It was October 1976, President Gerald Ford had screwed up royally and no one wanted to be the one to tell him.
During his second debate with his Democratic challenger, then Gov. Jimmy Carter, Ford had declared that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” — certainly news to the Soviet troops then occupying Poland, not to mention to anyone who knew anything about world affairs. As the days passed and Ford tried ineptly to hide from his gaffe, Carter pounced, white ethnic voters shrieked and the chattering class tut-tutted.
It was left to one man to tell Ford that he needed to address the problem: Ford’s White House chief of staff, Richard Cheney. Cheney, then only 35 years old, took his boss aside and delivered the ugly truth, and soon Ford was acknowledging to reporters that the situation in Eastern Europe was “tragic.”
For Republicans, Cheney is this solid, sturdy man — a conservative voice of reason with a moderate temperament, a former secretary of defense that the Bush team hopes you might remember from former President George Bush’s salad days immediately after the Gulf War. For a politician, he projects a certain apolitical way. He knows Washington, knows how to get things done. Serious. Smart. Makes the trains run on time. Whether or not Cheney’s nomination actually wins George W. Bush any votes, if Bush actually wins, Republicans say, America will be better off because of Cheney’s presence in the White House.
But Democrats are also popping the champagne corks with the news of Bush’s pick. First, many on Al Gore’s team were worried that Bush would pick something other than a fleshy old white Protestant male. (And another Methodist, at that.)
But more than that, many Dems feel that with Cheney come numbers — 3 heart attacks + 3 Republican administrations of olde + 5 military deferments during the Vietnam War + countless far-far-far-right House votes to slam him on — that they are confident won’t add up.
“The Gore campaign has had a lot of bad luck,” says one high-ranking Democratic official. “This is good luck.”
On wedge issues like gun control and nutrition programs for seniors and children, Cheney as a congressman often took the hard-line conservative view, occasionally voting with only a handful of others.
In May 1988, for instance, Cheney was one of only four members of the House to be on the losing end of a 413-4 House vote that banned the sale, manufacture or importation of plastic weapons that are undetectable by airport screening machines. The bill’s supporters argued that, in law enforcement’s efforts to combat terrorism, it was not an undue burden on gun owners to require that their weapons contain at least 3.7 ounces of electromagnetically detectable metal, the minimum amount that can be detected by airport security devices. Cheney disagreed.
And there are a lot more where that vote came from, Cheney having served as Wyoming’s congressman from his election in 1978, through the Reagan revolution, until President George Bush tapped him to serve as secretary of defense in March 1989.
Don’t be surprised when you hear Democrats describing him as having frequently voted to the right of his class of ’78 colleague, Georgia’s Newt Gingrich. On Dec. 17, 1985, for instance, Cheney was one of only 21 members of Congress who opposed a ban on armor-piercing “cop-killer” bullets. (Joe Sudbay, who works on legislative outreach for the Center for the Prevention of Handgun Violence, says Cheney has “never voted with us. Never ever. Never came close.”)
In 1984, he was one of only 12 House members to vote against the Older Americans Act amendments, which added to a program providing nutrition assistance for seniors. In 1987, he was one of only eight House members to vote against $1.6 billion for Older Americans Act programs and, when the bill returned to the House after the House-Senate Conference Committee, one of only seven who opposed adoption of the conference committee report.
Additionally, as the Sierra Club was quick to point out on Monday, Cheney is a disaster on the environment — one of only 21 who voted against the Safe Water Drinking Act in 1986, and one of only eight who voted against reauthorizing the Clean Water Act. The League of Conservation Voters reports that Cheney’s lifetime average of voting on environmentally friendly legislation is just 13 percent.
None of this is incompatible with the views of Bush, who is pro-gun and seen by environmentalists as anti-green. But some of Cheney’s most conservative votes don’t necessarily jibe with the “compassionate conservative” gloss of his new boss.
