Whatever happened to the psychological exploration of political leaders? I don’t mean the gossip about embarrassing behavior that passes for sophisticated psychological analysis nowadays, but the kind of probing studies of prominent psyches that writers like Norman Mailer and Garry Wills used to produce; think of Wills’ masterpiece, Nixon Agonistes. If ever a political mentality cried out for analysis, it’s the toxic gray matter lying between the ears of Liz Cheney, one of the de facto leaders of the American right wing.
From the time she was a girl to the present moment, her advance through life has had everything to do with her father’s connections and nothing to do with her own merit.
The custom nowadays is to abandon analysis for ranting and raving until the leader in question has left office, after which a spate of books—most of them sharing the same observations—toothlessly speculate about formative influences and hidden motives. But by then the national damage has been done. So let’s not wait until Cheney stumbles into real power—a real possibility, as GOP handlers begin to size up her potential as a congressional candidate for 2012, according to a new article in New York magazine. Let’s deploy the analyst’s couch as quickly as we can. What follows is my own stab at preemptive clarity: a brief Prolegomena to a Psychology of Elizabeth Cheney.
It’s hard to get your own mind around it, but behind Cheney’s recent verbal assault on lawyers representing the prisoners at Guantanamo—and before that, her treasonous-sounding attacks on Barack Obama—is a former captain of her high-school cheerleading team whose entire life has been directed by her powerful father. Liz might invoke the American mythology of individual autonomy, but from the time she was a girl to the present moment, her advance through life has had everything to do with her father’s connections and nothing to do with her own merit, whatever that may be.
Before and after law school, Liz’s father hooked her up with his pal Richard Armitage, who bestowed upon the little slacker a job at his consulting firm and then used his connections in government to help procure for her various positions in the State Department. Once there, she proceeded to out-Cheney Dick himself as she got herself accused of attempting to launch covert actions in the Middle East that had not been approved by Congress or, apparently, by any other organ of governmental oversight.
Even before she availed herself of her father’s connections, though, Liz was inhabiting his identity. Jonathan Swift himself could not have created an empty, sycophantic daughter desperate to please her politically ambitious daddy who wrote her senior thesis on, as its title goes, “The Evolution of Presidential War Powers.” Perhaps that was the moment when Liz started exaggerating and magnifying her father’s values as a substitute for thinking for herself. When an insecure child adopts her parent’s intellectual obsessions, history repeats itself as farce.
Consider, as an example, Liz’s response to the “Al-Qaeda 7,” the seven American attorneys who represented the Guantanamo detainees and whom Liz virtually accused of sedition. A more confident public person would have called into question the lawyers’ judgment in choosing to defend the detainees, while at the same time making sure to add—if only for the sake of rational appearance—that one of the main principles of American justice is that a lawyer is free to represent anyone he wishes to represent. But because the insecure Liz has taken her entire intellectual substance from her father, she has to go beyond her father’s militancy to present herself with the illusion that she had gotten beyond her father’s influence.
Then again, the former cheerleader has to make the implicit values of the Cheney team as loud and explicit as possible. Just as the cheerleader captain has to earn her status by being able to kick higher than the other girls, so the captain of the Cheney cheerleading team has to strike political poses that are more extreme than any other Cheney booster. By seeming receptive to the notion that Obama was not born on American soil, Liz earns herself a night out on the town with The Quarterback himself.
An arrested case of Daddy-love is what seems to lie behind Liz’s manic public eruptions. After all, Mommy Bear Lynne Cheney is a real honest-to-goodness intellectual, novelist, nonfiction author, think-tank member, television pundit and former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mom didn’t write a senior thesis on presidential war powers. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on “A Study of the Kantian Strain in Arnold’s Poetry.” Her mother’s braininess is perhaps why Liz’s extremism is so athletic and not thoughtful at all. Exaggerating her father’s values into the rhetorical equivalent of leaps, kicks, and splits is what Liz has been doing all her life. Belting out her father’s principles was the way the little girl learned how to drown out her mother’s ideas. Look at me, Dad—not at Mom! Thunder, Thunder, Thunderation, We’re the Anti-Obama-Nation!
With this nattering nabob of nepotism, who still, in effect, lives in her father’s house, the history of the GOP is becoming something like a counternarrative to the country’s original promise. From Abraham Lincoln to Liz Cheney—Daddy’s little golddigger and All-American nightmare.
Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.