By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007
Vic Gold heard from Lynne Cheney a few weeks before George W. Bush was sworn in as president in January 2001. Cheney had an assignment for her old friend: She wanted Gold to write the profiles of her and her husband, the new vice president, for the official Inauguration program.
The veteran journalist and GOP campaign operative was a natural choice. After all, he had shared an office with Lynne Cheney at Washingtonian magazine before she became chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities -- and they even worked on a satirical novel together.
Gold was also an old friend of the new president's father, having worked with George H.W. Bush on his campaigns and co-written his autobiography. The association dated back to 1964, when Bush 41 was an unsuccessful Senate candidate in Texas and Gold a press assistant to unsuccessful presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
So Gold was also asked to write the official bios of the new president and first lady.
"With Texas deep in his heart, America's 43rd president is an optimistic man of faith and family," he proclaimed in the program.
Gold was equally effusive about Dick Cheney : "A man of gravitas with a quick and easy wit; a conservative who'll see a road less traveled; a political realist who sees his country and the world around him not in terms of leaden problems but golden opportunities."
At a lunch recently at a downtown Washington hotel, Gold, 78, hands over the program, now an artifact of seemingly ancient history. He is trying to explain why it was so hard to write his new book, one whose title encapsulates what he now thinks of his onetime friends: "Invasion of the Party Snatchers: How the Holy-Rollers and the Neo-Cons Destroyed the GOP." The two men at the top, he says, were men he knew pretty well -- or at least he thought he did.
"What I described there was the Cheney we all thought we knew," Gold says ruefully.
His book, to be published this month by Sourcebooks with an initial print run of 20,000 copies, offers quite a different assessment of the two most powerful men in Washington. Under Bush and Cheney, he argues, the GOP has moved away from principles of small government, prudent foreign policy and leaving people alone to live their private lives -- all views Gold associates with his hero, Goldwater. "Invasion of the Party Snatchers" makes plain Gold's contempt for the direction of his party and the guidance of its leaders.
"For all the Rove-built facade of his being a 'strong' chief executive, George W. Bush has been, by comparison to even hapless Jimmy Carter, the weakest, most out of touch president in modern times," Gold writes. "Think Dan Quayle in cowboy boots."
Gold is even more withering in his observations of Cheney. "A vice president in control is bad enough. Worse yet is a vice president out of control."
For Gold, Cheney brings to mind the adage of Swiss writer Madame de Stael, who wrote, "Men do not change, they unmask themselves." Cheney has a deep streak of paranoia and megalomania, Gold suggests -- but he says he did not see it at first.
"He was hiding who he really was," Gold says. "He was waiting for an opportunity."
In many ways, Gold's tale of disillusionment is a familiar one. There are plenty of veterans of Reagan and Bush 41 around town who believe Bush and Cheney trashed the institutions and party they helped build from the wreckage of the Goldwater campaign.
But there aren't many who have been on a first-name basis with those they believe are doing the trashing. There aren't many like Vic Gold.
* * *
One of the first things friends say of Gold, who has the small, athletic frame of a bantamweight boxer, is that he can occasionally blow his stack. David A. Keene, the veteran conservative political activist, recalls first meeting him when the two worked for Vice President Spiro Agnew in the early 1970s. "This madman comes into the office, screaming and yelling," Keene says. "All of a sudden he comes back and says, 'I am Vic Gold.' "
Keene told how Gold later briefly quit the 1980 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush, for whom he served as a traveling aide-de-camp, over a slight involving a speech. Keene, a senior official on the campaign, and campaign head James A. Baker III persuaded the candidate to call Gold and apologize. Bush did so grudgingly -- only to come back and complain to his handlers that the idea had backfired: When Bush reached Gold, the combustible campaign aide told him off.
Keene said he and Baker found the incident greatly amusing, and the Bush-Gold relationship survived. Gold came back to work on the campaign, and the two have remained friendly ever since; Gold helped write his 1987 autobiography, "Looking Forward." He says he still talks to the former president a couple of times a year.
For his part, the former president indicated continuing affection for his former aide. "Vic Gold is a friend and always will be," Bush said in a statement relayed through his spokesman. "I have not read the book, but if it is as critical of the president as I have heard, I am sure I wouldn't like it."
The path that took Gold from the Goldwater campaign to open revolt with the current Bush administration is a colorful one. After growing up in New Orleans, Gold went to law school in Alabama before moving to Washington in the late 1950s to work for a public relations firm. He voted for Kennedy in 1960 but "fell off the wagon" with the Bay of Pigs. He was attracted to Goldwater, he says, because he saw him as a contrarian and liked his tough anti-communism and libertarian streak.
