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10.12.10

The Cheney You Don't Know

Dick Cheney, the left's favorite bogeyman, is back from heart surgery and hitting the campaign trail. Former Bush aide Matt Latimer reports on the myth of Cheney's White House clout—and what drives him to bash Obama. One of the unexpected legacies of the Bush administration is its vice president's gradual descent from widely respected senior statesman to Idi Amin, Junior, Latimer says. What especially rankles those who have watched the creation of his Dr. Evil caricature is that claims about his power have always been exaggerated, and are in fact quite illogical.

Dick Cheney, the left's favorite bogeyman, is back from heart surgery and hitting the campaign trail. Former Bush aide Matt Latimer reports on the myth of Cheney's White House clout—and what drives him to bash Obama. One of the unexpected legacies of the Bush administration is its vice president's gradual descent from widely respected senior statesman to Idi Amin Jr., Latimer says. What especially rankles those who have watched the creation of his Dr. Evil caricature is that claims about his power have always been exaggerated, and are in fact quite illogical.

The tony suburb of McLean, Virginia long has been a haven for prosperous politicians, the kind of place where Newt Gingrich sometimes has lunch or the late Senator Robert Byrd could be seen walking his shih tzu. Within the town's borders is the spacious home of former Senator Fred Thompson, the Versailles-like palace of Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers, and the comfortable domicile of Colin and Alma Powell. McLean may be most famous as the site of Hickory Hill, the legendary residence of Bobby Kennedy, which in the 1960's served as a sort of ground zero for the family's political pursuits, and is only now beginning to show the wear of time. Just down the road from there is a very different political hub—a comparatively modest home with tall narrow windows along a tree-lined street. This is the unofficial headquarters of Cheney Central.

It was there where the former vice president apparently recovered from a rather unusual medical procedure on his heart, a procedure that not only has prolonged his life but apparently left him without a pulse—a source of black humor to his legion of critics. But if those critics were hoping that Cheney would soon be departing the political scene, the former Veep is looking forward to disappointing them. This week Cheney—dozens of pounds lighter but in seeming good spirits, fresh from a period of healing sheltered from distractions by family and playing with the kids and grandkids—announced that he will soon be back on the campaign trail, back to issuing stern warnings about the failings of the Obama administration, and back to finalizing his long-awaited memoir that is likely to be published next year.

One of the unexpected legacies of the Bush administration is its vice president's gradual descent from widely respected senior statesman—back in 2000, even liberal Barbara Boxer called him a nice guy—to Idi Amin, Junior. You know things are going badly for your image when George Lucas says that Darth Vader was a better person—and people believe him. Over the past decade, Cheney's public relations have been the political equivalent of the Hindenburg crashing into the Titanic while passengers watched a Detroit Lions game. What especially rankles those who have watched the creation of his Dr. Evil caricature is that so little of it is actually true.

Since his release from the Bush administration, Cheney has proven uncommonly, even joyfully, resistant to the standard rituals of Washington, where political rehabilitation comes from nursing your wounds quietly in a corner, offering a few timely mea culpas to re-establish your mainstream credibility, and then joining some charitable enterprise with a member of the opposite party. Call it the Clinton/Bush approach to political CPR. Instead Cheney seems to be taking his dark and dastardly image and running with it. When every PR agent in the world would tell him to avoid subjects like waterboarding and interrogation policies, Cheney proudly defends the administration's record. He has gamely adopted the Darth Vader label as his own. Parting company with a sidelined (and quietly retooling) Bush, who feels he "owes" Obama his silence, Cheney has become the tart-tongued voice of the opposition. In the past year he has labeled President Obama a "one-term president," taken Vice President Biden to task for the administration's terrorism policies, claimed that Obama was politicizing the war in Afghanistan and projecting "weakness" to America's enemies. For the Republican base it has worked wonders. It is Cheney, not his former boss, who seems more attuned with the current tenor of the GOP.

At one point the vice president's office suggested that Bush's speechwriters must be to blame for Cheney's suggestions failing to make their way into the president's remarks. They didn't seem to want to acknowledge what actually was going on.

