The Other Side of Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney (with Liz Cheney), In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir (Threshold, 2011), 565 pages, US$35. 

If the public perception of the forty-sixth Vice-President of the United States of America is to be believed, Richard Bruce Cheney was a callous, shady, backroom manipulator, the real power behind the throne in the Bush administration, who used President George W. Bush as a puppet for his own agenda. Some critics compared him to Darth Vader. In Oliver Stone’s biopic W, Cheney, portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss, is depicted as a manipulative, machiavellian sociopath, who takes pleasure at the prospect of the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In his recently released memoir, In My Time, Dick Cheney documents his childhood, university years, introduction to politics, his roles in the Nixon and Ford administrations, his congressional career, his time as Secretary for Defense in the Bush Snr administration, his career as CEO of Halliburton, a leading energy corporation, and, of course, his controversial tenure as Vice-President from 2001 until 2009.

It could well be argued that Cheney was an accidental politician, and that his membership of the Republican Party was coincidental since, in his early years, he could have just as easily been a conservative Democrat.

Cheney was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, into a family of New Deal Democrats, and raised in Casper, Wyoming. He attended Natrona County High School where he played in the football and baseball teams, and where he met Lynne Vincent, whom he would later marry.

After finishing high school, Cheney was awarded a scholarship to Yale University and, although he withdrew from the course, he was, nonetheless, deeply impressed by the teachings of Political Science Professor Holt Bradford Westerfield, whom Cheney credits for having helped shape his views on foreign policy.

After dropping out of Yale, Cheney returned to Wyoming, where he held down a number of labouring jobs, including building power lines across the countryside. It was during this period that he was arrested for driving under the influence, after heavy drinking sessions with his workmates in local pubs, an incident which forced him to rethink his life and make the decision to enrol at the University of Wyoming, where he eventually obtained a Master of Arts degree in Political Science. Initially intending to make a career in academia, Cheney began a course in doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. However, subsequent events would prevent him from finishing the course. It was during this time that he first encountered Donald Rumsfeld.

The relationship between Cheney and Rumsfeld has been one of immense speculation and controversy. The two have frequently been labelled as the shadowy puppet masters of the Bush administration. Few people would be aware that the two of them got off to a cold start.

Whilst enrolled in a congressional fellowship program, Cheney applied to work in the office of Donald Rumsfeld, at the time a congressman representing Illinois’s thirteenth Congressional District, after hearing him speak at an orientation seminar for the fellowship. Cheney describes how his interview with Rumsfeld was over in a matter of fifteen minutes, with Rumsfeld promptly turning him down, saying, “This isn’t going to work but thanks for coming in.” (In his own memoir, Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld claims that his reason for turning Cheney down on that occasion was because his office needed a lawyer, not a budding academic.) Little did either know that, within a year, the two would be working together at the Office of Economic Opportunity.

When Rumsfeld was appointed the Director of the OEO, Cheney was working as an intern for Congressman Bill Steiger, who was a friend of Rumsfeld and had helped him prepare for his Senate confirmation hearings. Cheney had written a memo about how Rumsfeld should not only handle the hearings, but also how he should manage the OEO once he was in charge. Steiger had been impressed by the memo and passed it on to Rumsfeld. On the same day that Rumsfeld was sworn in, Cheney got a call from Frank Carlucci, a future Secretary of Defense, who was part of Rumsfeld’s team, asking if he could be part of a task force at the department. Despite the fact that Rumsfeld was obviously impressed with the Cheney’s memo, he certainly didn’t show it, as Cheney recalls of their very brief meeting in Rumsfeld’s office on the day that Cheney joined the organisation: 

Rumsfeld was seated at a desk, poring over a thick file. He didn’t look up, so I had a chance to observe his office. It had windows on two sides, none of them too clean, as I remember it. There was a desk, a sofa, and a coffee table that had clearly seen better days. A couple of cans were strategically placed under dark spots on the ceiling. Finally he looked up and pointed at me. “You, you’re congressional relations,” he said. “Now get the hell out of here.” 

Notwithstanding Rumsfeld’s well-documented tough demeanour, Cheney outlines the deep respect that grew between them during the time they worked at the OEO together, and how Rumsfeld always stood by his employees.

Little did Cheney know that, by accepting what he thought would be a one-year job, he was saying goodbye to the prospect of an academic career. A series of subsequent events, including Watergate, would see him rise up through the government ranks, serving on President Gerald Ford’s transition team and eventually becoming White House Chief of Staff for the remainder of Ford’s term.

