After spending 30 hours interviewing the powerful and secretive Dick Cheney and two years writing his life story, author Stephen Hayes doesn’t claim to “have figured him out.”
“To a lot of people, he is an enigma,” says Hayes, author of the new book Cheney, a biography of the man widely regarded as the most influential vice president in history.
But Hayes, who writes for the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, has provided fresh material for Cheney-watchers, whether they regard the tight-lipped titan as a stoic hero of our times or a rogue power behind the throne.
After approaching the vice president in 2004 about the project, Hayes was given unprecedented time with his subject. Cheney either encouraged or permitted those around him to talk to the author.
One obvious explanation for Cheney’s participation is that Hayes is a sympathetic biographer, especially on the hot subject of the Bush administration’s handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq. Hayes’ first book, The Connection, contends that there was significant collaboration between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Although Hayes has a point of view about such things, his book on Cheney reads more like a chronicle than a polemic or political argument.
Hayes rejects the view of Cheney as a master puppeteer who manipulates the president and pulls policy strings through loyalists planted throughout the executive branch.
But in many respects, readers are allowed to reach their own conclusions when it comes to explaining some of the most tantalizing questions about Cheney’s career.
How did a guy going nowhere in life—a Yale University dropout with two drunken-driving arrests who was stringing power lines across the barrens of Wyoming—rise in a few years’ time to be the youngest White House chief of staff in history under President Ford?
And how did a member in good standing of the bipartisan Washington establishment, regarded in the 1970s and ‘80s as the picture of non-ideological Republicanism, so popular with the Washington press corps that he traded drinks and elaborate practical jokes with reporters—how did that guy acquire the image that Cheney sardonically describes as an “evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole?”
Did Cheney become a different person, as some old colleagues believe? Or was it the times and circumstances that changed? Hayes believes it’s a bit of both.
It’s clear from Hayes’ book that Cheney’s rise, like many Washington careers, involved a huge helping of serendipity. One critical link in the career chain was an early internship with Wisconsin Gov. Warren Knowles, which led Cheney to political mentor Bill Steiger, the Oshkosh congressman whose death at 40 cut short a seemingly golden career. Steiger led Cheney to an Illinois congressman named Don Rumsfeld, who brought Cheney into first the Nixon and then the Ford White House.
The themes from this phase of Cheney’s trajectory are his behind-the-scenes effectiveness and his political education. From the belly of federal power, Cheney developed at least two convictions: One is a conservative, pro-market sensibility about the limits of what government can and should do. The other is a growing view that presidential power needs to be protected against the competing claims and reach of Congress.
The second would become one of Cheney’s signature priorities in the Bush administration. Cheney opposed seeking authorization for the Iraq war from Congress and opposed taking the case against Hussein to the United Nations—two internal battles he lost.
The new book serves up some nuggets that haven’t been reported before. Cheney tells Hayes that he thinks it was a mistake for the administration to set up the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad rather than install an Iraqi-led government at the outset. In a rare public break with President Bush, Cheney makes it clear he opposed the ouster of his old friend Rumsfeld as defense secretary.
Hayes defends Cheney from accusations that he manipulated intelligence, and he fends off the caricature of a humorless Machiavelli with examples of Cheney’s sometimes self-mocking sense of humor. Of his image as “evil genius in the corner,” Cheney says, “It’s a nice way to operate, actually.”
Hayes is also critical of how the media has sometimes covered Cheney and aspects of the war debate.
But there is some fodder in his book for Cheney critics, as well. The book quotes, at length, Cheney’s forceful defense of the decision during the first Gulf War not to depose Hussein (Cheney was defense secretary at the time). In a 1992 speech in Seattle, Cheney laid out all the pitfalls of regime change that resonate today: the perils of urban warfare, the problem of creating something stable in Hussein’s place, the loss of Arab allies, far greater U.S. combat deaths, the burden of taking ownership for Iraq and getting “bogged down” there.
“And the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many,” Cheney said at the time.
The vice president’s view clearly changed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but readers can weigh Cheney’s 1991 calculus against his 2002 calculus.
There is also a sense in the book that Cheney’s penchant for secrecy and off-stage maneuvering has been a double-edged sword.
Cheney’s rise to the appointed posts of White House chief of staff, defense secretary and vice president owes something to his famous discretion and less-is-more style of communication; his words and counsel carry greater weight because he shuns publicity and leaves so much unsaid. By all accounts, Cheney’s influence over Bush rests on his renunciation of presidential ambition and his ability to keep private conversations private.
But Hayes also suggests that the price of Cheney’s style—his distance from the media and seeming indifference to how he is perceived—has been to lose control of his public image, allowing the most critical caricatures to flourish and inhibiting his ability to make a public case for policies such as the war.
The book portrays Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, as becoming obsessed with war critic Joseph Wilson in the prelude to Libby’s conviction in the case involving the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife. The book also attacks Wilson’s credibility.
Despite Hayes’ access to Cheney over the almost three years he spent on the book, Cheney remains in some ways inaccessible. Cheney has no interest in putting himself on the couch for the press, and he opens up only so much to Hayes. When Hayes interviews Bush about Cheney, even the president seems unsure how to characterize some of Cheney’s core political beliefs.
Does Cheney share Bush’s almost-missionary passion for promoting democracy abroad, or is he more of a “realist” about the obstacles to reforming other countries? Bush tells Hayes to ask Cheney.
“I’m not sure how to answer the question of how he stands relative to me,” the president says.
But Bush tells Hayes he finds Cheney’s stoicism a helpful counterweight to his own more emotional nature.
Hayes says that over the course of his interviews, he suggested to Cheney that the vice president might be better served by engaging the media more actively and ramping up his public presence, given the battering his image has been taking.
“He doesn’t buy that argument,” Hayes says.