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Has Lynne Cheneytoned it down?

Lynne Cheney is "irrepressibly supportive” of her husband, campaign adviser Mary Matalin says.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lynne Cheney came to Washington with a public image, hints of celebrity and a day job she intended to keep.

While that job didn’t change — she only recently took leave from her position at a research institute in order to campaign — her reputation as an outspoken conservative gradually has softened.

Since Dick Cheney became vice president, she has put aside a book on education reform while writing “A is for Abigail” and “America: A Patriotic Primer,” meant for children of parents on the left as well as the right. She doesn’t write biting reports on how to fix what’s wrong with education, and has long since left her position as co-host “from the right” on CNN’s “Crossfire Sunday.” In public appearances, she is not so much out to prove liberals wrong as to support her husband and the president.

Being the country’s second lady has not really changed her or her politics, those who know her say. Yet some notice a toned-down Lynne Cheney, a woman who has adapted to fill a public role that’s never been particularly public, or defined.

“I assumed just because she’s temperamentally sort of a feisty, take-no-prisoners type that we’d continue to see that side of her,” said Chester Finn Jr., a Reagan education official in the late 1980s when she chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency whose government funding she later sought to end. “But actually I’m rather charmed by the kinder, gentler version of the same Lynne Cheney.”

Former Education Secretary William Bennett remarked during the 2000 campaign that Mrs. Cheney would “be hard to muzzle” if her husband became vice president. Others said “irrepressible.”

Campaign adviser Mary Matalin steers away from such adjectives, instead calling the mother of two and grandmother of four a “renaissance woman” whose priority now is her husband.

“I think she’s irrepressibly supportive,” Matalin said.

In an interview less than three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mrs. Cheney remarked on her years as a television commentator: “That was then, this is now. I’m not sure that kind of theatrical and sharply pointed debate is one I feel as comfortable in.”

Lynne Anne Vincent showed signs of going places from her early years in Casper, Wyo. She was a top student, popular and a teacher favorite, high school friend Lori Gribbin recalled.

The partnership with Dick Cheney began at Natrona County High School. As a majorette, Lynne had a routine requiring her boyfriend’s participation: Fire burned at both ends of the baton she twirled while her future husband, a football player, waited with a can of water to extinguish it.

“Way back, they’ve been a couple that I think you almost expected something extraordinary from them,” said Gribbin, whose husband, Dave Gribbin, hails from the same school and later worked for Cheney in government and at Halliburton Co.

Mrs. Cheney, who turned 63 this month, graduated from Colorado College with an English degree and went on to earn her doctorate in 19th-century British literature from the University of Wisconsin.

As the vice president’s wife, she promotes history education. She’s a strong believer that students need basic knowledge about their country’s past.

That view is evident throughout her work over the past two decades, during which she grew into a favorite Republican cultural warrior. She ardently defended the study of Western civilization while arguing it was being trumped by an emphasis on multiculturalism.

1987 interview
In a 1987 newspaper interview a year after she became NEH chairman, a Reagan-appointed position, she worried about schools’ “preoccupation with global education.”

Her two children’s books stay true to her devotion to teaching the basic facts about U.S. history. Finn called her latest literary endeavors, “a little more vanilla, but spiritually kin to the policy pieces that she was writing before.”

At least one departure is “Sisters,” a novel published in 1981 that includes attempted rapes and a lesbian love affair. The publisher canceled plans this year to reissue it because of opposition from the author who said it wasn’t her best work.

Fiction aside, Mrs. Cheney has continued writing about education as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where her elder daughter also works.

Some in Washington expected more. She was an education adviser in 2000 to then-candidate George W. Bush, and her name was floated as a possible education secretary. She was mentioned in 1990, too, when the position opened up under the first President Bush.

She helps write some of her husband’s speeches in addition to her own.

During the 2000 campaign, Dick Cheney said, “She’s always been my most valued adviser. And I can assure you she always gives me straight advice, exactly what she thinks.”

In their fortieth year of marriage, the Cheneys have two daughters, three granddaughters and a grandson who was born July 2.

Besides slumber parties at the vice president’s house for Liz Cheney’s girls, ages 4 to 10, their grandmother sometimes picks them up from school and helps with homework.

The whole family has hit the campaign trail this summer, with daughter Mary serving as chief of vice presidential operations.

A lesbian, Mary has been criticized by gay activists for working for a GOP ticket that seeks a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

“It is wrong for people to try to exploit Mary’s personal life,” Liz said.

Less scrutiny
Still, the scrutiny is less than that given the president and his family. Lynne Cheney has more freedom to choose between publicity and obscurity.

Her edges softened, she now makes news when she enters the campaign fray, as when she recently admonished Democratic nominee John Kerry after he called for a “more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history.”

“With all due respect to the senator, it just sounded so foolish. I can’t imagine that al-Qaida is going to be impressed by sensitivity,” she said.

Those who’ve debated her say that’s just a glimmer of the Lynne Cheney they know.

A former TV talk show foe, Bill Press, said he quickly learned she is a “fierce competitor, a true believer” who never backs down. “John Edwards should feel lucky that he’s debating Dick Cheney rather than Lynne Cheney.”