Politics

10.22.13

Dick Cheney Is Back and Rejuvenated, and That’s Bad News for the GOP

The wan figure is gone, and it’s a pink-cheeked former VP out meeting the press this week to promote his new ‘Heart’ book. But his reappearance may be the last thing his party needs now, says Michelle Cottle.

Sweet Jesus, did anyone see either of Dick Cheney’s TV interviews this week? The man looks amazing. And I don’t mean amazing for a septuagenarian with a tortured health history. I’m talking there’s-an-oil-portrait-hidden-in-his-attic-growing-more-grotesque-by-the-day amazing. Gone is the wan, wasted figure of 2010, replaced by pink cheeks, a solid physique, and—dare I say it?—a twinkle in those pale blue eyes. Whoever’s donated heart now beats in the former VP’s chest must have been in crackerjack cardiac condition, because Dick has never looked better.

He also sounds surprisingly rejuvenated. Not that Cheney, even at his frailest, ever failed to vent his spleen with impressive vigor. But as the scariest American politician of modern times heads out to promote his new book, Heart: An American Medical Odyssey, he is sounding not so much scary as rapturous. The famously polarizing VP is gushing about the “miracle” and “wonderment” of life after his 2012 heart transplant, cracking jokes about his Darth Vader rep, and sharing, “I wake up every morning with a smile on my face.”

It’s enough to make you wonder whether Cheney’s ticker was the only thing the fine folks at Inova Fairfax Hospital swapped out while he was under the knife.

But pink cheeks and happy talk notwithstanding, the return of Dick Cheney to the public eye may be the absolute last thing the Republican Party needs as it struggles to reposition itself in a way that doesn’t scare the crap out of the voting public. Ted Cruz may like to mouth off, but many, many people feel that Dick Cheney took the Bush administration—and all of America—down a dark road that would have been better left untraveled. And now, after all this time, here he is again, popping up on the Today show and 60 Minutes to remind people of that road.

Cheney being Cheney, of course, there’s no avoiding controversial terrain when he sits down with journalists. Before Today’s Savannah Guthrie would let him get all uplifting about his book, she plumbed his views on the GOP’s civil war (he does not consider it a “real rift”), House Republicans’ shutdown strategy, the influence of the Tea Party (in his view, a “positive,” “healthy” reaction to Washington dysfunction), Cruz (“represents the thinking of an awful lot of people, obviously, in Texas”), his daughter Liz’s Senate challenge to Republican incumbent Mike Enzi (“it’s time for new leadership”), and whether Liz’s opposition to gay marriage is causing family friction with her married lesbian sister, Mary (none of our business, thank you very much).

For his part, 60 Minutes’ Sanjay Gupta took a more backward-looking tack, grilling Cheney about the wisdom of taking on the vice presidency despite his cardiac problems and whether those problems ever affected his judgment or ability to lead. Gupta also brought up the new book by Timesman Peter Baker, which details the myriad issues on which President Bush split from Cheney during their second term. It will surprise no one that the VP did not give an inch on any of these lines of inquiry, swatting the good Dr. Gupta down on matters both medical and political with that patronizing, how-dare-you-talk-back-to-the-grown-ups attitude that is so very, very Cheney.

While Cheney may be a glowing tribute to the miracles of modern medicine, as a political symbol, he remains deeply problematic.

Unsurprisingly, the VP’s embrace of the Tea Party and the benefits of GOP “turmoil” made quite the splash with news outlets across the political spectrum (“Dick Cheney Hails Tea Party” crowed Fox Nation), even as some Republican players gently pushed back. “Cheney is one of many voices in the GOP,” stressed veteran strategist John Feehery via email. “As a former vp, he has a bigger voice than most. But because his daughter is running, he has an obvious vested interest which limits his effectiveness as a spokesman.” Translation: Please don’t take the guy too seriously. His family needs the bomb-throwers to be on their side.

Beyond any specific interview topic, however, the VP’s reemergence presents a PR challenge for his party. While Cheney may be a glowing tribute to the miracles of modern medicine, as a political symbol, he remains deeply problematic—in no small part thanks to his unshakable belief in his inherent rightness, which came across as vividly as ever in his Gupta sit-down.

Now, perhaps this book tour is the start of a push to soften the VP’s image, to lighten his Dark Side. Until such a transformation, however, any public reminder of the Cheney era can only complicate his poor party’s ongoing identity crisis.

There are some issues that not even the nation’s top surgeons can address.