What History?

Dick and Lynne Cheney Play the Founding Fathers for Laughs

They were at a conservative think tank to talk up Lynne’s new James Madison book, but the Cheneys seemed just as concerned with recent history—and intrigue in the Bush White House.

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What did James Madison do after his presidency? He did what retired politicians do—he gathered his papers. That was just one of the tamer samplings served up Monday afternoon by the husband-and-wife team of Dick and Lynne Cheney as they riffed about her new book, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered. The couple has been married almost 50 years, and they have the patter down: respectful, sometimes self-deprecating, and always letting the audience in on the joke.

Lynne Cheney set the tone for their presentation at the American Enterprise Institute, describing how valuable Madison was to George Washington. He wrote Washington’s inaugural address, then wrote the House’s response to the inaugural, then crafted Washington response to the House. “One man’s voice echoed off all the walls,” Lynne said. “He and Washington were trusted allies.”

But then comes the intrigue. Madison is at odds with Alexander Hamilton and puts in place the mechanism for an opposition political party. “He never went to Mount Vernon again,” Lynne says, citing the rift between Washington and Madison as one example of how politics then was not all that different from today. “Relationships are formed, and relationships are broken.”

She didn’t say “just like in the Bush-Cheney White House,” but the audience at the conservative think tank was beginning to get the idea that this book presentation would be as much about recent history as the Founding Fathers.

“How in the world did they decide they needed a vice president?” Dick Cheney interjected. The question itself invited laughter.

Lynne explained that first came the Electoral College, with each state getting two votes for president. From there, they decided that the fellow—and they were all fellows—who gets the second number of votes is vice president. There was much consternation from the beginning, Lynne went on, as her husband mugged for the audience as if to say, “Consternation, tell me about it.”

Worried the vice president wouldn’t have anything to do, they made him president of the Senate, Lynne continued, thus creating the risk that the vice president would “not only mess up the separation of powers but create all sorts of mischief.”

Now Dick was basking in the allusion to his two terms in the White House, and Lynne egged him on, urging him to tell the story about gun control. It was about a 2008 challenge to the District of Columbia’s gun laws and whether the White House should file a friend-of-the-court brief. Cheney’s answer was yes, and the Justice Department drafted the language. “When it came back, it was the ultimate squish,” the former vice president said. “I didn’t like it. I don’t know if the president liked it. He never said.”

Talk about passive-aggressive, but that’s probably a good characterization of the relationship between President Bush and his vice president in the waning days of their time together in the White House. Cheney went on to say that his pro-gun senator friends called and asked if he would sign their brief in his capacity as president of the Senate. “So I endorsed and embraced and I put my name on the Senate brief instead of the White House [brief],” he said.

Chuckling, Cheney recalled of Justice Antonin Scalia: “Nino, who is of course a hunting buddy, said they didn’t know what to do until the vice president’s brief arrived—and then we knew exactly what to do—he was being sarcastic, of course.” The upshot of the story is that Cheney got a visit from White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, who was not amused by Cheney’s assertion that he had “a foot in both branches of government.”

“I think you shared too much there,” Lynne said, turning the conversation back to her book and a key insight that she brings to the mild seizures that Madison admittedly suffered. They influenced his move toward freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, she said. In the 18th century, epilepsy marked a person as evil, full of sin, possessed by the devil. “It was a pretty heavy burden for a young man, and he finally shrugged it off,” she said. “He didn’t have to believe what everyone told him to believe.” She called his affirmation of freedom of religion as great or greater than Thomas Jefferson’s.

The New York Times calls Cheney’s book “probably the best single-volume biography of Madison that we now have.” Cheney is an historian, and when a questioner asked her to elaborate about the intrigue among the Founding Fathers, she responded a bit testily about more recent times: “Someone is manipulating the president, the president is really a good guy, but there’s this evil genius.” Applause and laughter erupted as she plowed on. “It’s such a good political tactic. You demonize the evil genius and you make the president look weak. It’s been going on for a long time.”