Politics & Policy

Conservative in the White House

Dick Cheney in close-up.

It’s historic. It’s unprecedented. Vice President Dick Cheney spoke to Stephen F. Hayes for Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President for 30 hours of interviews. (Who knew he talked that much?) Hayes’s Cheney is a refreshingly fair, unexpectedly candid telling of the life so far of a man who came to conservatism through service; one who serves long after he ever expected to.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: First things first: What’s with this decaf-latte stuff you report? I’d figure Vice President Cheney for black coffee and scotch kinda guy.

Stephen F. Hayes: Me, too. By all accounts, he’s not a big drinker, but he does drink an occasional Scotch (Johnny Walker Red, at least when he’s with his fishing buddies). As surprising as the decaf latte? He likes a glass of white wine and used to be an avid tennis player.

Lopez: Cheney became a conservative by working in government. How did that happen?

Hayes: He saw the federal bureaucracy from the inside. Cheney was the director of operations for Richard Nixon’s Cost of Living Council, the body that drafted the Nixon Administration’s wage-and-price control rules. (Cheney was the typist at the all-night session where the specifics of those regulations were written.) There’s an irony here. I think many people, especially his critics, think of Cheney as “an ideologue.” While he obviously has strong views — and a long voting record as a conservative — it seems to me that he’s more an experiential conservative than an ideological one. Cheney had studied for his PhD in political science and brought to Washington a sort of detached, analytical approach to issues. My sense is that many college graduates or grad students come to Washington to change the world. Cheney, who had co-written an academic article on congressional voting patterns with one of his professors, came to see how things work. And in his early experiences, he saw that more often than not, they didn’t.

Lopez: We know there’s at least one big issue Cheney differs with many conservatives on (a federal marriage amendment). What kind of conservative did he wind up?

Hayes: He’s a pretty traditional western conservative. The government should do very few things, do them well, and otherwise stay out of the way. In a profile written when he became chief of staff in the Ford White House, Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon wrote that Cheney was regarded as a practical conservative “rather than as an ideologue.” Cheney summarized his emerging political philosophy this way: “Basically, I am skeptical about the ability of government to solve problems, and I have a healthy respect for the ability of people to solve problems on their own.”

Lopez: Everyone’s a “Reaganite,” as Cheney himself has said. What does he mean by that?

Hayes: We talked about that in the context of his work in the Ford administration and the elections of 1976 and 1980. Cheney was deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff to Gerald Ford, a moderate. When Ronald Reagan challenged Ford in the Republican primary in 1976, many of Ford’s campaign aides dismissed Reagan as “too extreme.” Ford himself would later say that Reagan was “unelectable” because of his conservative views. Cheney was intensely loyal to Ford, but never shared the disdain many of his colleagues felt toward Reagan and especially toward Reagan’s ideas. At one point shortly before the 1976 GOP convention, Cheney took a secret trip to Camp David with pollster Bob Teeter in an attempt to convince Ford to pick Reagan as his runningmate. And in the campaign brochure he produced for his first run for Congress in 1978, Cheney made Reaganesque arguments for tax cuts and for a leave-us-alone federal government. Despite this gradual turn, many of his colleagues still considered him a “Ford man.” Bob Michel, who was elected the House Republican leader in 1980, encouraged Cheney to run for a leadership position in the House because he thought Cheney was a moderate. “I just thought we were collectively — as a group — we were really so conservative that we needed a moderate.” Michel thought Cheney could “provide a voice of moderation to what was really a right-wing conservative leadership group.” (The news media said the same thing.) But Cheney was already well on his way to being a Reaganite.

Lopez: You quote Cheney having wanted to leave D.C. in 1976. He obviously didn’t. What kept him there? What was most compelling?

Hayes: Ford’s loss in the 1976 election really bothered him. Ford and his campaign team nearly erased a deficit of some 30 points in the final three months before losing a close race. Cheney made a list of all of the things they could have done differently to win and then tore it up. He told me that the experience made him want to run on his own.

Lopez: Richard Bruce Cheney was deputy press secretary for Ted Kennedy?!?

Hayes: Hard to believe, isn’t it? Cheney came to Washington as a congressional fellow and spent the first half of his fellowship working for Representative Bill Steiger, a young Republican from Wisconsin. The fellows were encouraged to work for a new member — in a different chamber — for the second half. Cheney drew an assignment in Kennedy’s office, where he was told he’d be working as deputy press secretary. Although he did not have any ideological objections to working for Kennedy, Steiger had given him a lot of responsibility and Cheney wanted to stay in his office. As it happened, Cheney was friends with Bob Bates, the congressional fellow who worked for Kennedy during the first half of the program and who wanted to stay with the Massachusetts senator. So Cheney paid a visit to Kennedy — just so that he could say he’d done so — and went back to work for Steiger. “I don’t think Kennedy realizes it to this day,” Cheney says.