The reasons behind Cheney's unorthodox approach to political retirement are, of course, best known to him. Health concerns and age—he is 69—make another run for political office most unlikely, and he appears to have little need for money. Some have tried to attribute Cheney's outspokenness to more sinister forces, from the psychological to the physical. My own guess, based on my observations inside the Bush White House, is that he is simply enjoying his liberation from an administration that kept him carefully corralled for most of the last eight years. President Bush may be content to let history judge his record—after all, he had eight years to have his say. But Cheney didn't get that chance—that is, until now. As he himself once put it, the statute of limitations on his silence has expired.

Admittedly the suggestion that Cheney might have felt constrained in any way inside the White House may seem bizarre to that sizable contingent of Americans who have fallen in love with the image of Cheney's arm in Bush's back as he moved the president's lips up and down. And undoubtedly the vice president's influence in the Bush administration was substantial, particularly early on. But the overall claims about his power have always been exaggerated, and are in fact quite illogical.

Richard Wolffe: Obama in Enemy TerritoryThe GOP’s Undercover BankrollersEven the fiercest critics of George W. Bush have never accused him of suffering a shortage of self-confidence. To those who know the president, it is impossible to contemplate that Bush ever would have put himself in the position of handing decision making over to any other person. From the outset of the administration, moreover, Bush heard from a steady complement of competing voices, all of whom were less conservative, personally closer to the president, and more politically preoccupied than Cheney. The strong-willed and ever present Texas contigent of Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, and Dan Bartlett would not have long stood for a vice president hogging face time with the boss. Condoleezza Rice, a longtime friend to the Bush family who is as close to the president as a sister, also was not one likely to be steamrolled. Chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, who once supported Jimmy Carter, was a key advocate of the administration's signature policy known as "compassionate conservatism," a confection of increased social spending and federal regulations that it is hard to imagine Cheney gleefully endorsing.

In the final years of Bush's second term, when the administration was at its political low, what was notable was not Cheney's presence but a sense of his absence. There was absolutely no suggestion anywhere that he was secretly running the show. The vice president would emerge from Oval Office meetings with a different demeanor than others. Usually in the Bush White House, top aides would constantly glance around to see who they should talk to, who needed to be glad-handed, who they could get information from. They reveled in their influence with the president. Cheney tended to hold his head down, might occasionally offer a thin grin in a colleague's direction, and kept moving.

I first met him at a social gathering at the vice-presidential compound after I had joined the White House as a speechwriter for President Bush. Cheney was in what is generally considered a relaxed outfit for super-serious Washington—blazer, khakis and a blue buttondown shirt. By then the cartoon image of him had firmly taken hold, and even I was startled by how surprisingly reserved he was. (For anyone other than the vice president of the United States, the word I might have used might even be shy.) He was self-deprecating. Introducing myself as a former speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld, for whom Cheney worked in the 1970's, the vice president joked that he'd never been able to pull that job off. When other guests beckoned his attention, he began to walk off. Then he stopped and turned back with an earnest apology for having to go.

Cheney once was seen standing in line at the White House mess waiting for a cup of coffee. When staffers ahead of him in the line insisted that he cut in front of them, he expressed reluctance. Then grudgingly he moved ahead, filling out his order on the sheets provided, just like any other employee. Whatever one may think of Cheney, this was not Richard Dreyfuss in "W."

Though the vice presidential office had no shortage of opinions and ideas, many if not most were overruled, even ignored. There was an informal hierarchy when it came to edits to the president's speeches—comments from Condi Rice, Steve Hadley, the National Security Advisor, or General Petraeus were sacrosanct. Cheney's—well not so much. At one point the vice president's office suggested that Bush's speechwriters must be to blame for the vice president's suggestions failing to make their way into the president's remarks. They didn't seem to want to acknowledge what actually was going on.

