Dick Cheney, known for being whisked off to undisclosed locations, doesn’t much mind hiding away.
In a string of high-profile jobs — as President Ford’s chief of staff, as a GOP leader in the House, as secretary of defense — Cheney has rarely sought, or attracted, the limelight. Even now he jokes about his reputation as the man lurking in the shadows.
“Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole?” he asks sardonically. “It’s a nice way to operate, actually.”
The Dick Cheney of today, perhaps the most powerful vice president in history, cuts a striking contrast to past incarnations of the man. For years, Cheney had easy and friendly relations with Democrats and Republicans alike, no matter their differences. These days he is one of the most divisive figures in politics.
To many conservatives, he’s a hero — a steady hand and wise adviser to the president in a time of crisis.
“He’s just kind of a steady support for the president, kind of dependable,” said Carrie Hight, 39, who is home-schooling her four children and came to see Cheney at a campaign appearance in Joplin, Mo. “If something did happen to our president, our country would just flow right into” the next administration.
For decades a reliable conservative, Cheney always has attracted philosophical foes. But now, to his detractors, he’s nothing short of the administration’s Darth Vader, the man who helped push the nation into an ill-advised war, wrongly implied a connection between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks, held secret meetings to craft an energy policy and once ran Halliburton, the energy services company that won a no-bid contract in Iraq.
Some polls have suggested he might be a drag on the re-election ticket, and there was speculation this summer that Bush might dump him, a scenario the White House dismissed out of hand.
'What's wrong with my image?'
None of it appears to bother him. “What’s wrong with my image?” Cheney asked with a laugh in an interview with the Los Angeles Times and USA Today.
In his free time, Cheney walks his two Labradors, fishes on Wyoming’s Snake River and hunts pheasant and quail. He travels with a satchel full of books on history. And on most weekends, his three granddaughters (though not an infant grandson) can be found in sleeping bags on his bedroom floor.
Four years as vice president haven’t changed him, said his daughter, Liz. “He’s really the same person that I’ve always known.”
On the job, there is no doubt Cheney is extraordinarily influential.
“He is constituted in a way to be the ultimate No. 2 guy,” said Dave Gribbin, a longtime friend who grew up with Cheney in Casper, Wyo., and worked with him for many years in Washington. “He is congenitally discreet. He is remarkably loyal.”
Friends say he listens more than he talks and enjoys going deep into policy questions. He’s known to hold “salons” at his home, inviting top thinkers on various issues to banter ideas.
'Someone who's very calm'
“This is an environment in which a lot of people often get excited, and he’s someone who’s very calm,” said Roger Porter, a Harvard professor who worked with Cheney during three Republican administrations. “He’s not somebody who needs or seeks a lot of applause.”
He hears plenty as he campaigns, speaking ominously about the threats facing the United States and slashing at the Democratic ticket, a role he takes on with relish.
On the trail, he delivers harsh charges with a confident, steady voice, like a teacher lecturing his classroom. He delivers his remarks slowly and deliberately. Occasionally, his half smile will creep into a full grin, usually when he’s telling one of his standard jokes. He likes to tell audiences that people tell him his opponent, Democratic Sen. John Edwards, got picked for “his good looks, charm and great hair.”
“And I say to them, how do you think I got this job?”
Richard Cheney was raised in Casper, Wyo., and it was there that he met his future wife, Lynne Vincent. She was the star baton twirler, he was co-captain of the football team.
Cheney went east to Yale but flunked out, returning to Wyoming, where he finished college and married. As the draft was taking young men to Vietnam, he received five student and marriage deferments. Years later he explained: “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”
After postgraduate work in political science, Cheney went to Washington, and by age 34, he was White House chief of staff for President Ford.
Rarely in the public eye, Cheney was enormously influential inside the administration, according to Michael Medved’s 1979 book, “Shadow Presidents.”
“I had made a very determined decision to keep my head down, and I stuck to it,” Cheney told the author.
Return to Wyoming
After Ford left office Cheney returned to Wyoming to run for the state’s lone congressional seat. Despite suffering a heart attack mid-campaign — the first of four attacks he’s had — Cheney easily won.
Back in Washington, Cheney began amassing one of the most conservative voting records in Congress. He opposed sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa and opposed a ban on armor-piercing “cop killer” bullets. He supported an anti-busing amendment and funding for virtually every weapons system.
He rose to the No. 2 position in the Republican leadership, well liked by colleagues of both parties through five terms in the House. In 1989, after the first President Bush’s nominee for defense secretary went down amid controversy, Cheney was the choice as a man who could be easily confirmed. He was, unanimously.
As defense secretary, Cheney helped lead the Gulf War to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. But while that conflict made Colin Powell and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf household names, Cheney kept largely in the background.
In 1991, he left government and took the top job at Halliburton, remaining in the private sector until Bush invited him to be his running mate four years ago.
As vice president, Cheney has a portfolio that runs broad and deep. Unlike his predecessors, he has his own national security and legislative affairs staff. He weighs in on issues ranging from war to tax cuts to smallpox inoculations.
He vigorously made the case for war in Iraq, arguing that Saddam Hussein posed a significant threat to U.S. security. He led an administration energy task force, whose recommendations, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, are stalled in Congress. His energy work led to another controversy: a lawsuit filed by environmental groups trying to force the White House to release the names of the people Cheney met with.
To some, he’s an ideologue pushing Bush to the right.
“At the start, there was a sense that Dick would be the pragmatic voice,” said Paul O’Neill, whom Cheney recruited for Treasury secretary, in the book, “The Price of Loyalty.” “Dick seemed to become ideological — and not as attentive to deliberation and evidence — and people started to wonder what happened.”
Looking at the options
But friends say he simply lays out the options and offers an opinion only when asked. He’s universally described as calm and levelheaded. That was true, adviser Mary Matalin said, on the most stressful of days — Sept. 11, 2001.
“He sat down and started going through things that had to be done,” she said. “It’s kind of calm, methodical, one foot in front of the other.”
Soon he was described as spending his time at undisclosed locations, a way to make sure a terror attack could not eliminate both the president and vice president.
He’s effective because he has no personal ambition and one master, friends say. Years ago, he considered and rejected a run of his own for president.
“He doesn’t run around tooting his own horn,” Matalin said. “It’s not about Cheney. Cheney’s there to serve Bush.”