MADISON, Wis. – We are talking the mid-sixties. I was an outspoken small girl and he was a serious young man. Had we met, I’m sure I’d have set him straight. Well, maybe not, but how out of place he seems here in progressive Madison, my hometown.
Dick Cheney and I go way back to this green and blue university city set on the waters of Lake Mendota. Yet I never saw him hanging out on the Memorial Union Terrace in high July, looking out on the lake swimming with sails, or enjoying a high-dairy ice cream experience. Nor did he consort with the Rathskeller radicals.
But there he was in the midst of my Midwest paradise, like a dark stranger. He lived nearby, young Cheney, a contradiction in terms. He was a married graduate student in his 20s, getting draft deferments, so never got a scratch in Vietnam. He never got the Ph.D. he was working on, either. Don’t ask me why, I was just in first grade. In retrospect, maybe Madison politicized us both, in different directions.
Meanwhile, a cruel war raged in a faraway land. At home, on the University of Wisconsin campus, violence broke out when students protested Dow Chemical’s recruiting. You can read all about it in the fine social history, "They Marched Into Sunlight," by author David Maraniss, who was an undergraduate then and there. The scene turned to tear gas, arrests and billy club beatings by the Madison police. Paul Soglin, a student leader, later became the mayor of Madison.
Everyone in Madison remembers that day, with the possible exception of Cheney. Heck, there was so much going on to fill the hearts and minds of young people in those days, revolution scented the air. Heady stuff apparently left Cheney cold where he lived, in student housing known as Eagle Heights. On the national front, the University of Wisconsin became known as the lead campus in the anti-war movement, the catalyst for other campus protests spreading from Berkeley to Columbia.
This I do know: that my family and all the adults in the faculty housing, University Houses, were fiercely opposed to the Vietnam War. Whether their fields were sociology, mathematics, medicine or music, the war was all the adults ever talked about. As a child, you don’t really know the reasons why, but you breathe in the political winds blowing. Professors joined what students wrought.
Cheney may have been the only man in Madison living in university housing not to oppose the Vietnam War. To me, that’s personal. His subsequent careerism in the Gerald Ford White House (where Donald Rumsfeld was his mentor) launched him on a path of defiant rock-hard stances that culminated in two, not just one, wars waged against Iraq. During the first, Cheney was Secretary of Defense for George H.W. Bush. In the star-crossed second, started 11 years ago, Vice President Cheney presented the war as kind of a do-over (to take down Saddam Hussein) and peddled falsehoods about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
We all know that, all too well. What’s so strange is that anybody is asking this man for his opinion on Iraq again, as if he knows a way out of the unholy mess the George W. Bush White House made in Iraq. Charlie Rose and other talk show hosts have a fixed idea of Cheney as a Washington wise man, and they can’t shake it. In truth, shameless Cheney deserves to be a pariah, but the media are late to the game on that.
It’s too bad Cheney didn’t learn his Vietnam War lessons well in Madison: that a foreign war without a clear rationale and popular support will only tear the country in two, at home and abroad. A girl could have told him that.