serves as many masters as Cheney has without a disciplined code of loyalty. With his conservative instincts, he was an unnatural fit in the relatively moderate fOrd Administration. He was suspicious of Kissingerian detente, for example, preferring Reagan’s muscular anticommunism, but he buried his own politics in service to the President. In the 1976 primary, he faithfully leaned on Republicans in Wyoming, which was fast becoming Reagan country, to stick with Ford, even if most of the delegation went against him.

Cheney occupied the right edge of the spectrum in the first bUsh Administration too. nAtional Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, President Bush, Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell and sEcretary Of State Jim Baker all viewed Cheney as the Administration’s unreconstructed cold warrior at a time when the cold war was coming to an end. Cheney would voice his opinions internally — even if he was usually overruled — but the debate stopped there.

See more about Dick Cheney.

See the screwups of Campaign ’08.

He was a hawk during the Persian Gulf crisis and clashed frequently with Powell, who was cautious about using the military to expel Iraq from Kuwait. But Cheney never strayed far from the official line coming out of the White House. He asked early on after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait whether the U.S. should consider overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but abandoned the idea quickly. It fell to Cheney to secure support from Arab leaders for pushing Saddam out of Kuwait, support gained with the promise that the U.S. had no intention of marching to Baghdad. Like the other principal players in that war, Cheney has steadfastly defended the decision ever since.

As he demonstrated at the Pentagon, Cheney expects the same kind of loyalty and discretion from below that he delivers to those above him. Three days into his stint as Defense Secretary, he publicly rebuked the Air Force’s top officer for venturing into politics when he sounded out members of Congress on updating the U.S. nuclear force. Later, Cheney cashiered two other top officers for indiscreet remarks.

Even with close associates, Cheney doesn’t tell stories out of the Oval Office. Wolfowitz says he can’t describe the evolution of Cheney’s thinking on Iraq, “because he is so tight-lipped and careful, I still don’t know from the end of the last war what his positions were.” Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona considers himself Cheney’s friend and a fellow conservative hawk. “Every time I talk to him and I make a pitch about something, he’ll say, ‘O.K.'” says Kyl. “And you don’t know what he’s going to do with the information. I honestly do not know what goes on between him and the President.”

6. Perpetual Student
Ever since his flameout at Yale, Cheney seems to have been compensating, retaining a fiercely scholarly approach to his work. In his first year at the Pentagon, he organized periodic Saturday-morning tutorials with top Kremlinologists and defense thinkers to bring himself up to speed on what was still the U.S.’s prime nemesis.

For the past two years, he and Lynne have held periodic dinner parties — an attendee calls them “salons” — featuring big thinkers on topics ranging from American political history (David McCullough) to Islam’s relationship with the West (Bernard Lewis). To prepare for a Meet the Press session last fall, Matalin took him two 6-in.-thick binders full of briefing materials. “He loves to prepare,” she says. “You can’t give him too much information. He just swallows it and asks for more.”

Cheney demands the same level of discipline in his staff members. “That last thing you want to do is go to him with an argument you can’t back up,” says an adviser. “He’ll get that look of disgust on his face real fast and tell you to go do your homework.”

As a policymaker, his credibility comes in large measure from the way he masters a subject, marshals the facts behind an argument and then patiently and dispassionately lays out the case in his Joe Friday manner. “He never yells; he never even raises his voice,” says a close friend and adviser. “He just buries you, slowly, with the force of his logic.”

7. Verbal Economizer
There is a joke about the Vice President that his friends like to tell. “Dick Cheney is always at an undisclosed location,” they say, “even when he’s sitting right in front of you.” For the taciturn Cheney, discretion has been the key to power and influence. He has made calculated silence his calling card. Whether in meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill or in sessions of President Bush’s war council, Cheney, as a colleague in the White House puts it, “just sits there and listens with that crooked grin on his face. He almost never speaks.”

