Biography links Cheney leadership style to early Hill work
Many attributes of Vice President Dick Cheney’s leadership style are rooted in formative political experiences of the 1960s and 1970s, explains Stephen F. Hayes, author of a new biography, “Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President.”
Mr. Cheney’s preference for substance over style, one of the traits that most appealed to George W. Bush in 2000 as the Texas governor sought a running mate, was evident decades ago. He came to Washington in 1968 as a congressional fellow of the American Political Science Association and began his internship with a young Republican from Wisconsin, Rep. Bill Steiger.
“Steiger began from the first day giving Cheney substantial projects,” Mr. Hayes said. In fact, Mr. Steiger placed the young intern’s desk in his own personal office.
APSA fellows were expected to change internships at midyear, preferably for a member of the opposite chamber and opposite political party. Mr. Cheney had a friend in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s office who agreed to do a “paper switch” so that each man could remain in his preferred office. Mr. Cheney “would have been doing press work for Ted Kennedy [. . . ] the most unlikely job for the Dick Cheney we know now,” said Mr. Hayes, a senior writer for the Weekly Standard.
Mr. Cheney chose the job that offered him real responsibilities and access to Mr. Steiger over “a more glamorous position in the office of a senator from America’s most prominent political family.”
Mr. Cheney’s strong support for limited government can be traced back to his firsthand experience during President Richard M. Nixon’s wage and price controls in the early 1970s. Mr. Cheney worked under Donald Rumsfeld at the Cost of Living Council to phase out the controls. When the CLC refroze food prices in 1972, Mr. Cheney turned into a skeptic.
“The idea that you could write detailed regulations that were going to govern all aspects of an economy as big as the U.S. economy is loopy,” Mr. Cheney told Mr. Hayes in one of the exclusive interviews that went into the book, adding that the experience “moved me pretty radically in the free-market direction.”
His role as former President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of staff shaped Mr. Cheney’s perspective on the vice presidency. The conservative Mr. Cheney often felt responsible for thwarting the will of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican. In 1980, Mr. Cheney worked with the Reagan campaign on a possible “co-presidency” arrangement between his former boss and the Republican nominee. Those discussions taught him a “copresidency” or power-sharing arrangement is not practical. A vice president must serve the president and not have his own agenda.
Mr. Cheney took those lessons back to Washington in 2001 when he was sworn in as the nation’s 46th vice president. His loyalty to President Bush and pledge not to run for office after his current term have enhanced Mr. Cheney’s power.
“The president feels totally confident Cheney isn’t pursuing a personal agenda,” Mr. Hayes said in an interview with The Washington Times. Mr. Bush’s trust, combined with Mr. Cheney’s experience as a Cabinet secretary, a White House chief of staff and a decade as a Wyoming congressman, have made Mr. Cheney an effective and influential vice president.
“It’s hard to imagine coming to the job with more hands-on experience than Cheney had,” Mr. Hayes said. “He has a tremendous grasp of the issues and the way the White House works.”
Mr. Hayes said the vice president’s low profile in the media has strengthened his relationship with Mr. Bush. “Keeping his advice [to the president] to himself” has kept Mr. Cheney from pursuing an agenda independent of Mr. Bush’s agenda. Cabinet members and other officials understand that Mr. Cheney speaks for the president.
When Mr. Cheney served Mr. Ford in the 1970s, the legislative branch was enjoying an upsurge in power relative to the executive. Ever since that time, depending on one’s perspective, Mr. Cheney has focused on “expanding executive power” or “sought to restore a balance” between the two branches, according to Mr. Hayes.
In 1980, just after Mr. Cheney joined the Republican House leadership, the congressman argued the merits of a stronger executive with then-freshman Rep. Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican, who favored a more powerful Congress, at the American Enterprise Institute.
“A fundamental problem has been the extent to which we have restrained presidential authority over the last several years,” said Mr. Cheney at the 1980 event. “We must restore some balance between the Congress, on the one hand, and the executive branch, on the other.”
He brought his ideas about the need to reassert executive power to the West Wing in 2001.
Even before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Cheney’s office refused to provide records of the Energy Task Force to Congress because the vice president did not believe the documents were legally subject to congressional scrutiny. If Mr. Cheney defended executive privilege when the country was at peace, his views were only amplified once the nation went to war.
When terrorists attacked the United States, Mr. Cheney “was as prepared as someone could possibly be for something so horrific,” said Mr. Hayes.
Many of those who gathered in the White House bunker with Mr. Cheney that day remember his stoic demeanor. “He had a calm presence, which had the effect of calming others,” said Mr. Hayes. The vice president had studied continuity of government procedures numerous times and was well-prepared.
Since then, Mr. Cheney has focused his energies on when and where the terrorists plan to strike next. “He has been a September 12 vice president,” said Mr. Hayes.
The author said Mr. Cheney’s biggest weakness as vice president has been “his unwillingness to put himself out, to speak to the media on a more regular basis.”
“He sees his job as advising the president, period. Some believe he could have been a more effective spokesman,” Mr. Hayes said.
He said Mr. Cheney does not seem to be bothered by negative media coverage and the late-night television jokes. In fact, Mr. Cheney sometimes seems to embrace his image as a behind-the-scenes guy, as captured by a 2004 remark from the vice president quoted in Mr. Hayes’ book.
“Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole?” Mr. Cheney asked. “It’s a nice way to operate, actually.”
Vice President Dick Cheney, seen here addressing the National Association of Manufacturers breakfast in Washington in February, has been a fixture on the political scene for nearly four decades.