Lopez: Why is former Congressman Cheney so fond of the House?

Hayes: It was somewhat liberating for him because he was his own man. He was also able to influence debates in the House early, having been elected to leadership after just one term. I think he remembers it as a collegial place, a place where he not only got along with members from both parties, but in some cases became close friends with Democrats. And although his job as vice president makes him president of the Senate, my sense is that he regards of that body as institutionally arrogant and overly stuffy. I think he prefers the less-polished characters that populate the House to the haughtiness of the Senate.

Lopez: Had George Bush decided pretty early on in the campaign that Cheney would be his veep?

Hayes: I’m not sure he decided early, but he certainly had it in his mind. They had a conversation in November 1999 — before the Republican primaries — in which Bush asked Cheney if he’d consider joining the ticket. Bush had been impressed with Cheney during meetings of his campaign’s foreign policy and national security advisers, taking note of the fact that the other big-thinkers in the room seemed to defer to Cheney with some regularity. Later, when Cheney would come in to brief Bush on the vice presidential search in the spring and summer of 2000, Bush would often joke at the end of the sessions that Cheney was the answer to his problems, and the president told me that he had his eye on Cheney throughout that entire process.

Lopez: Is it a co-presidency? Is Cheney the evil genius behind the buffoon Bush?

Hayes: That’s a myth. Without exception, everyone who has worked with the two men say that it’s clear who is in charge. There’s little question that Bush takes Cheney’s advice seriously, but at the end of the day it’s just advice. Cheney is a lot more conservative than Bush. If there had been anything close to a co-presidency I think we would not have seen, for instance, the explosion in spending that the Bush presidency has given us.

Lopez: Dick Cheney was an ardent Rumsfeld loyalist. Was that all loyalty to a guy who brought him along in the political world with him? Or did he really truly think he was the best defense secretary we ever had?

Hayes: Good question. There is no question that Cheney is filled with intense loyalty to Rumsfeld. After all, Rumsfeld was not only his political mentor (and later a good friend), he may have saved Cheney’s career when the FBI raised concerns with President Ford about Cheney’s two DUIs. But the two men were not always in lockstep on issues. Condoleezza Rice told me that Cheney and Rumsfeld disagreed on policy far more often than one might suspect reading news accounts of the administration. “They don’t always see eye to eye on things,” she said. “Not by any means.”

Lopez: You wrote The Connection. Dick Cheney has probably made the best case for the war — explaining how Afghanistan and Iraq are both fronts in the war on terror — of anyone in the administration. Why wasn’t he out there more making the case? Or why wasn’t someone using his talking points?

Hayes: That’s a question that could only come from a conservative. Most of our colleagues in the news media believe that Cheney made the worst case for war. The same people believe that there were no connections between Iraq and al Qaeda, too. One person who had interesting views on both of those subjects was L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in postwar Iraq. Bremer, who is not a Cheney acolyte, was baffled that the White House didn’t use the vice president more. “He’s one of the people in the administration who probably best understands the relationship of what we’re doing in Iraq to the war on terrorism. At least judging from his public statements he understands it very well. Says it, articulates it better than anybody else — than Powell or Rumsfeld or Rice. He really gets it.” I asked Bremer about the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. “I don’t think there’s any question about that…This idea that there was no relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam is just wrong. Flat wrong on the record.”

Lopez: On the “16 Words” controversy: You write, in explaining a Nick Kristof article that contended that the Bush administration lied: “But the truth was considerably more complicated and would take years to unravel entirely.” Has it been?

Hayes: We’re getting there, thanks in no small part to Byron York’s excellent reporting. But those complicated truths are a bit too much to hope for at this point when even the simplest truths have been buried or ignored. For example, most reporters still believe that Joseph Wilson went to Niger and returned to debunk forged documents about an Iraq-Niger uranium transaction. They’re wrong. That didn’t happen. Wilson went to Niger in February 2002 and the U.S. government didn’t receive the forged documents until October 2002. Despite his numerous claims to the contrary, Wilson did not debunk the documents because doing so would have been impossible. And to CIA the analysts who paid attention to what Wilson said upon returning, his report strengthened early intelligence suggesting Iraq’s interest in uranium from Niger. Wilson changed his story only after he was confronted by a keen-eyed investigator from the Senate Intelligence Committee, who understood that his claims could not have been true.

Another example: Senator Carl Levin wrote to the CIA the day after Bush spoke the 16 words in his 2002 State of the Union, asking whether the Agency supported the claim. The CIA responded one month later by defending the intelligence in Bush’s speech, telling Levin “reporting suggest[s] Iraq had attempted to acquire uranium from Niger.” And not only did the CIA back Bush’s claim, it did so in part by pointing to a document based on the “intelligence report on the former Ambassador’s trip to Niger.”

