VIEW FROM THE RIGHT
In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir By Dick Cheney with Liz Cheney Threshold Editions
Dick Cheney's memoirs have been a while in coming, but the book, co-authored by the former Vice President and his daughter Liz, has been well worth the wait.
In My Time contains both the well-told story of a young man from Wyoming who has lived every Washington summer intern's dream and the insights from several decades of a man in the center of history.
The early reviews that appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and other organs of mainstream liberalism were almost universally hostile. They appeared so quickly that one has to doubt whether the reviewers had time for more than a superficial glance at the book itself, or were simply venting their rage at the personification of all they hated about George W. Bush and his administration.
The reviewers expressed almost unanimous disappointment that the former Vice President didn't sit down at his word processor, admit that virtually every position he took as Vice President was wrong and apologize for a misspent political life and career. They seem to think that he owes everyone hari-kiri instead of inflicting himself on the American public.
It apparently hasn't occurred to any of these reviewers that Cheney didn't write the book to please them, or that on reflection he might actually have concluded that most of the positions that defined him over four decades have stood the test of time. Cheney annoyed them when, as Vice President, he refused to play games by their rules and it bothers them now.
These reviews also bemoan that so much of In My Time is devoted to his pre-Bush life, friends and family. One even went so far as to hint that in writing about his favorite dog, the former Vice President was trying to portray himself as more human than his detractors know him to be.
The book itself is well worth reading not just for its glimpse into the Bush Administration's response to 9/11 or the controversies leading up to the decision to invade Iraq, but as a rather accurate portrait of the nation's politics from the day in 1968 when young Dick Cheney left Madison where his wife and he had been attending the University of Wisconsin, to begin work as a Congressional Fellow.
He decided early on that he'd like to intern for Don Rumsfeld, a young congressman from Illinois who he'd heard speak. Rumsfeld summarily dismissed Cheney as unsuitable after an interview, so he ended up under the wing of Wisconsin Rep. Bill Steiger.
It was a lucky break. Steiger was also one of the brightest of a new generation of Republicans in Washington. Steiger moved Dick right into his office and gave him responsibilities few interns see.
Eventually, of course, Cheney linked up with Rumsfeld after President Nixon convinced the Illinois congressman to join his administration as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Rumsfeld hired Cheney to handle congressional affairs and a partnership and friendship was born that has endured to this day.
Principles Above Ambition
Cheney looks back on his rise over the next few decades from congressional intern to White House chief of staff, congressman, Secretary of Defense, successful businessman and finally Vice President of the United States with a degree of awe. He credits his success to luck, a supportive family and the faith shown in him by his mentors and good friends.
The fact is that those who mentored the young Dick Cheney saw something in him that his detractors have never seen. They saw a bright, hard working and incredibly decent man who took his responsibilities more seriously than he ever took himself. They almost universally saw him as trustworthy and someone who would put his principles and duties above personal ambition. They liked him because he was in many ways the opposite of so many who come to Washington to simply get ahead.
I must confess that like the hostile reviewers who let their personal bias affect their writing, I am incapable of writing completely objectively. I've known Dick Cheney for decades.We both went to school in Wisconsin. He came to Washington a couple of years before I did, but we both worked in the Nixon Administration and, I think, were a bit shocked by the close-up view of what went on during those years. I didn't get to know Dick well until we found ourselves on opposite sides of the Reagan/Ford fight in 1976, but we came to respect each other and have been friends since.
Even then it was clear that while Cheney was part of the Ford team he was no moderate. When it was over and he headed West to run for Congress in Wyoming, he made it clear to all that he was running as a conservative and, once elected, he compiled a very conservative voting record.
But Cheney is a different sort of conservative. He seemed to get along with everyone. His colleagues liked him and so did the press. He was welcomed into the leadership by the then-Republican leader Bob Michel who had mutual friends urge Cheney to run for the chairmanship of the House Republican Policy Committee, but he was just as close to the new Republican firebrands like Newt Gingrich and Vin Weber.
In those years, most congressional observers assumed that if the Republicans won a majority in the House, Cheney would probably emerge as speaker. Instead, Cheney left the House to become George H.W. Bush's secretary of Defense when the President was forced to withdraw then Sen. John Tower's nomination. Cheney was universally praised by his colleagues at the time, heralded by the press as a great choice and confirmed in almost record time.
As secretary, Cheney worked with the Secretary of State Jim Baker and Gen. Colin Powell to put together the alliance and military effort to liberate Kuwait after Saddam Hussein's invasion. In the process, he got to know the players in the region and developed a deep understanding of the nature of the threat posed to the West by the region's emerging extremism.
