The Cheney Factor
How the scars of public life shaped the vice president's unyielding view of executive power
Moments. To fully understand Cheney's worldview, it's instructive to examine his personal history, including the key moments of his long career in public life. These episodes produced--or confirmed--in him a deeply held set of conservative beliefs that he now, finally, has the power to implement.
A native of Lincoln, Neb., Cheney went to high school in the small, conservative Wyoming city of Casper. It was a pleasant Ozzie and Harriet existence, with strong families, safe neighborhoods, and self-reliant parents who kept close tabs on their kids. This is the way Cheney has always believed American life should be. Back then, Dick Cheney was a normal youth who hardly seemed destined for greatness. As a young man, he liked sports, enjoyed a few beers with his pals, and wasn't too interested in academics.
After dropping out of Yale with bad grades, he got serious about his life. He graduated from the University of Wyoming in Laramie as a political science major and went on to earn a master's degree in political science at Wyoming. "There was nothing flashy about Dick Cheney," says Dave Gribbin, who has known him since high school and served as his congressional chief of staff. A traditionalist at heart, Cheney married his high school sweetheart, Lynne Vincent; he'd been football team cocaptain, and she was a cheerleader. The couple quickly started a family, with two daughters.
It was at the University of Wyoming that Cheney immersed himself in history and political philosophy, showing particular curiosity for the social ideas of Hobbes and Locke, one a pessimist about human nature, one an optimist. "In those years, Cheney put some of the main building blocks of his philosophy together," says Gribbin. Among them are a belief that individuals can be trusted to pursue their best interests without government interference and the conviction that the United States is a blessed and unique nation whose concerns and values must be promoted vigorously around the world.
With a growing passion for politics, he moved to Washington on a congressional fellowship and ended up in Richard Nixon's Office of Economic Opportunity, where his work ethic, efficiency, and conservatism caught the eye of powerful people. One of his admirers was Donald Rumsfeld, who became White House chief of staff for President Ford after Nixon resigned in 1974. Rumsfeld installed Cheney as his deputy.
Cheney was troubled by what he felt was abuse heaped on Nixon and by the ridicule piled upon Ford for supposedly being an intellectual lightweight and a bumbler. Part of the problem, Cheney concluded, was the post-Watergate erosion of power and respect for the presidency as an institution. "The presidency was weakened," Cheney recalled in the U.S. News interview. "There were congressional efforts to rein in and to place limits on presidential authority." Among them were restrictions on what the commander in chief could do in gathering intelligence, limits on his ability to commit U.S. forces overseas, and checks on his ability to impound funds.
Cheney says the period after the Watergate scandal and at the end of the Vietnam War--when, still in his mid-30s, he became Ford's White House chief of staff--was "the nadir of the modern presidency in terms of authority and legitimacy."Cheney came to believe that the Founders were wise to invest strong powers in the executive, who can more easily lead the nation with a singular voice and act decisively in a crisis than is possible for the legislative branch. In the U.S. News interview, Cheney said he has held his views on a strong presidency for many years. "It has been a continuing theme, if you will, in terms of my career," he said.