By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006
NEW YORK -- "Are the eyes too much?"
Mary Cheney is peering into the makeup artist's mirror in the early hours of the morning, getting "done" for her appearance on "Good Morning America" with Diane Sawyer. Taped to the mirror is the list of today's guest stars. The name Nick Lachey -- aka the soon-to-be-ex-Mr. Jessica Simpson -- she recognizes. Totally clueless on actress Emmy Rossum. Needs some prompting on Josh Lucas ("Sweet Home Alabama"? Hottie who ends up with Reese Witherspoon?).
Let's say she's a little bit out of her element. Mary Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, had made it her business to fly under the radar. She's a pro at shunning the limelight. As the openly gay daughter of a man running for office in a party opposed to gay marriage, she took the hits and let them slide off her as if she were coated with Teflon. Kind of like daddy.
Alan Keyes refers to her as a "selfish hedonist"? No response. Gay-rights activists lampoon her by putting her face on a milk carton ("Have you seen me?")? No response. Her sexual orientation becomes fodder for a presidential debate? No response.
Protesters show up in her hideout home town of Conifer, Colo., and plant a "Bride of Satan" sign outside her house? Nope, not a word.
Until now, that is. Cheney's self-written story of life as a political daughter, campaign strategist and happily partnered gay woman is out this week, with a carefully planned media campaign surrounding its release. At 37, she's trying out the Washington life -- swapping snowboarding in the Rockies for commuting on the Dulles Toll Road -- and heading out on the publicity trail while longtime partner Heather Poe rips up pink shag carpet in their new Great Falls home and consults with Lynne Cheney, Mary's mom, about redecorating plans.
Called "Now It's My Turn: A Daughter's Chronicle of Political Life," Cheney's book is primarily an insider's story on campaign politics, a primer for those outside the D.C. political bubble on what life is really like in the midst of a presidential campaign -- with the added insight of what it's like to be a candidate's child. (Cheney served as her father's personal aide in 2000, then as director of vice presidential operations on the 2004 campaign).
It's the other 10 percent of the book, though, that the title speaks to -- and that has earned early public focus, from Vanity Fair to People to Sawyer, which is why she's moving through the hallways of the "GMA" studio on this particular morning, dressed in a tasteful gray suit with a splash of color -- turquoise -- added by the shirt underneath. She is the essence of understatement. Hasn't she always been?
Lucas goes by -- also in gray, but with that early-morning sexy stubble he's perfected -- and neither bats an eyelash of recognition. Lachey's bandmates look up as her Secret Service entourage passes the greenroom and they have that "huh?" look of "who was that?" Rossum glides by in a cascade of gorgeous brown curls, getting briefed by an assistant on the other boldface names gracing the hallways on this particular Monday morning.
"Oh, Mary Cheney is here," she's told.
Her eyes light up for an instant.
"Mary J. Blige?"
Um, no, not exactly.
* * *
Only a woman with Mary Cheney's gift for understatement could write a book that essentially says she thinks the president of the United States -- that would be her father's boss, mind you -- is trying to "write discrimination into the Constitution" and that this effort is a "gross affront" to herself along with gays and lesbians everywhere.
That would be in that "10 percent of the book"-- Cheney's own description -- where she writes about coming out to her parents, how she felt about John Kerry and John Edwards bringing up her sexuality in campaign debates, and where she stands on the Federal Marriage Amendment Act, which would ban legal unions between same-sex partners. She opposes it and describes her own relationship as a marriage.
"I didn't sit there and think 'I can't really do 11 percent,'" Cheney says, in a classic moment of caustic wit. "If I wrote a whole chapter [about coming out] I think it would be pretty boring."
Actually, she manages to tackle a seminal issue in many gay people's lives in a handful of paragraphs. To summarize what she's already summarized:
She was 16. She and her first girlfriend had just broken up. She skipped school, crashed the car, came home and decided it was time to just do it. Mom cried ("Your life will be so hard") but quickly came around. Dad said he loved her and just wanted her to be happy. The end.
Only it's not the end, because now everybody wants to know about it. It is, she laughs, the most-cited passage in the book -- and here she thought her book was really about showing those millions of people who do not live in the political bubble what it's really like to be inside a political campaign. Ha!
Jokingly asked what kind of car it was, she immediately shoots back, deadpan: "It was a 1982 Toyota Starlet. Tan. Hatchback."
