article

09.02.11

The Next Dick

As Dick Cheney fades, who is the next dark lord of U.S. politics? Michelle Cottle nominates daughter Liz Cheney, who combines the former VP’s hardline ideology with a more combative style.

Now that Dick Cheney has resurfaced to peddle his defiant new memoir, In My Time, what’s likely to strike people more than anything in the actual book is just how old and tired the former vice president looks. Frail, even. Time, stress, and a faulty ticker have taken their toll on the man once widely regarded as the toughest, scariest, most dangerous leader on the national stage. While no one was looking, Darth Vader has been replaced by a wizened, if still ornery, Grandpa Munster.

Even some of the VP’s devoted detractors may find the transformation unsettling. It was easy—and, let’s face it, kind of fun—to slam Cheney as the dark lord of American politics. But in anxious times, there is a certain comfort in having such a figure around, sneering at our squeamishness and casting a threatening shadow across the global landscape. You don’t necessarily want the guy to be running things, but unapologetic aggression has its uses. Now, with the Daddy Party’s Biggest Daddy shrinking before our very eyes, who will step up to assume his mantle?

My guess: Liz Cheney.

The offspring of feisty politicos are often kinder, gentler, wishy-washier versions of dear old dad. (Think Al Gore Jr. or John Sununu or Evan Bayh.) Not Liz. The former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs is every bit as fierce as Cheney père, both ideologically and in her eagerness to play political hardball.

When Liz has not holed up with her father working on the book, her bad-assness has been on vibrant display post-Bush. While most neocons cowered in their think-tank offices, she took to the airwaves to defend her father’s legacy against all comers, right down to her unshakable insistence that waterboarding is not torture. She slammed the new president at every turn, deriding Barack Obama’s foreign policy as “radical,” accusing him of “making the nation weaker,” and asserting that he is “afraid to defend America.” Hooking up with fellow neocon Bill Kristol, she formed the nonprofit Keep America Safe, devoted to peddling an über-hawkish brand of foreign policy. Bumper stickers proclaiming “Gitmo Saves Lives” can be purchased at keepamericasafe.com for $5.

With her in-your-face promotion of the Cheney worldview, Liz isn’t just defending Dad’s tough-guy ethos; she’s expanding it. In some ways, she is a more impressive—and certainly more impassioned—fighter than the ex-veep. Which, when you think about it, isn’t that surprising because, well, look at her mom.

For obvious political reasons, Lynne Cheney kept a low profile during her years as second lady. (The term itself smacks of deference.) But for the decade or so prior to her husband’s White House stint, Lynne was a high-profile culture warrior fighting for conservative values on a variety of fronts: as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (which she later tried to abolish), as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and as a co-host of CNN’s now-defunct squabble-fest Crossfire. (Multiculturalism and political correctness have long been favorite bugaboos of hers.) As fiery as her husband is phlegmatic, Lynne was the Cheney who made liberals’ heads explode during much of the 1980s and ’90s.

Lynne Cheney has clearly never worried overmuch about old-fashioned gender roles: despite her cultural crusading, we’re talking about a woman who once wrote a Western novel featuring a sympathetic portrayal of lesbians. A later novel featured a U.S. vice president dropping dead in the arms of his mistress and eventually being succeeded by his wife.

Small wonder Liz turned out to be such a scrapper. “She has equal parts her father’s comfort at making very complex policy arguments in a very strong ideological way, and Lynne’s ability to do it in a fighting spirit,” observes Nicolle Wallace, communications director for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign and the Bush White House.

In fact, says Wallace, the Cheney women are generally better at firing up a crowd than is the former VP, who tends to be “subdued” in public settings. As for political brawling, she adds, “While he seems more comfortable fighting with his intellect, the women are a little more comfortable fighting with their lowest blow.”

Dick may fight hard, but the ladies fight ugly. Early last year, Liz’s Keep America Safe sparked outrage across the legal community with an attack ad branding seven Department of Justice lawyers “the Al Qaeda 7” for their past representation of terrorism suspects. On a still more personal note, she dismissed Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize as a “farce.”

This pugilism is never more apparent than when the family is defending its own. “This is not a new phenomenon,” former Cheney press secretary Juleanna Glover says of Liz’s defending her dad. Glover points to Lynne’s high-profile TV appearances on behalf of her husband more than a decade ago, during the heat of the 2000 race. “They have a loyalist family structure that I think is rare in this day and age,” she says.

While Liz has had the higher profile of the VP’s daughters, younger sister Mary was the one more deeply involved with the nuts and bolts of the vice presidential campaigns. (“She’s tough, too!” says Glover.) Liz got involved with debate prep and strategy, while Lynne was pretty much omnipresent. Both Glover and Wallace recall that Dick Cheney was always surrounded and supported by his wife and daughters.

And while Mary, Liz, and Lynne were all accessible and approachable, says Wallace, they were also “intimidating”: “You never wanted to make them angry.”

Liz Cheney isn’t just defending Dad’s tough-guy ethos; she’s expanding it.

So even as Big Daddy begins to fade from the scene, he (and to some degree we) can take heart that the Cheney gals are more than prepared to carry on the battle. There’s been much talk, in fact, of Liz running for office in the not-so-distant future.

As Wallace notes, Dick Cheney may be tough, he may be ruthless, he may love a good fight, “but that’s nothing compared to the women in his family.”