Staffs can often be a reflection of their bosses. The Cheney team was insular and close-knit, not usually ones for gossip. Their recalcitrance lent them an aura of mystery and undoubtedly led to misunderstandings; aloofness can often be confused with arrogance. His staff included people of ideas who gave off a sense that they were in the White House for reasons bigger than simply winning. An enduring example of their seeming distance from the more "rah rah" Bush crowd came on Election Day, 2008. By then everyone knew the results were going to be seen as a repudiation of the administration. The mood was glum. Early that morning, a group of senior Bush staffers assembled what amounted to "scarecrows" situated along the White House corridor where the President would walk en route to the Oval Office. The scarecrows were described as pictures of key staffers attached to pieces of wood. The wood in turn was adorned with Bush campaign t-shirts and inspirational messages such as, "We love you, Mr. President" or "You've done a great job."

The idea was certainly well-intentioned, if a bit cultish. One White House staffer who found the scarecrows "bizarre" spotted Cheney's serious and close-mouthed chief of staff, David Addington, staring at them. Addington, like his boss, has also been caricatured as just short of Satanic. As he looked upon the Bush scarecrows, he wore the slightest of bemused smiles. It was as if he was saying, "That's not what this was all about."

By the end, there was much talk around the White House about the respectful, if yawning, gap between Bush and Cheney. By Cheney's own admission, he strongly disagreed with Bush's decision to replace Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense in 2006. Cheney too was said to have been disappointed that the President declined to pardon "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, who had been indicted by a special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame scandal. Some former aides to Cheney still feel an animus toward senior Bush aides, such as communications counselor Dan Bartlett, who they feel at best ignored and at worst encouraged a media narrative that blamed Cheney for a multitude of administration failings. There were ideological differences too. A President Cheney likely would have taken a tougher stance on Iran and North Korea, a more conservative line on climate change and perhaps illegal immigration, a firmer position on federal spending. One expects Cheney would have been more resistant to the creation of a new Medicare entitlement in 2006 or a government bailout as the economy collapsed in 2008.

From the start, of course, the two men were contrasting personalities. On long trips, Cheney would always take with him a green duffle bag filled with books—nonfiction histories and biographies being his preference. The bag was "his version of the [nuclear] football" as a former aide put it. Cheney would be perfectly comfortable taking out a thick tome—now he can upload one on his kindle, a gift from his daughter—and read in blissful silence. These days he might also preoccupy himself with his IPod, loaded with country and western songs or classical music—another opportunity for solitude.

Bush, by contrast, took advantage of long flights to walk the corridors of Air Force One, dressed in a T- shirt and running pants, amiably exchanging gossip, trading quips, or shooting the breeze with anyone who caught his attention. The former president enjoys having a retinue of aides and advisors around him; there is a large legacy-building operation currently in place. Cheney seems more comfortable with a small inner circle, dominated by his wife, Lynne, and their two daughters. He is known to be the cook of the family, who has often prepared the family's meals.

The key to understanding Dick Cheney, it is often said, is to know the Cheney women. Mrs. Cheney, an accomplished writer and former political commentator who met her husband in high school, is a fierce protector of his interests, at least as she sees them. The word "formidable" in its many iterations is frequently used to describe her. The Cheney daughters, too, are political forces in their own right. Liz has become a frequent guest on Fox News, opining on national security and terrorism with a bite every bit as sharp as her father's. Mary recently has joined a group of former Bush administration communicators and strategists seeking to influence the political landscape. The Cheney women long have helped try to defend him from attacks, and were known to have no reservations about offering generous input on his media strategy and speeches.

Early on Cheney's outspokenness against the Obama administration was said to have irked top Bush advisors worried that the former Vice President might be "going rogue." With Obama's popularity rivaling, well, Bush and Cheney's, the attacks seem less of a concern now. Indeed folks from Bush World have made strenuous, and repeated, efforts to dispel any rumors of bad blood between the former president and the man he called "Vice." When asked to characterize the current Bush-Cheney dynamic, Dana Perino, Bush's former press secretary, told the Daily Beast that "they've long had a good relationship, one that is based on trust and respect and friendship. That's continued after the presidency."

No one expects Dick Cheney's forthcoming memoir to be a scathing indictment of the administration, or the president, he served. But they do expect it to shed some light on what he was thinking and perhaps invite a more balanced view of his long political career. All Cheney has said about the book is that he wlll express his views "forthrightly," as if anyone has any doubts about that.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.