When the Bush Administration ended, Cheney assumed that his political career had also ended. He headed West once again and ended up at the head of Halliburton almost by happenstance. As successful in business as he had been as a public servant, he was content to spend rime with his family and on the rivers and streams in pursuit of trout. One gets the impression that these were good times, but it wasn't long before another Bush came after him.
George W. Bush was seeking the presidency and sought Cheney's help. He made it clear that he wasn't interested in returning to politics on anything approaching a full time basis, but agreed to head up a committee to consider and recommend a running mate. Cheney had already been sounded out on whether he would consider running himself, but turned down the chance and worked diligently to find the right candidate for the job and for Bush.
In the end, Bush wanted Cheney and got him. He hung up his waders and fishing rods and hit the campaign trail. It was a decision I suspect he made with some misgivings, but Cheney was always one who could be appealed to on the basis of need and duty.
When Bush pressed Cheney to take the Vice President job, Cheney says he told Bush that "he needed to understand how deeply conservative I was. He said, 'Dick, we know that.' And I said, 'No, I mean really conservative." He was serving notice that he wasn't about to waver on matters of principle and to his credit he never did.
That year I stopped by a reception for him in Connecticut. I came in, chatted with his wife Lynn asked her how things were going and told her I'd just returned from a successful fishing trip. She said, "Don't tell him that or he's liable to cancel his schedule and go fishing himself."
We didn't talk about fly fishing, but word about that passion must have leaked out, because, when he became Vice President, the Secret Service code name for him was, appropriately, Angler.
Many have wondered how the amiable, well-liked Dick Cheney of the pre-Bush era could have morphed into the caricature presented to the American people by a hostile press in the years since. Part of the explanation can be found in his perception of the role he would play in the Bush Administration. Bush promised that his VP would be heavily involved in policy and kept that promise, but Cheney knew that for the partnership to work, he could never seem to overreach, to breach confidences or to appear to be taking credit that rightly should go to the President. As a result, the never overly talkative Vice President went silent as far as the press was concerned. He was the loyal No. 2 to George W. Bush. It was an easy transition because Cheney had never been a publicity hound like so many politicians. Even during his years as a congressman or when he briefly considered running for President himself, it was safe to find oneself between Dick Cheney and a camera.
But it infuriated reporters who couldn't get much of anything out of him and it forced him to resist responding to attacks or to setting the record straight. He became a target who would take the punch without hitting back and the nice fellow from Wyoming was on his way to becoming Darth Vader in the eyes of the media and of Bush critics across the country.
There was another reason: The left had consistently portrayed Bush as a lightweight; more clown than devil. If that was the case, they had to assume that everything they didn't like about what the Bush Administration was doing had to have been developed by someone other than the President. That was a narrative that made Dick Cheney the evil genius manipulating a clueless President. It was their story and they stuck with it.
George W. Bush may have been many things, but he was neither a lightweight nor clueless and, while he valued his Vice President's advice, he was, as he once claimed, "the decider."
Cheney had always been interested in national security affairs. In Congress he had served on the Intelligence Committee and he knew better than most that good intelligence is vital. He witnessed and opposed the dismantling of the nation's intelligence-gathering capability while in the Ford White House and during his years in Congress.
Protecting the Homeland
After 9/11, Cheney focused on preventing another attack while urging a pro-active policy designed to deny terrorists sanctuaries and bases around the world. Others have focused almost exclusively on the controversies in which he and the President were involved as they worked to protect the American homeland and this aspect of his book is both important and illuminating.
The Bush Administration may or may not have been right on everything. I and many others have questioned some of the steps we've taken here and abroad in intelligence-gathering and the pursuit of our enemies abroad has been as effective as it might be. However, anyone who questions Dick Cheney's honest desire to do what is best and in the interests of this country is simply wrong.
No politician has a perfect record. Dick Cheney has made mistakes, but then so did Ronald Reagan. I would put at the top of the error list Cheney's recommending that George W. Bush appoint Paul O'Neill, whom Cheney had gotten to know during the Ford Administration, as secretary of the Treasury. O'Neill had served as deputy director of OMB under Ford, was not just liberal, but vociferously anti-conservative and proved a disaster as Treasury secretary.
This nation has been fortunate to have men and women like Dick Cheney willing to step forward and provide the leadership needed to get us through the tough times. Those of us interested in the details and nuances of what went on during the Bush years will enjoy this book for that, but every young person interested in politics and public service should read it to learn why Dick Cheney is a role model that will be hard to equal.
The concluding paragraphs of In My Time are worth reading and rereading. In summing things up and perhaps with an eye on the costs of allowing the reins of government to fall into the hands of those who currently hold them, Cheney writes:
"The key, I think, is to choose serious and vigilant leaders, to listen to the men and women who want us to entrust them with high office and judge whether they have the larger cause of the country in mind.… We have a duty as clear as any I know to pass on this great nation, its possibilities undimmed to the rising generations."