* * *
"She's like her father," says Mary Matalin, who acquired Cheney's book for Simon & Schuster through her new imprint, Threshold, and is described in the text as all but a member of the Cheney family.
Like her father, meaning that when she's getting attacked, Cheney deploys what she herself acknowledges is the Teflon gene.
"She lives her life the way she thinks is the best way to advance gay and lesbian issues," Matalin continues. " . . . You know, at some point, you think, 'Can we talk about something else already?' "
Like snowboarding or hiking or scuba diving. Or Cheney's partner, Poe, who enjoys all those things with her and has been with her for 14 years. The couple was diving in Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles when 9/11 took place -- Cheney remembers the Secret Service car screeching up and the agent tellling her, in a voice that brooked no argument, that something bad had happened and they had to come at once.
"I just thought, 'Oh my God, something happened to my dad,'" she says, though she insists she did not immediately think he'd had another heart attack.
The whole book is steeped in the clear love and admiration Cheney feels for her father, and she dials down her wry humor when he comes up in conversation. Do they ever fight? She searches her memory bank, can't recall anything. Do they have debates at the Sunday dinner table? Nah, they talk about where to go fly-fishing. Was he really scary when she and her sister, Liz, got in trouble as kids? Nope. There was the time the girls pulled off a cabinet door in the kitchen and tried to cover it up by gluing it back to the frame. Dad pulled the whole door off the next time he went to open it. So, how did he punish them? Must not have been bad, because Mary Cheney can't remember.
"He's actually really funny," Cheney says of her father. "He's incredibly patient. I wish people could see him with my sister's kids -- he's totally the doting grandfather."
Cheney and Poe moved to Great Falls last fall in large part so that Cheney could be closer to her family -- her only sibling also lives in the area with four children and a fifth on the way. But she won't talk about whether she and Poe are thinking of having children, or adopting them, calling that a "conversation I think I should have with Heather first." And besides, that could lead to more sticky questions about the administration's stance on gay adoption, and so on.
She's always been a stickler for separating the personal from the political. Aside from promoting her book, Cheney's personal life these days focuses on a high-ranking executive job at AOL and kayaking the Potomac with Poe when the current beckons.
Her refusal to engage in public debate has infuriated many gay-rights activists. But she's making her point now, on her terms. "Didn't you just see me go on 'Good Morning America'?"
And when she decides it's her turn, she definitely knows how to get in her licks. In her book, Cheney devotes two chapters to her anger and frustration -- and outright dislike -- when it comes to Kerry and Edwards. And this is where the quick, wry, humorous tone of the book brings in a little venom. She thought Edwards, whom she ridicules for his fixation on his hair, "was complete and total slime." She quotes her sister calling Kerry a "complete and total sleazeball." She herself called him a profanity, she recounts with relish, after Kerry invoked the fact that she is a lesbian in non-response to a question during the presidential debate about whether he believes homosexuality is a choice.
* * *
The eye makeup has started to melt. And it's only 10:30 a.m. She's been gracious, cautious, funny, reserved -- and clearly well-prepared.
"Campaigns are these amazing things," she says, and now she's being earnest. "It's too bad that so few people actually get to see what goes on."
This, she says, is the No. 1 reason why she wrote the book. She's wise enough to know, though, that it won't be the No. 1 reason why most people buy it. There are those who will buy it to see what she has to say about Bush's stance on gay marriage. There are those who will buy it looking for insights into her father. And there are those who will buy it wanting an inside peek into the life and head of a gay woman who also happens to be a Republican and the daughter of the second most powerful man in the country. She can keep trying for the understatement, but now that she's stepped into the world of celebrity -- Larry King up next, Wednesday night -- it isn't going to be quite so easy.
Or is it? As she emerges from "GMA's" studio to her waiting Secret Service SUV, the crowd pressing against the barriers starts to get excited -- is it Lachey? Is it Lucas? Nah, it's only some woman with short, perfectly coiffed blond hair. A passerby asks one of the Secret Service agents who he's protecting. "Mary Cheney," he says. The man pauses, confused, then thinks he's figured it out: "Dick Cheney's wife?" he asks.
A young man calls out, "Ms. Cheney! Ms. Cheney!" He asks for her autograph; she obliges. Then he looks at her and says, quietly, "Thank you for being so brave."
And when she gives him one of her off-kilter smiles -- the smile that makes her look exactly like her father -- it's hard to tell if she's pleased or amused.