Will Need to Be Tough at Pentagon : Likable Dick Cheney Can Get Mad When He Has To
This time, mild-mannered Dick Cheney was really mad. House Speaker Jim Wright had broken the one ironclad rule of politics: a deal is a deal.
After barely losing a key vote on a budget bill in October, 1987, Wright adjourned the House temporarily, reconvened it shortly afterward and twisted the rules to bring the measure up immediately for another vote. Wright let all time for voting expire, then won back the allegiance of a Texas Democrat who had strayed on the issue--thus carrying the bill for the majority.
The next morning, Cheney, then the third-ranking Republican in the House, unleashed his anger in an interview with the National Journal, a magazine widely read on Capitol Hill.
Calling Wright a “heavy-handed son of a bitch,” Cheney accused the Speaker of arrogant abuse of power. “He doesn’t know any other way to operate,” Cheney fumed, “and he will do anything he can to win at any price, including ignoring the rules, bending rules, writing rules, denying the House the opportunity to work its will. It brings disrespect on the House itself.”
Was this Dick Cheney, the soft-spoken conciliator, the political scholar who can disagree without being disagreeable? The man President Bush described last week as “a thoughtful, a quiet man”?
Absolutely, says his wife, Lynne V. Cheney, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “It’s a quiet, cold sort of anger, not an outburst,” she said. It’s a tool, one he uses selectively, but to great effect, she added.
And on the rare occasions that her husband loses his temper, it is usually at “somebody double-dealing, somebody not keeping a bargain,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
Dick Cheney, 48, today is on the verge of being confirmed--anointed, some say--as the nation’s 17th secretary of defense. He is portrayed by political friends and rivals alike as bright, articulate, fair, unflappable and eminently likable.
But he will need to be tough, too, and sometimes angry, as he moves across the Potomac to the Pentagon, which sits mired in scandal and virtually paralyzed by an absence of top managers in the aftermath of the nasty and prolonged confirmation battle over John Tower, President Bush’s first choice as defense secretary.
Cheney, a Wyoming Republican in his sixth term in the House, is everything former Texas Sen. Tower is not. Cheney is balding, gray-suited and soothing; Tower is pomaded, London-tailored and abrasive.
Cheney is cool, Tower is hot. Cheney is dull, Tower is sharp. Cheney has no enemies on the Hill. Tower, in the end, did not have enough friends.
And Cheney shortly will be defense secretary. Tower will not.
Former Rep. Tom Loeffler (R-Tex.), a close friend and political ally of both Cheney and Bush, said that no one could serve Bush better than Cheney.
“He is a strong, stable and stout negotiator,” Loeffler said. “Dick has tremendous respect and credibility among his peers in the House and Senate and on both sides of the aisle. There is no question that the President’s selection of Dick Cheney is a slam dunk.”
Cheney came to Washington as a young man in the late 1960s, quickly rising by virtue of brains and astute connections to become former President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of staff in 1975-1977. After Ford was defeated in his bid for election in 1976, Cheney was briefly a banker in Washington, then moved back to his native Wyoming to run for the state’s sole seat in the House.
During that campaign, Cheney good-humoredly made a point of the fact that he is not a lawyer or a Washington sharpie. Referring to his home town, Cheney used to tell delighted crowds: “It was so cold up in Casper that all the lawyers had their hands in their own pockets.”
At another point in the race, Cheney entered a small town, stopped by the saloon in search of votes and found one elderly voter alone at the bar. Cheney introduced himself.
“You a Democrat?” the man asked. “Nope,” Cheney said.
“You a lawyer?” the man asked. “Nope,” Cheney said.
“I’ll vote for you,” the man said.
Cheney demonstrated a sense of humor and a healthy dose of humility during that campaign, his first run for public office, after suffering the first of his three heart attacks early in the race.
After spending several weeks recovering, he formed a mythical group called “Cardiacs for Cheney” and wrote a highly personal two-page letter to all the state’s Republicans, explaining that he had given up his three-pack-a-day cigarette addiction and learned a lot about life from the crisis.
