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Finally, Something From Mary

By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Near the start of her memoir, being published today, Mary Cheney tells the story of her first political assignment. It was 1978, Dick Cheney's first run for Congress, and 9-year-old Mary was detailed to stand outside campaign headquarters, proudly wearing a sandwich board that read "Honk for Cheney."

Mary Cheney didn't wear a sandwich board when her father ran for vice president, but she might as well have: She was -- instantaneously and indelibly -- Dick Cheney's Lesbian Daughter. From Alan Keyes's crazed assessment ("selfish hedonist") to John Kerry's gratuitous invocation of the L-word, Mary Cheney served as a silent prop for advocates on both sides of the battle over gay rights. Honk for Mary. Honk against her.

Gay activists were so enraged by what they saw as her traitorous silence that they put her picture on milk cartons: "Have You Seen Me?" The intolerant right squirmed at a "lesbian activist" helping run the vice president's campaign; they squirmed even more when her partner, Heather Poe, turned up in the Cheney family box at the Republican National Convention.

The title of Cheney's book, then, is doubly fitting: "Now It's My Turn: A Daughter's Chronicle of Political Life." Being a politician's child means constantly having to bite your tongue, and Mary Cheney has had more occasion for biting than most. This is, finally, her "Garbo Speaks" moment. Yet this Garbo is still a daughter -- and daughter of the vice president. This explains why she was able to obtain a reported $1 million advance but also why what she says remains deliberately muffled.

Mary Cheney is ready to talk, but there's a lot she's not ready to talk about. Asked by People magazine whether she planned to have children, Cheney replied, "That's one Heather and I are going to have to talk about before I can tell you." This is a couple that's been together for 14 years. They haven't gotten around to discussing kids?

This reticence, in her book and accompanying publicity, isn't surprising. Political memoirs, especially from figures still immersed in politics, tend more toward score-settling than rigorous self-assessment. On top of that, neither introspection nor self-revelation comes easily to Cheneys -- the "most buttoned-down of families," Cheney writes.

She is more comfortable discussing the mechanics of advance work than her life as a lesbian. Cheney dispenses briskly with coming out to her parents: She broke up with her high school girlfriend, crashed the family car and announced she was gay. With the exception of a brief bout of maternal teariness ("Your life will be so hard," Lynne Cheney worried), everyone, she says, was immediately accepting.

If Mary Cheney agonized about how to tell the folks, or if anyone has ever uttered a disparaging word about gays in her presence, she doesn't choose to share it. Did she wince when her mother, asked during the 2000 campaign about having "a daughter who has now declared that she is openly gay," indignantly replied, "Mary has never declared such a thing" -- this about a woman who had, until recently, been the Coors beer company's liaison to the gay community? The episode goes unmentioned.

Cheney doesn't take on this issue directly, but the most compelling aspect of her story is the strange and often conflicted life of the political child, born not just into a family business but into a family ideology. Would Cheney have been -- would she have remained -- a Republican in a different, nonpolitical family? "I don't tend to like hypothetical questions," she told Diane Sawyer -- then proceeded to eagerly answer a different one: whether she would have backed George W. Bush even if her father weren't on the ticket. ("You bet.")

The news of the book will be Cheney's denunciation of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Cheney calls the amendment "fundamentally wrong -- and a gross affront to gays and lesbians everywhere." After Bush decided to endorse it, she writes, "I seriously considered packing up my office and heading home to Colorado."

In the end, she not only didn't head home, she also chose not to take up the president on his offer to let her issue a dissenting statement: Loyal staffers, and loyal political children, don't dissent, even from gross affronts. Cheney explains this as primarily a matter of faith in her father, who made his disagreement with the amendment clear even as he clapped for it onstage at Bush's State of the Union address.

Cheney's critics will reject this good-soldier stance; they'll be as unsatisfied with her belated disagreement as they were with her previous silence. Cynics will say she rationalized a way to keep her insider campaign job and pocket a huge advance, too. Maybe: Cheney is certainly no profile in political courage. As she told People, "I'm not a ramparts kind of a girl."

Still, it's awfully easy for an outsider to say what Mary Cheney should have done when family loyalty collided with personal conviction. Those who would judge her choices ought to walk a mile in her sandwich board.

marcusr@washpost.com

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