In his classic narrative of the 1964 campaign, Teddy White described Gold's work as deputy press secretary as critical to helping Goldwater get through to a hostile press corps. Gold "carried their bags, got them to the trains on time, out-shouted policemen on their behalf, bedded them down and woke them up, and before they knew it, the correspondents, about 95 percent anti-Goldwater by conviction, had been won to a friendship with the diminutive intellectual which spilled over onto his hero," White wrote.
Gold went to work for Agnew on the "nattering nabobs" campaign of 1970, in which the vice president barnstormed the country attacking incumbent Democratic senators. His association with Agnew helped expand a circle of exotic friends that have over the years included Frank Sinatra, Alabama football coach Bear Bryant and baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial.
He later worked with Lynne Cheney at Washingtonian magazine (he is still on the masthead and writes occasional articles), where he suggested she work with him as the co-author of a 1988 novel, "The Body Politic," about a Republican vice president who dies, as he puts it, "in the carnal embrace of a curvaceous television news reporter." When controversy erupted about the book after Dick Cheney was selected as Bush's running mate, Lynne assured reporters that the pivotal sex scene was written by her co-author, Gold remembers.
Lynne Cheney declined to comment for this article. But after being informed about his new book, she called her former co-author on Thursday, inquiring whether it was just an "April Fool's" joke, according to Gold. When Gold told that it was not, Cheney merely said, "I am sorry to hear that."
* * *
On a recent Saturday morning, Gold is sitting on the edge of a reclining red armchair in the study of his modest home in Fairfax City. He is surrounded by mementos of his passions -- University of Alabama football, St. Louis Cardinals baseball and GOP politics.
There's a black-and-white photo of Agnew and then-Attorney General John Mitchell gesturing at a news conference, in which the vice president has written in the imagined conversation, "Yes Mr. Attorney General, that is the voluble pugnacious Victor Gold -- and I agree, he is a tough SOB." There's also a picture of himself with the future vice president and an affectionate inscription from Dick Cheney: "The only other man who could have co-authored a book with my wife!"
Gold writes in this red chair by longhand -- it's been uncomfortable to work at a keyboard since an auto accident 15 years ago -- and his wife of 55 years, Dale, types up his work on the computer. Today, it is a perch for Gold's fulminations about the current administration, as he explains what prompted him to go public with his disillusionment. Words tumble out profusely, as he describes the different phases of grief -- first disappointment, then frustration, finally anger.
The war was a big factor. It seemed to Gold to run counter to the traditionally conservative notion of keeping clear of foreign entanglements. He was infuriated by Bush-Cheney moves to augment executive power. And he was disgusted by the Terri Schiavo episode, which to this old libertarian seemed emblematic of a modern GOP takeover by religious zealots.
"I really came to the conclusion that there was a threat to our system, to our way of life, and it was coming from those I thought were my people."
"I knew Agnew personally -- he did not represent a threat to the American way of life," Gold says. "Nixon, at the bottom of his heart, I am not sure what he wanted. I was never a Nixon admirer." But, he adds, "I knew the limitations on what they could do."
Gold is well aware that his conclusions will not sit well with the first families of the United States, though he seems less worried about the impact on the Cheneys and the president than on his old friend, the 41st president. A relationship with the Cheneys, which once included lunches with Lynne when she was at the NEH, has cooled. Gold and his wife went to a celebratory party at the Naval Observatory the day after the 2001 Inauguration -- but since then he and Lynne have spoken only occasionally. "I don't owe them a damn thing," Gold says.
But Gold says he recently wrote a letter to George H.W. Bush explaining himself and alerting him to the book -- and he says the former president offered a gracious reply to the effect of "You always called them like you saw them." On the few occasions they have talked or gotten together in recent years -- the last time was a "pleasant" lunch at Kennebunkport in the summer of 2005 -- Gold says he has purposely steered away from any talk of the current administration and his son, whom he refers to as "Young George."
"As a father, he's got to feel torn up because he sees this going on and obviously, obviously he has not been able to influence [the president]," says Gold. "George W. had one of the greatest resources in foreign relations and political experience in the world -- his old man! What if he didn't have this hubris of 'I am going to do it on my own'? If he had listened to his old man in terms of what to do after 9/11 and everything, he wouldn't have been in the mess he is in right now, and the country would not be in the mess it is right now."
Gold says he felt compelled to write his book because what he considers the depredations of the Bush administration -- the war, violations of civil liberties, expansion in government, the politicization of the Justice Department, to name just a few -- have violated his sense of what the Republican Party should stand for.
"Kennedy said sometimes political loyalty, party loyalty asks too much," he says.
Writing the book was hard because of his past associations. But, with a chuckle, Gold borrows the line that Cheney used after cursing at Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate floor:
"I feel better for having done it."