When Carter moved to give education its own Cabinet-level agency in 1979, for instance, Cheney twice voted against separating the “E” from the Department of HEW (Health, Education and Welfare). In 1986, Cheney was one of only 33 members to vote against authorizing funding for programs that included Head Start; he later was one of 27 who voted against the conference committee report of essentially the same bill.
This begs the question: Bush has said that he wants Head Start to be incorporated into the Department of Education. What on earth would Rep. Cheney feel about this? Oppose Head Start and also oppose the existence of the department that would supervise it?
Democrats will also make populist hay over the fact that Cheney has served since 1995 as chairman and CEO of the Dallas-based Halliburton Co. In a July 1999 Associated Press story on major oil-service companies planning large layoffs, Cheney — whose company had laid off 9,500 workers in a year — proclaimed optimism “because of a recovery in the Asian economy, restrained output by members of the OPEC nations and higher prices for oil and gas.” As gas prices shoot past $2 a gallon, it’s questionable how many Americans are willing to herald a former oil executive who one year ago was trumpeting how much he was looking forward to higher prices for oil and gas.
Even National Review editor Rich Lowry cautioned Monday that a Cheney pick would be questionable, since he “is the head of an oil company at a time when Gore is trying to associate Bush with corporate interests.”
Then there’s Cheney’s life during the Vietnam War, which was partially spent seeking and obtaining deferments to avoid military service. As a student — he dropped out of Yale and studied at the University of Wyoming — Cheney received four 2-S draft deferments from 1963 through 1965. A fifth came a year later under the 3-A classification for those who had dependents.
“I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service,” Cheney once said.
Which is fine, as it was when Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard during that era, but how will it play if Gore is savvy enough to select a running mate who, like him, served in Vietnam?
Republicans will respond that none of that seemed to matter to the Democratic-controlled Senate that confirmed Cheney as secretary of defense in 1989. There are plenty of people from his days in Congress — including current Secretary of Defense William Cohen — who have nothing but nice things to say about Cheney. Cheney as a congressman, and as a member of both the Ford and the Bush White Houses, was a solid, just-the-facts kind of guy, a team player and — though a conservative — never an ideologue who couldn’t work with moderates.
His ability to play nice with others is at least somewhat responsible for Cheney’s success. Cheney began his career working — and working well — with Donald Rumsfeld in the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1967. After President Nixon formed the Cost of Living Council to control inflation, Rumsfeld headed up the program and Cheney was named assistant director. Rumsfeld was eventually named President Ford’s chief of staff; when he entered his new digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he did so with Cheney as his deputy.
Eventually, after months and months in which Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had been butting heads with Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Schlesinger was canned. In November 1975, Rumsfeld was brought in to take his place, and Cheney moved up to become, at the time, the youngest White House chief of staff in memory.
Significantly, Kissinger and Rumsfeld weren’t exactly allies, though they found common cause in ousting Schlesinger. (The two also found common cause earlier this year when both were trotted out in a Washington press conference in which they — in addition to Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz and Condoleezza Rice — endorsed George W. Bush.)
Cheney soon earned respect as a loyal and trusted aide to Ford. “It isn’t the individual in this job, but who is president,” he said of his job to U.S. News & World Report in a November 1975 profile. “He determines how things go.”
Ford lost in 1976, of course, but Cheney had another bit of fortuitous luck when Democratic Rep. Teno Roncalio, the occupant of the sole congressional seat in the state in which he grew up — Wyoming — soon announced his retirement.
“Who Is Dick Cheney and Why Is He Running for Congress?” read his campaign brochures — the first question of which many Americans are no doubt asking again today.
During this campaign, in June 1978, Cheney had to put his politicking on hold when, at the age of 37, the then-smoker suffered a mild heart attack. Doctors told him to quit smoking and rest for a month.
But even this apparently worked to his benefit. A Washington Post profile from that year stated that “Cheney believes, and there is considerable evidence to support him, that the heart attack he suffered last June 18 was of political benefit to him. Before that, a poll taken by his friend Robert Teeter, who did the voters surveys for the Ford campaign, showed him with a narrow lead and less name identification than he would have liked. The complete coverage of the heart attack and Cheney’s recovery from it solved the latter problem.”