All of which makes much more understandable the eagerness of Cheney and his staff to correct the misimpressions Wilson was sowing in a friendly media.

Lopez: Had he had his way, would Cheney have done Iraq differently?

Hayes: It’s hard to tell. So much of what he thought about how to do Iraq remains a mystery even to those people who served with him at the highest levels of the Bush administration. But there are hints that he would have done some things differently. He told me that he thought establishing the Coalition Provisional Authority was a mistake and that we should have immediately put in place a government of Iraqis.

Lopez: Are there issues you weren’t able to get into in the book that the vice president has a lot of influence over?

Hayes: I was surprised by how candid he was with me on a wide range of subjects, on personal issues as well as his political life and his views on policy. But there were several times he simply cut off conversation on a subject. He wouldn’t discuss the Libby prosecution and anytime I pressed on issues that could have taken us into anything classified he refused to answer.

Lopez: Was it hard to get a man who likes to be behind the scenes to talk to you for thirty-some hours of interviews?

Hayes: I heard probably a dozen times from his friends and colleagues that they were surprised he had agreed to talk to me for the book. And I’m not sure he was eager to do it when I first proposed the idea. But once we got started, he was very easy to talk to. At the beginning of the first book-specific interview, I asked him about his family and what it was like to grow up in Nebraska during the 1940s. I had thought long and hard about starting with such a personal subject because he is so famously private about his family. I think he talked for nearly 30 minutes without interruption, which has to be some kind of Dick Cheney record.

Lopez: The commutation is something, but do you have any indication that the vice president is ticked Scooter Libby has not been given a full pardon?

Hayes: No, I don’t. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by speculating — and it is just speculation — that Cheney would like a pardon for Scooter Libby.

Lopez: Some of us wanted Lynne Cheney to be the new senator from Wyoming when there was that opening recently. Why didn’t she ever run for anything? The man hold her back? (I like to sound like a feminist sometimes to throw people off.)

Hayes: Good question, and I don’t know the answer. She has some experience as a candidate. Sort of. When Cheney first ran for Congress, he had a heart attack the summer before the election. His doctor told him to take it easy for several weeks and by all accounts Lynne filled in quite capably.

Lopez: If Dick Cheney could have really been president for a day on Saturday during W’s colonoscopy — and he could have really done whatever the heck he wanted — what do you imagine he might have done?

Hayes: Maybe fly-fishing as president?

Lopez: The vice president really likes his fly fishing, doesn’t he? Did you ever fly fish with Dick Cheney? I assume it’s safer than going hunting with Dick Cheney. (Sorry, Mr. Vice President.)

Hayes: He does. His library at the vice president’s residence is filled with books like Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream and Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout, and I’m reliably informed that he actually reads stuff like that.

Alas, I never got an invitation to fish with him. (And I would have been clueless if I had.)

Lopez: Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney have some colorful history, don’t they? Can we start a Cheney-Gingrich 2008 late-entering ticket rumor right now? How might that go?

Hayes: There would be some pretty intense disagreements over executive power.

Lopez: Is Liz Cheney working for Fred Thompson a sign of whom the vice president may support?

Hayes: I think Liz and her father have very similar views on foreign policy and national security. But I don’t think he’ll support anyone before the Republican nomination is decided.

Lopez: What’s your favorite Cheney story?

Hayes: There are so many interesting stories to choose from. The day after Cheney was sworn in as Secretary of Defense was a Saturday. Cheney was in early. He had important things to do — “you know, figuring out where the restroom was and all that stuff” — and wanted to get a head start on the coming paperwork deluge that would greet him Monday morning. But shortly after he arrived, he was summoned to the White House for a meeting with the president. It was urgent.

Cheney made his way to the elevator located directly in his new office. He punched the button for the garage and waited as he was delivered to his limousine. He stepped out of the elevator. There was no car, there were no people. He was alone in the basement — not where he was supposed to be. He turned to board the elevator to try another floor and faced another problem. There was no call button — a reasonable security measure to keep would-be troublemakers from riding directly from the basement into the secretary’s office — but real trouble for Cheney. He grew impatient as he thought about his dilemma. “It’s a Saturday morning, nobody’s around and the president is waiting for me over in the Oval Office.” After a quick search, he found the stairs that would take him upstairs. He burst through the doors into the garage and through a set of glass doors he took in the chaotic scene outside his limousine: Agents from his security detail were barking out questions to one another — “Where the hell is he? What happened to the secretary?” — and trying to locate the man they were supposed to protect with their lives.

Cheney, amused, wanted to project calm. “I tied my tie and opened the door and walked out like I knew exactly what I was doing,” he says. “And I got in the car and nobody ever had the nerve to ask me, ‘Hey, where the hell were you?’”

“That was my first day on the job. Lost in the basement of the Pentagon.”

<em>Cheney</em>, by Stephen F. Hayes



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