After Ford left office in 1977, following his defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter, Cheney was elected to the House of Representatives, representing Wyoming’s single congressional district. He was re-elected five times, eventually becoming the Minority Whip. As a member of the House of Representatives, Cheney was known as a unifying figure, and made strong friendships on both sides of the political divide, including Democrat Lee Hamilton, with whom he sat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Cheney also sat on the House Ethics Committee, and recalls one of the committee’s most difficult cases during his term. Democrat Charles Diggs, a prominent campaigner in the civil rights movement and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, had been convicted of taking kickbacks from his congressional staff, but was re-elected by his constituents while appealing against his conviction. Cheney recalls how an incensed group of members, led by Newt Gingrich, were demanding Diggs’s expulsion. However, the Ethics Committee recommended censure instead, a decision which Cheney was happy to defend in a speech to the House of Representatives: 

Much as I deplore Mr Diggs’s unethical behaviour, much as I believe that he should no longer serve in the House of Representatives, I cannot support the contention that this body should now take the unprecedented step in these circumstances, of setting aside the right of the voters of Michigan’s 13th District to select the congressman of their choice. 

This act of decency and integrity on Cheney’s part is out of step with the popular view of him as an unprincipled political operator.

It was only by pure coincidence that Cheney received President George H.W. Bush’s nomination as the seventeenth United States Secretary of Defense. Bush Snr’s original choice had been former Republican Senator John Tower of Texas. However, due to numerous allegations against Tower of womanising and drunken behaviour, the Senate rejected his nomination. After initially calling on Cheney for advice on a replacement candidate, Bush ended up nominating him to replace Tower, a move that surprised many. During his tenure, Cheney was responsible for both the 1989 United States invasion of Panama, which removed dictator General Manuel Noriega from power, and Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 military response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. 

It was, however, Cheney’s two terms as Vice-President under George W. Bush that have made him such a controversial figure. Claims that Cheney was the real power behind the Bush administration are proven wrong on several fronts, the first being Cheney’s reluctance to accept Bush’s offer to be his running mate for the 2000 presidential election.

According to Cheney, he was first approached by the then Governor of Texas about the prospect of being Bush’s campaign manager at a party that the Cheneys were hosting at their home for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Cheney turned down the offer due to his full-time job as CEO of Halliburton. In early 2000, Cheney was again approached by the Bush campaign, this time with the offer of being Bush’s running mate, an offer he turned down partly due to the three heart attacks he had suffered, the first in his thirties. He did, however, agree to lead Bush’s search for a vice-presidential nominee. When the committee that Cheney formed couldn’t find a suitable running mate, he eventually relented and accepted Bush’s nomination. At the time, neither of them had any idea of the turbulent times ahead. They began with the tightly contested presidential election and Democrat nominee Al Gore’s undignified behaviour on election night, followed ten months later by the September 11 attacks, which led to the beginning of the War on Terror.

The second point on which Cheney’s critics can be proven wrong is the notorious Plame Affair. Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was indicted for making a false statement about the leaking of the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose husband, Joseph Wilson, was a fervent critic of the Iraq War. Cheney disputes claims that Libby’s statement was deliberately false, instead suggesting that it was due to faulty memory. Libby was sentenced to thirty months imprisonment and, although Cheney urged President Bush to issue a pardon, Bush merely commuted the sentence so that Libby would avoid prison but still have the conviction recorded against him. In describing his thoughts on this situation, Cheney recalls, “George Bush made some courageous decisions as president and, to this day I wish that pardoning Scooter Libby had been one of them.”

Another controversial element of Cheney’s tenure as Vice-President is his support for the use of enhanced interrogation techniques—misleadingly referred to as torture by his critics—against terror suspects. As Cheney outlines in Chapter 11, not only did the interrogation program have bipartisan support in Congress, it was also effective in extracting information from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, and Abu Zubaydah, one of Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants. This information prevented several future terrorist attacks, not only on US soil, but around the world. Futhermore, Cheney claims that the intelligence gained through the interrogations helped the USA locate Bin Laden’s hideout in May 2011. In defending the interrogation program, Cheney is also very critical of Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for trying to introduce a bill to end the program. He also pillories Barack Obama for not only ending the program, but also for ignoring the advice of the CIA and publicly releasing the legal memos which detailed the techniques used in interrogations, and instructing the new Attorney-General Eric Holder to reopen an investigation of the CIA personnel who carried out the program, threatening them with prosecution.

Cheney recalls some humorous moments of his career, such as during his tenure as Secretary for Defense, when he accidentally got himself locked in the basement of The Pentagon, creating a security panic, and falling asleep in the Cabinet Room of the White House, an image the President ensured was photographed.

Cheney also describes an incident in August 2002, when he was preparing for a teleconference with a group of Iraqi exiles opposed to Saddam Hussein. While the exiles were waiting for Cheney to appear on camera from his home in Wyoming, his four-year-old granddaughter Elizabeth came into the study dressed as a princess. Unaware she was being watched, she began jumping around and pulling faces at herself, watching her reflection in what she thought was a blank screen. After she had been hustled off by one of his aides, Cheney, unaware of what had just happened, sat down and said to the delegation watching him: “I’m here with my chief of staff.” Much to Cheney’s bemusement, the Iraqi exiles found his statement hilarious.

In My Time is not only an excellent insight into the real Dick Cheney and his family and personal life, but also a fascinating look at American history and politics. It should be read by anyone interested in either subject. 

Kieran Morris wrote an exposé of the organisation GetUp! in Quadrant in March 2011. 

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