He would suffer two more heart attacks, in 1984 and 1988; in the latter year he also had bypass surgery. All the while, he rose quickly through the ranks of House leadership; he was elected House Republican whip in 1988. Some even predicted he would eventually be elected speaker of the House before President Bush brought him to the Pentagon in ’89.
Even then, it was fate that stepped in, again, to bring Cheney on his serendipitous road to power. Cheney was picked to head the Pentagon only after then President Bush’s first pick, former Texas Sen. John Tower, saw his confirmation go down in flames amid allegations of booze and broads.
Confirmed easily, second-choice Cheney set to the task of downsizing the U.S. military, cutting $10 billion from the budget in his first year. He strongly defended the base-closing plan that closed 31 major military bases, noting in April 1991 that “the budget does have an impact. It’s just as important to maintain defense and have a strong economy.”
Though he hadn’t served in the military, Cheney made no bones about who was in charge. Only six months into his new job, in September 1989, he tapped Colin Powell over several other more veteran officers to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Then, in September 1990, Cheney made history by being the first secretary of defense to ever fire a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Chief of Staff and four-star Gen. Mike Dugan, whom Cheney canned for speaking to reporters about plans to launch air strikes against Iraq, without, reportedly, hearing Dugan’s explanation.
There were other incidents. According to Bob Woodward’s “The Commanders,” after Cheney fired Gen. Frederick Woerner, commander of the U.S. military in Central and South America, Woerner said, “After thirty-four years of service I believe I’m entitled to an explanation.” But Cheney gruffly said only: “Time for a change.”
On the other hand, some in the military took “civilian” Cheney’s slaps lightly; after Cheney publicly rebuked Air Force Chief of Staff Larry Welch for appearing to be negotiating freelance with Congress, Welch — a veteran — reportedly said, “I’ve been shot at by professionals and I’m still here. So being shot at by an amateur is not likely to cause me any pain.”
But even for a civilian, it was during war — namely Operation Desert Storm — that team player Cheney’s smooth authority is said to have impressed the elder Bush the most. By many accounts, Cheney was a commanding presence, pushing Powell and others to present President Bush with military options to end the Iraqi presence in Kuwait despite their many misgivings.
In other accounts — most notably Woodward’s — Cheney’s image doesn’t hold up as well under scrutiny. While never budging from his view that the military benefits from civilian supervision and review, Cheney nonetheless could be seen as authoritarian, according to Woodward, showing disdain whenever the subject was raised of the potential need to get congressional authorization for the war, as required — but often ignored — under the War Powers Act.
Though history is still being written on that military operation, at the time it was considered a success, and President Bush was impressed enough to award Cheney (as well as National Security Advisor Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker III) the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. President Bush was so impressed with Cheney that during a brief “Dump Quayle” run in the media, his name was bandied about as a potential 1992 running mate for the elder Bush.
Through image and rhetoric, George W. Bush continues to show that he has learned from his father’s mistakes; bearing Quayle in mind — as well as the suddenness of the announcement of his selection in ’88 — the son’s selection of Cheney is just the latest example of this.
And, once again, through his own achievements as well as a remarkable ability to convey a likable gravity, Dick Cheney is in the corridors of power. And he brings a realistic take of what this job entails. “The vice president is always in a very difficult position, in any circumstances,” he said in 1987, expressing sympathy for then Vice President Bush as vice chairman of a House committee investigating Iran-Contra. “If he challenges the president in policy meetings, disagrees with him, he’s viewed as being disloyal.”
Weathered and seasoned, Cheney will no doubt be an asset to Bush behind the scenes, even if the Democrats succeed in making him something of a liability with swing voters.
In that, Cheney can be seen as almost a post-election pick, for which Al Gore and his team are no doubt grateful.