The Cheney Factor
How the scars of public life shaped the vice president's unyielding view of executive power
It's hard to imagine Dick Cheney at play, but he does have a lighter side. He likes to stroll with his wife, Lynne, or fly-fish on quiet mornings with the four grandkids near his Wyoming home. He makes a point of remembering where his aides were brought up and often asks after their families. Once, he startled his Secret Service bodyguards when he walked away from his armor-plated limousine, tapped on the window of a staff vehicle, and presented an Air Force sergeant from the motor pool with a pair of stripes and congratulations on a promotion. He gets a kick out of the Saturday Night Live spoofs of his secretive ways and his man-behind-the-curtain, Wizard of Oz reputation.
This genial, easygoing Dick Cheney is what many Washington insiders remember from his earlier years in the capital when he was a bright young White House aide and later a popular member of Congress. Today, though, the vice president is widely seen as Washington's curmudgeon in chief, a powerful but uncompromising politician with the ear of the president. Cheney is at the very center of the current white-hot debate over the administration's aggressive conduct of the war on terrorism and President Bush's expansion of presidential powers. Indeed, Cheney has been the intellectual godfather of these concepts within the White House. His central argument, as described in a U.S. News interview, is that the United States is at a pivotal point in history--a point that requires a particularly muscular commander in chief to combat terrorism (interview, Page 48). "This is a battle," the vice president says, "for the future of civilization."
Understanding the Bush presidency requires grasping the essential role that Richard Bruce Cheney continues to play in formulating its Manichaean view of the world. "He's probably been as independent and significant a policymaker as any vice president in our history," presidential scholar Robert Dallek told U.S. News. Some go further. "The power behind the throne--an eminence grise--that's what Dick Cheney has become," says Lawrence Wilkerson, a Cheney critic who was Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff. "The real president of the United States is Dick Cheney."
Beyond President Bush himself, no one has been as influential on issues of national security and executive power. The vice president has not only been a leading architect of the war in Iraq and the overall war on terrorism; he has championed the U.S.A. Patriot Act (story, Page 30), the controversial legislation designed to make it easier for law enforcement to hunt down suspected terrorists. And he has vigorously promoted domestic spying without warrants on suspected terrorists. These approaches have provoked angry objections from civil libertarians who say individual rights and liberties are being systematically eroded. But Cheney believes that the days are gone when the United States could use its power sparingly around the world to fight terrorism and promote democracy. Pumped full of intelligence reports of plots hatched, thwarted, and ongoing since 9/11, he believes an organized global terrorist movement has ended the era of "optional war." Instead, he says, the United States and its allies must take aggressive, pre-emptive action to neutralize the terrorists before they strike. "I believe in a strong, robust executive authority," Cheney said during a recent Mideast trip, "and I think that the world that we live in demands it." In wartime, he said, the president "needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired."