Posted: April 18, 2008
heney Derangement Syndrome is threatening the mental health of the cultural and political Left. In the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow, an evil Cheney-like figure lets global warming abruptly turn into an ice age. In a recent Newsweek article, Christopher Dickey consulted his father's novelDeliverance, comparing Cheney to the obsessive character that Burt Reynolds played in the movie. Representative Dennis Kucinich even stopped chasing UFOs long enough to introduce articles of impeachment.
Stephen F. Hayes's new biography is a useful corrective. Hayes interviewed hundreds of sources, including President Bush and Cheney himself. The result is a thorough portrait at odds with the grotesque images that Cheney's critics like to peddle.
As the book shows, Cheney rose through smarts and self-discipline. But it also describes a time in which Cheney flunked out of Yale and became a hard-drinking, blue-collar guy. Lynne Vincent, soon to be his wife, prodded him back to academic and professional excellence. Cheney benefited not only from a great spouse but from providential mentors, especially Donald Rumsfeld.
Hayes's account helps us understand Cheney's conservatism. As a junior White House aide under Rumsfeld, he helped draft Nixon's wage and price controls. The ill-fated rules, Cheney tells Hayes, "moved me pretty radically in the free-market direction, the importance of limited government."
Hayes tells how Cheney's tenure as President Ford's chief of staff also shaped his view of the world. Ford was the only president who had never appeared on a national ticket. Though history has vindicated his pardon of President Nixon, the decision was wildly unpopular at the time. Accordingly, Ford held a weak political hand. Meanwhile, Congress was reacting to the Nixon years by trying aggressively to curb the power of the White House. The frustrations of that time deepened Cheney's resolve to reverse the trend.
A few years later, when James Baker was taking on Cheney's former job in the White House, Cheney's top advice to Baker was: "Restore power and authority to the executive branch."
As a member of Congress during the 1980s, Cheney contributed to that goal with a strong pro-Reagan voting record. He led House Republicans on the special committee to investigate Iran-Contra. While acknowledging White House mistakes, Cheney fought to protect the institution of the presidency. Hayes quotes a key passage from the committee's minority report: "Unconstitutional statutes violate the rule of law every bit as much as do willful violations of congressional statutes." That line would foreshadow the Bush-Cheney argument against congressional overreaching on national security.
With a focus on explaining the Cheney vice presidency, Hayes gives scant attention to key aspects of his congressional career. During the 1980s, Minority Leader Bob Michel of Illinois held that a certain degree of bipartisanship was necessary to enacting President Reagan's agenda. Newt Gingrich argued that the Republicans could attain majority status only by highlighting their partisan differences. As a member of the leadership, Cheney served as a bridge between the two factions. During this period, House Republicans changed internal procedures to strengthen the office of Republican Leader. Most expected that they were preparing the way for Cheney to assume the post. But when Cheney became Defense Secretary, Newt Gingrich succeeded him as whip and heir apparent. The book would have been more useful to students of Congress if Hayes had explored the Cheney-Gingrich relationship.
Hayes does yeoman work in describing Cheney's tenure at the Pentagon, though Bob Woodward and others already covered much of this ground. He devotes more than a third of the book to the past seven years of Cheney's life, spanning the 2000 campaign and the vice presidency. Did Cheney change during this time? Hayes quotes a senior Bush aide on the impact of 9/11: "He was less animated, less—he was more somber, more reflective about international challenges."
For the most part, however, the book describes remarkable continuity in Cheney's character and philosophy. As vice president, he has remained a champion of a strong national defense and a strong executive. Apart from the well-publicized incident in which he told Senator Patrick Leahy to perform an impossible act, he has maintained the low-key personal style that he brought to Washington decades ago.
It will be many years before key documents are available to journalists and scholars. And while Cheney gave Hayes unusual access, he was guarded about revealing the administration's inner workings. Accordingly, this book will not be the last word.
But it does help answer a question: if Cheney has not changed in any fundamental way, why did public opinion turn so sharply against him? Obviously, his role in the Iraq war is part of the explanation. But it doesn't account for the harshly personal tone of the criticism. Google the words "Cheney" and "evil," and you get more than a half million hits.
The book suggests another reason—Cheney's refusal to practice the petty arts of popularity. As Hayes reminds us, "he never wavered in his conviction that he had been elected to advise the president, not talk to journalists."
"Cheney is not a hugger," President Bush acknowledges to Hayes. Maybe that's a good thing. In Federalist 70, Hamilton lists the qualities of an energetic executive: unity, duration in office, adequate provision for support, and competent powers. "Hugging" is conspicuously absent.