“No one,” he later told reporters, “had ever tried the heart-attack gimmick before.”
It worked. He won the 1978 race and has been unassailable ever since.
“He’s tough as nails when he needs to be,” said Republican Jack Gage, who lost a 1978 primary race to Cheney. “He’s like a father who doesn’t need to raise his voice.”
For Wyoming’s citizens, Dick and Lynne Cheney’s childhood in Casper and their ascent into Washington’s political stratosphere has been “like a movie script,” as long-time family friend Mary Meyer of Casper put it last weekend.
“He’s the same guy with the funny little smile--quiet, steady, good for his word,” said another childhood chum, Michael Golden, now a Wyoming Supreme Court justice. “You don’t see anything he does or says that suggests he considers himself important. He puts on no airs.”
Cheney’s small-town childhood was undiluted Norman Rockwell.
His mother, Marjorie Cheney, said that as a young child Dick would sit for long stretches on his grandfather’s lap while he read the Saturday Evening Post aloud. The Cheneys built a modest ranch house on the edge of the Casper city limits, where the side yard extended out for miles of high prairie to the mountains east of town. Dick delivered the Casper Star-Tribune and worked at the dime store in town.
His boyhood friend Joseph Meyer, now Wyoming’s attorney general, recalled that his and Cheney’s families could not afford a motorboat for water skiing. So they improvised, making crude water skis from old boards and using Meyer’s 1950 Plymouth convertible to pull skiers along an irrigation ditch.
The boys met for weekly poker games in Cheney’s parents’ garage. They shot pool, fished in nearby streams and hunted rabbits on the plains outside of town. On Saturday night, said Cheney friend David Nicholas, a former Wyoming state senator, they would cruise Casper’s main drag “from one A&W; root beer joint to the other” and park with girlfriends on C Hill overlooking town.
‘Age of Innocence’
“It was an age of innocence,” said Karen Nicholas, another Casperite who grew up and married her high school sweetheart.
Dick, the brainy captain of the football team and senior class president, fell in love with Lynne Anne Vincent, the studious homecoming queen and chief of the baton squad. A six-year courtship spanned their early college years and culminated in a 1964 wedding.
Casper oilman Tom Stroock, a Yale graduate, saw in Cheney “the kind of young man I would like to see Wyoming send out in the world.” He persuaded Cheney to apply to his alma mater.
But for Cheney, Yale was a painful encounter with unfamiliar territory and better-prepared classmates from the nation’s top prep schools and big suburban high schools.
He dropped out after his second year, having lost his scholarship because of poor grades. He returned to Casper and worked as an electrician, laying power lines from F. E. Warren Air Force Base to ballistic missile silos.
When he returned to college classes at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, he was more serious and more comfortable with his surroundings and his classmates. After he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science, he and Lynne moved to Madison, Wis., to pursue advanced degrees at the University of Wisconsin in 1966. He never finished his, but she earned a doctorate in 19th-Century British literature.
Cheney is remembered by his former professors at the University of Wisconsin as an outstanding student, a serious, scholarly type who successfully juggled the demands of graduate school, family and jobs as both a teaching assistant and a staff aide to Wisconsin Gov. Warren Knowles, a Republican.
“During that period of time, the University of Wisconsin was second only to Berkeley as a so-called hotbed of student unrest, but many of us attended graduate school at the time without getting caught up in that,” said Gerald Whitburn, who was a student there at the same time as Cheney.
He avoided the military because his family and his student status won him deferment from the draft.
With the help of his professors, Cheney won a congressional fellowship. He worked for the late Wisconsin Rep. William A. Steiger and met then-Rep. Donald H. Rumsfeld of Illinois, who became his friend and mentor.
After his brief career on Capitol Hill, Cheney took a succession of jobs in Richard M. Nixon’s Administration, serving as assistant to the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, White House staff aide and assistant director of the Cost of Living Council under Rumsfeld.
