Reviewed by Karen DeYoung
Sunday, July 15, 2007
The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful And Controversial Vice President
By Stephen F. Hayes
HarperCollins. 578 pp. $27.95
In his Author's Note at the beginning of Cheney, Stephen Hayes recounts an exchange last summer with the subject of his new biography. The vice president, Hayes writes, was relaxed and seemed to be enjoying himself during an interview at his home in Jackson, Wyo. Setting up what Hayes describes as an "amusing anecdote" from his time as defense secretary in 1989, Dick Cheney mentioned "an urgent call summoning him to the White House on his first day at the Pentagon."
When Cheney finished the story, Hayes followed up with a question. Did he remember the subject of that urgent call?
"I do," Cheney replied tersely.
Hayes pressed on. "Umm, anything you can talk about?"
No, Cheney replied. It was classified.
Hayes writes that he spent nearly 30 hours interviewing Cheney -- one-on-one, on the record -- for the book. He footnotes nine separate sessions, beginning in mid-2004 and ending just last February. For the famously secretive and media-loathing veep, it is an unprecedented amount of face time. As Hayes documents, throughout Cheney's long career in politics and government, Cheney has seen those who talk about inside information as only slightly more despicable than those who write about it (note Valerie Plame exception).
But while he chatted cheerfully with Hayes about his early years in his birth state of Nebraska, his youthful interregnum as a ne'er-do-well college failure, his service as chief of staff in the Ford administration, his meteoric rise as a young Republican conservative in Congress and his well-regarded tenure as secretary of defense, the vice president "knew where he wanted to draw the line," Hayes reports. What goes on inside the White House is clearly on the off-limits side of the line and there is little new information here, either secret or self-revelatory, about the George W. Bush administration.
For the legions struggling to understand the inscrutable Cheney psyche, much is worth remembering about his pre-Bush life. After recounting Cheney's bucolic Nebraska boyhood, Hayes touches all the bases, ably relating his multiple failures as a scholarship student at Yale and the drinking (two DUI arrests) and dead-end jobs that subsequently filled his time back in Wyoming. That was all before local majorette and academic star Lynne Vincent shook some sense into him, married him and set him on track for a college degree and later graduate studies in political science.
Sprung from an academic future by a congressional fellowship in 1968, Cheney never looked back. When he was hired by Donald Rumsfeld to work in the Nixon administration's Office of Economic Opportunity ("You, you're congressional relations. Now get the hell outta here."), a mutually beneficial relationship between kindred political spirits was born. Through liberal quotations from Cheney memos, reports and speeches during the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, along with Cheney's interview comments, Hayes displays the deep roots of Cheney's current official persona. Building executive power at the expense of the legislative branch, making secrecy rather than transparency his fallback position on any issue and preferring power behind the scenes to public idolatry have been the bedrock of Cheney's beliefs and operating style throughout his career.
Hayes, a staff writer for the Weekly Standard, wrote a previous book attempting to prove a close pre-war connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Here, he offers highly selective versions of this and other Bush-era controversies, from unwarranted wiretapping to Hussein's alleged nuclear weapons programs. He makes no energetic effort to get inside the workings of the Bush administration and leaves out much of what is already known. While the first half of the book finds Cheney and Rumsfeld energetically plotting their way through the Nixon and Ford White Houses, Rumsfeld, despite his central role in the Bush administration, more or less disappears from the narrative after Cheney selects him as Bush's defense secretary. Battles with Colin Powell and, to a lesser extent, with Condoleezza Rice that helped define the administration's national security policymaking are ignored or given short shrift.
Haynes writes that he conducted 600 interviews for the book, and a few of them contain revealing nuggets, even if those nuggets remain unexplored. For instance, shortly before accepting the job of director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell seemed to side with those who believe that the administration manipulated intelligence on Iraq for political purposes before the 2003 invasion. But Haynes fails to look deeper into it.
Hayes also interviewed Bush, who offers little insight but provides a stream of typically fractured syntax. Here is the president on his differences with Cheney -- whose daughter Mary is a lesbian -- over the subject of gay marriage: "My only ask was that if his daughter doubted my tolerance to her orientation that I would hope that he would help make it clear to Mary that this is a -- I was just worried about -- the reason I'd federalized the issue is because I was worried about the courts' defining the issue and that we'd end up with de facto marriage that was not traditionally defined, I guess is the best way to put it."
Although Hayes rarely probes, there are other, more tantalizing hints of disagreement on issues such as tax policy, Iran sanctions and whether or not to fire Rumsfeld. Referring to Bush's vision for spreading democracy around the world, Hayes notes, "On this issue perhaps more than others, it can be difficult to tell how much Cheney allows his policy to be set by the man he works for."
In the final third of the book, devoted to Bush's first six years in office, the President is little more than a bit player in an administration where Cheney is pretty much in charge of everything from energy and tax policies to the war on terror. But explaining how that works, it seems, in the eyes of this biographer and his subject, would be crossing the line. ·
Karen DeYoung is an associate editor at The Washington Post and author of "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell."