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."
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.
To that end, Cheney has been a hard-liner on national security and executive privilege. In 1987, as a member of Congress from Wyoming with a safe Republican seat, his view was that no matter what happened in the congressional investigation of the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal in the Reagan administration, it was important for Congress not to harm the presidency. He opposed limiting the institution's powers to make war, conduct foreign policy, and keep secrets.
He often took a tough stance as defense secretary during the George H.W. Bush administration, from 1989 to 1993, gaining the reputation as an unrepentant cold warrior. But he couldn't push too far because his boss and other senior officials, including Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, wouldn't go along. Says a longtime Cheney colleague who served with him in the first Bush administration: "He always had an ideological side, but the power was not there, so he had to bend to get things done. His attitudes are the same as they were before he became vice president, but now he has power and doesn't have to bend to the will of others."
Cheney was a constant defender of the military during the Persian Gulf War. When American bombs hit what Iraqis said was a "baby milk factory," Cheney took a typically hard line. He said the administration shouldn't accept all the blame for civilian casualties there because it was Saddam Hussein's fault that the noncombatants were placed in harm's way.
Swatting gnats. At the Pentagon after the end of the Cold War, Cheney supervised reductions in the Defense Department budget, including cuts in troop strength, bases, and weapons systems. Faced with constant opposition from Capitol Hill, he derided lawmakers as "a bunch of annoying gnats," a friend recalls. Business leaders, Cheney believed, were far more pragmatic with their no-nonsense focus on the bottom line, deepening his belief in privatization of some government operations. Cheney became a "principal player" in expanding the "military-industrial-congressional complex," according to Wilkerson, the former State Department official. One example: outsourcing elements of the Iraq occupation with contracts to Halliburton, the Houston-based oil services and construction company where Cheney was chief executive from 1995 to 2000.
His tenure at Halliburton was considered modestly successful, despite a merger he oversaw with Dresser Industries that cost Halliburton hundreds of millions of dollars because of huge asbestos liabilities (Cheney himself made more than $40 million in his five years there). A deft administrator and a decisive leader, Cheney came to see at Halliburton how much easier it is to conduct business in secret than in the public eye. "There's a fair amount of secrecy in the business, just to keep competitors from getting an edge on you," says Allen Mesch, an energy consultant in Texas. "But that kind of thing can be a style thing with him--the closed-door meeting. And the higher up you go in a company, the more paranoid you become about real and perceived threats."
"Cheney was not directly involved in the day-to-day operations of the company," adds Mesch, who is president of PetroStrategies Inc. "He was not a chief strategist, which is often played by someone in his position. His role was more of a door opener, leveraging his variety of international contacts. But that shouldn't be counted as a negative."
Cheney's crucible as vice president, of course, was 9/11. He was in Washington looking forward to a busy day at the White House while Bush was giving a talk at an elementary school in Florida. Minutes after the attacks, Cheney found himself in charge of Washington's response to the crisis. Cheney was hustled out of his office--lifted at the elbows by his Secret Service bodyguards and deposited in the Presidential Emergency Operating Center in the White House basement. Coordinating with his boss by secure phones and videoconferences, Cheney was unflappable, aides say, but the incident seared him. It was Cheney who recommended to Bush that he not return to Washington immediately because his safety couldn't be guaranteed. And it was Cheney who persuaded Bush to authorize Air Force pilots to intercept and, if necessary, destroy any commercial jetliners that seemed headed for another strike. Cheney describes this as "the toughest decision" he and Bush made that day. "He had a very conservative reaction to 9/11," says a Cheney associate. "He put the wagons in a circle and started shooting."
"Defeat, smash, and kill." Another confidant says Cheney concluded that America's policy from then on must be to "go out and defeat, smash, and kill the terrorists." Whether it's spying on terrorism suspects without a warrant, invading Afghanistan, occupying Iraq, or allowing American operatives to detain suspected terrorists, Cheney has been willing to do whatever it takes to prevent another 9/11. He is extremely proud that the administration has been successful so far. "It's not an accident that we haven't been hit in four years," he declares.
His critics say he has become a rigid ideologue, attempting to push democracy in the Middle East far beyond what is realistic for a region traditionally governed by autocrats. Some Democrats have accused Cheney and Bush of misleading the country about the necessity of war with Iraq, which Cheney denies. But he has made his share of blunders. He suggested, wrongly, that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq; he blames the mistake on intelligence failures. He predicted that American soldiers would be greeted as "liberators," not regularly bombed in the streets of Baghdad. Last spring, he said the insurgency was in its "last throes," further damaging his credibility.
Yet Cheney is undeterred in trying to work his will, mostly in private meetings with the president or through aides and allies in the executive branch who operate on his behalf. One of the consequences of the indictment and resignation of Lewis "Scooter" Libby as Cheney's chief of staff in the Valerie Plame/CIA leak case has been to deprive Cheney of a powerful and energetic advocate within the government. Libby was a savvy infighter who represented his boss at many senior-level meetings and aggressively promoted his agenda.
Mixed bag. Inside the White House, Cheney doesn't win every fight. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems to have more influence than her predecessor, Colin Powell, in pushing for international coalitions and departing from Cheney's first-term preference for a more unilateral approach to foreign-policy and security issues. The administration, for example, is working with China to curb the North Korean nuclear threat and with Europe to limit the nuclear threat from Iran (story, Page 27).
Late last year, Cheney tried to persuade Congress and other administration policymakers not to impose more restrictive rules on the handling of terrorist suspects, despite the black eye suffered by the United States over abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Cheney's campaign failed after he was portrayed as supporting torture in some cases.
But administration insiders say the vice president, often working in tandem with his former mentor, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, still wins far more victories than he loses. Both men are veterans of the Ford White House, the corporate world, and the Pentagon who believe the military is often the best executor of U.S. foreign policy. But Cheney has no interest in calling attention to personal successes. Sources tell U.S. News that Cheney remains deeply involved in policymaking on North Korea. He blocked a proposal by the lead U.S. negotiator, Chris Hill, to visit Pyongyang recently in an effort to jump-start talks on ending the suspected North Korean nuclear weapons program. Cheney insisted that North Korea first had to shut down its reactor at Yongbyon. The Pyongyang government refused, so the trip never happened. Cheney also is Bush's chief attack dog, which endears him to his boss. This is a traditional role of vice presidents, and Cheney performs it with unusual vigor. On Nov. 16, 2005, he said, "The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone, but we're not going to sit by and let them rewrite history."
A good fit. In some ways, Cheney is the perfect wartime consigliere for Bush. He brings to the table precisely the skills and background that Bush lacks. Cheney has an encyclopedic knowledge of national security policy and the federal government while Bush delegates many details to his subordinates. This gives the VP a huge opportunity to work his will. In some ways, they are an odd couple. Cheney (who turns 65 on January 30) is overweight, has suffered several heart attacks--the most recent in November of 2000--and has undergone bypass surgery, while Bush is a fitness nut. Cheney's political handlers long ago resigned themselves to his disdain for mixing and mingling; Bush loves to wade into crowds. While he is a voracious reader of history and biographies, Cheney doesn't follow popular culture. Early in his first term, he had never seen the caricatures of him on TV, including an impression by Darrell Hammond on Saturday Night Live. Ron Christie, a young Cheney adviser and author of Black in the White House: Life Inside George W. Bush's West Wing, made a tape of SNL episodes portraying Cheney as living in a cave or calling the shots from various "secure undisclosed locations" and gave it to the veep. Cheney got back to Christie with a reaction: "hilarious." Last month, Cheney invited Hammond to one of his holiday parties.
Cheney doesn't want to upstage his boss and never has. He generally shuns publicity because, unlike most other recent vice presidents, he has no plans to run for the top job himself. In fact, projecting a positive image is the last thing that the rotund, bespectacled, balding VP cares about.
Through everything, Cheney has remained a sought-after fundraiser for the party and a popular figure among many conservatives. A recent GOP poll found 78 percent of self-described conservative Republicans approve of Cheney's job performance. White House insiders tell U.S. News that while Cheney suffered some blows to his prestige, especially over the indictment and forced resignation of Libby, the vice president remains an unrivaled power center in the West Wing. And his relationship with the president remains strong, they say. Cheney was so confident of his position that he invited Libby to a holiday party at the vice presidential residence at the Naval Observatory--a thumb in the eye of his critics.
In times of trouble, Cheney turns to the example of George Washington, whose life he has studied in great detail. Washington was criticized for being aloof and imperial, as is Cheney. But the VP believes America's first president had a knack for seeing beyond the crisis of the moment and for not getting thrown off course by "background noise." It's the same path that Richard Bruce Cheney is trying to walk at the dawn of the 21st century.
With With Silla Brush, Jeff Kass, Thomas Omestad and Carol Flake Chapman
This story appears in the January 23, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.