When he does, people tend to listen. He played that role even in high school. Harry (the Horse) Geldien, Cheney’s football coach, remembers the young man as a locker-room leader, though not the rah-rah, attention-grabbing type. “They’d be in there dressing for the game, and there was usually a lot of chattering and noise,” Geldien recalls. “But when Dick started to speak, the other kids would stop and listen. They respected him.”

See pictures of Republican memorabilia.

See pictures of 60 years of election night drama.

The same could be said of many of Cheney’s ideological opponents today. He tends to disarm them by genially listening to what they have to say, even though they almost never change his opinion. “He doesn’t have a mean streak,” says Lee Hamilton, the Democrat who chaired the Iran-Contra Committee. “He deals with issues, not personalities. And he doesn’t run to the cameras.” Cheney’s reputation during his days on the Hill was for blandness. In his book The Ambition and The Power, John M. Barry recounts the time a group of House members visiting the Soviet Union amused themselves by taking a do-it-yourself psychoanalytic test. Cheney added up his score and discovered that the one profession to which he was particularly well suited was funeral director.

Cheney’s mild manner has sometimes produced misunderstandings about where he actually stands. The Washington Post once referred to Cheney the Congressman as a “moderate,” prompting him to order an aide to call the paper’s editors and “suggest they look at my voting record.” On that point, at least, Cheney is happy to be explicit about his position. Told recently by Matalin that the press was writing stories about his being a “hard-liner,” Cheney replied, “I am a hard-liner.”

Keeping a low profile comes naturally to Cheney. He has little time for the public side of politics. He recoils at working a rope line, grimaces when his staff schedules him to speak at a campaign rally, bristles when forced to make small talk with anyone not on his mental list of people worth his time. Told earlier this year that his schedule included 30 minutes of schmoozing with small-bore donors after a fund-raising speech in the Midwest, Cheney curled his lip and, without even looking at the aide who delivered the news, said, “Make it five.” In fact, he was gone three minutes after finishing his speech. “He likes fewer, longer conversations,” explains Matalin. “He’s not a Georgetown, look-over-your-shoulder, cocktail-party kind of guy.”

That posed a challenge when Cheney ran for Wyoming’s lone House seat in 1978. On the stump he gave seminars instead of speeches and seemed almost embarrassed asking for votes. But Wyoming was kind to him. “He wouldn’t have people screaming and yelling, that’s for sure,” say Gribbin. “But he was serious and respectful, and people would say, ‘Well, he’s a solid guy.’ In Wyoming that comes across as smart and honest.”

A presidential campaign is something else. After Bush I lost to Bill Clinton, Cheney spent a year exploring a presidential bid of his own. He raised more than $1 million, hired a staff and traveled to some 40 states to gauge support. Conservatives loved him, and G.O.P. establishment types were ecstatic, but Cheney’s heart, literally and figuratively, was not in it. He had had three heart attacks in the previous 18 years, plus quadruple-bypass surgery; some doubted that Americans would put someone with that history in the Oval Office. Besides, Cheney was not sure he wanted to subject his family to the requisite media scrutiny. He was worried in particular, say friends, about the impact on his younger daughter Mary, who is openly gay.

In the end, he decided he did not want the presidency badly enough. When Houston-based Halliburton, the oil-services giant, offered him its vacant CEO position, he took it, earning some $2 million a year. And when Bush II came along with the offer of Vice President, Cheney hesitated to return to politics — but not for long. He loathes only the retail kind of politics, the gripping-and-grinning, baby-kissing, self-aggrandizing, self-abnegating politics. Cheney loves and flourishes in a different political arena. It is the one that few outsiders see, the one in which, particularly in this Administration, all decisions are made. It is the politics of governance at the highest level, in the White House, where the art of guiding the decision-making process is practiced by some of the most skilled inside-the-room players in Washington. And it is the politics at which Cheney is unrivaled. — With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr., John F. Dickerson, Michael Duffy, Eric Roston, Mark Thompson, Karen Tumulty and Douglas Waller / Washington and Sally B. Donnelly / Casper

See the top 10 unfortunate political one-liners.

See pictures of presidential First Dogs.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com