• U.S.

Why Lynne Cheney Keeps Her Voice Down

5 minute read
Margaret Carlson

Lynne Cheney won’t play it up, but she’s making feminist history, more so than stay-at-home, stand-by-her-man Hillary Clinton did. Cheney is the very first Second Lady to keep her day job (and her seat on two corporate boards). When she’s in town, Cheney, toting a brown bag with a salad and bottle of water, goes to work at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, in a boxy building in downtown Washington, where she is currently working on a book about heroic American women.

When she gets there, or anywhere else these days, Cheney is a lot more subdued than she used to be. Far from being “hard to muzzle” as Bill Bennett predicted when her husband was selected as Veep, Cheney has voluntarily relinquished leading the posse in the cultural wars. As head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she fought against educational softheads veering away from traditional curriculums, denounced rap lyrics (that means you, Eminem) and celebrated Western patriarchs. As the host of Crossfire Sunday, she shouted down liberals on subjects ranging from trigger locks (against them) to fur coats (for them). Before that, she wrote several books, not only about education and cultural relativism but also a novel featuring two women in love, and she co-wrote another about a Vice President who dies flagrante delicto. In a you-go-girl ending, his smart, cheated-upon wife takes his job. Briefly, Cheney toyed with running for the Senate.

Sitting down at home on a pristine white chair, she lets her two large Labradors cover her and the furniture with dog hair as they wrestle at her feet. When it’s pointed out that some people might miss the old Lynne Cheney who knew how to stir up a little trouble, she says how happy she is with her new life and what a relief it is “not to have to have an opinion about everything.”

Pundit fatigue: rarely seen inside the Beltway. Too bad the only known cure is being married to a Vice President. Having transcended argument for its own sake, she dropped a controversial book project on academia in favor of writing one for children, America: A Patriotic Primer (“A is for America, the land that we love; B is for the Birthday of this nation of ours”). Scribbled in the margins of newspapers during the 2000 campaign, it’s as uncontroversial as you can get, although, no doubt, a few colleagues from her old life would find “N is for Native Americans” a squishy nod to multiculturalism.

Being a think-tank fellow and a Second Lady are flex-time jobs that allow Cheney to scoop up from school the three daughters of her daughter Liz, a lawyer at the State Department. (Daughter Mary just got her M.B.A. and is on the board of the Republican Unity Coalition, which seeks to build bridges between gay and straight g.o.p.-ers.) Lynne brings her granddaughters back to the mansion, which has been redone to a fare-thee-well in beige and ecru. Next to the huge, stark Frankenthaler canvas and the Christmas tree strung with white lights and dried roses that only an adult could love, the kids’ stash of Huffy bikes, Hula-Hoops and an electric Barbie car in the corner provide the decorating touch money can’t buy.

The Cheneys have created one of the city’s only salons, a voluntary activity you wouldn’t expect from a man whose idea of heaven is fly-fishing in silence. About every six weeks, the Cheneys invite 16 scholars, artists and authors for dinner. Lynne kicks off the discussion but is aware the group doesn’t need much help, since there are few shrinking violets. “Smart people are naturally funny and clever.” The Cheneys spend some nights at official events, like the Kennedy Center Honors, other nights eating off trays in the den and a surprising number of nights casually out and about. The Cheneys have even dined at the mecca of Georgetown limousine liberals, chez Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. The Cheneys are the most social of the Bushies, asserts Quinn, which she feels accounts for the relatively friendly press coverage the Vice President gets. “It’s harder to trash someone you’ve had pasta with the night before.” Most casually of all, the Cheneys drop over at the politically compatible Rumsfelds’. Joyce Rumsfeld, wife of the Defense Secretary, says the Cheneys are a lighthearted pair ready to roll on a moment’s notice. “Just last week I called at 5 and said come over for meat loaf and mashed potatoes, and they were here at 6.” About the well-publicized policy split between the Vice President and Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lynne says, “I don’t joke with Alma Powell about it,” noting about her good friend, “There can be differences of opinion without there being personal differences.”

The new Lynne Cheney has gone so soft she wakes up to Morning Edition, although she has to reset her clock radio every day because it refuses to stay tuned to npr. When she hits the treadmill in the exercise room, she watches tapes of her favorite TV show, 24, about a federal agent foiling a terrorist attack.

In politics, marriages matter big time, as the Veep might put it. Since high school, Lynne has been the yin for her husband’s yang. The quiet captain of the football team went into a full swoon over the drum majorette, who on their first date nearly 40 years ago wore a red strapless gown with a crinoline skirt, which Lynne jokes accounted for their second date. But he never actually asked her to marry him. “He was incremental about it,” she says of a man who is incremental about little else.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com