When Nixon resigned in 1974, President Ford appointed Rumsfeld White House chief of staff, with Cheney as deputy. A year later, when Rumsfeld became secretary of defense, Cheney moved into the chief of staff job at age 34.
“He’s always been mature past his years,” said David Hume Kennerly, a photographer who served with Cheney in the Ford White House.
Kennerly recalled that Cheney also had a knack for finding solutions to sticky political problems. Cheney thought that Ford looked stupid wearing all the hats that people presented him as gifts and he did not want any more front-page pictures of the President in ludicrous headgear. When a West Virginia politician insisted on presenting the President with a coonskin cap, Cheney found a way out--to nail the cap to a board so that Ford couldn’t wear it.
“The perfect solution to a difficult problem,” Kennerly said. “Cheney could deal with a small matter or a big one with equal aplomb.”
Phillip Buchen, Ford’s White House counsel, said that the chief of staff job under Ford was not what it was under Nixon or, later, Ronald Reagan. Cheney did not function as Ford’s principal adviser and door-keeper, Buchen said, insteading serving as coordinator of the work of other top staffers.
After Ford’s close loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election, Cheney went to work for the small Washington investment house of Bradley Woods & Co., where he did research on economic and legislative issues. “I can’t think of anything he’s not qualified to do,” said the firm’s vice president, Tony Brush.
But Cheney quickly grew restless and decided to run for Congress. Moving to Capitol Hill as a first-term lawmaker after holding a top White House job was a difficult adjustment, but one Cheney handled deftly, according to Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced).
“His problem was, did he come in as freshman or as former chief of staff? He came as a freshman,” Coelho said. “He understood his role and he performed it excellently. So well, in fact, that he quickly gained the trust and support of his colleagues and ended up in a leadership role.”
Late last year, Cheney was unanimously elected minority whip, the House Republicans’ second-ranking post. He was able to unite the party’s radical right-wingers with its moderate and progressive blocs because of his personality and his diligence in defending his party’s--and his President’s--interests in Congress.
As the ranking House Republican on the Iran-Contra investigating committee in 1987, Cheney won a reputation as a hard-liner in support of President Reagan and his aides. He fought hard on rules of evidence and argued persuasively that the President had the sole right to conduct foreign policy.
Former Rep. Jim Jones, an Oklahoma Democrat who has opposed Cheney on policy but admires him personally, said that his old rival has grown more partisan in the past couple of years. “I defend him,” Jones said. “It’s very hard to be a Republican in the House of Representatives. You’re not in charge and never will be in charge. That’s been hard for Cheney.”
Cheney admits that he dislikes the minority role.
“You do not win by being a nice guy,” Cheney said in a magazine interview last year. “The problem is that (the Democrats) run the House, and the minority can go along and get crumbs or we can be tough.”
Good to Work For
Cheney is tough, his staff acknowledges, but he is a pleasure to work for. He puts in long but not unreasonable hours. “He’s not obsessive,” one aide said.
Despite three heart attacks in 10 years and quadruple bypass surgery last summer, his doctor has pronounced him fit for all activities. He skis, plays tennis, backpacks and rides horses for relaxation.
He indulges in an occasional Budweiser but does not qualify as even a social drinker, friends say. He loves popcorn and enjoys cooking for his family and friends. When he can’t prepare trout from the streams of northern Wyoming, he is often spied hanging around the fish counter at a supermarket in suburban McLean, Va.
The Cheneys have two daughters, Elizabeth, 22, who works in Washington at the Agency for International Development, and Mary, 20, a sophomore at Colorado College.
Coelho considers Cheney uniquely qualified, intellectually and temperamentally, for the demanding job of defense secretary. “He knows himself, he’s not afraid of himself and he’s not afraid to stand up for what he believes in,” Coelho said. “I call that inner peace.
“We don’t agree at all on a lot of political and philosophical things; we’re totally different politically. But he’s the kind of guy you’d want as a friend. He won’t turn his back on you. And that’s very important in my business.”
Staff writers James Gerstenzang, Eric Harrison and Art Pine contributed to this story.