Out here in Wyoming, where the wind blows free and the T-shirts proclaim "Where the Hell Is Casper?" a quiet man who once served at the right hand of the president of the United States is seeking to become Wyoming's senior, junior and only congressman.
The candidate is Richard B. Cheney, "Dick Cheney" on all his campaign posters and to friends and adversaries alike. Two years ago he was chief of staff in the Ford White House, which made him the third most influential man in the executive branch of government after the president himself and Henry Kissinger.
Now, Cheney is odds-on favorite to return to Washington as a low-ranking member of a minority party that many consider unlikely to control the Congress in his lifetime. But those who ask whether serving in the House will be a comedown are rewarded with a puzzled look that says they just don't grasp the situation.
"A person who thinks it's a comedown doesn't understand the unique features of putting your name on the ballot and persuading thousands of people to support you," Cheney says. "Politics is not necessarily a hierarchy, especially in a democracy. A congressman who represents his home state has in some ways more influence, more accountability, more intense participation in the process than even the staff guy for the president."
As Cheney sees it, the comparison between chief of staff and congressman is not even relevant. Each is a job, worth doing in its own right.
"There are some jobs of being mayor in small towns that are important, and I'be willing to do them," Cheney says. "A reporter isn't necessarily less important because he covers the police beat instead of the White House."
Cheney chuckles when he is told that there was once a time when the tow beats seemed synonymous. Whatever also happened to him in the White House, he emerged intact with a sense of humor, as he demonstrated last month by forming a mythical organization known as "Cardiacs for Cheney" that was supposed to celebrate the glories of having a heart attack while running for political office.
Cheney believes, and there is considerable evidence to support him, that the heart attack he suffered last June 18 was of political benefit to him. Before that, a poll taken by his friend Robert Teeter, who did the voters surveys for the Ford campaign, showed him a narrow lead and less name identification than he would have liked. The complete coverage of the heart attack and Cheney's recovery from it solved the latter problem.
Following the old political advice of taking the bull by the tail and looking it squarely in the face, Cheney wrote every Republican voter a thoughtful, two-page letter about the heart attack, telling how he had given up smoking and what his thoughts were as he lay at home recovering. His conclusion was that running for office was "immensely satisfying" and that he would go on doing it.
Cheney won big in the primary, only to face the new obstacle of being where he graduated from high school and college, worked, married and returned home to live after Ford's defeat in 1976.
"Wyoming has always been Cheney's second choice," says Bob Reece, who manages the campaign of Democratic congressional nominee William Bagley. "When he ran into difficulty in college, he came back to Wyoming. When he was out of work after Ford lost, he came to Wyoming."
Bagley, a Cheyene deputy prosecutor, is running the slogan of "a representative of Wyoming for Wyoming." His four-page brochure mentions Wyoming 44 times and traces his roots to great grandparents who were among the earliest settlers in the Star Valley section of the state.
But the Bagley campaign has not been very adept to casting Cheney, a high school sports hero who married a Casper native, as an outsider.Cheney is so well known here that many people, including Bagley, overestimate the time he has been in the state. Bagley thinks that he has been here 23 years, while the figure supplied by Cheney is 14.
One of the reasons that the "carpetbagger" issues does not play very well is that Cheney's White House service is an unmistakable political plus. Small-town America likes to see its hometown achievers make good in a big way, and the White House is still both big and good in Wyoming.
Cheney's well-produced brochure - "Who is Dick Cheney and Why is He Running for Congress?" - makes full use of his White House experience, where he rose from a member of the transition team assisting Donald Rumsfeld to become, at 34, the youngest chief of staff in history of the presidency. When a reporter suggested that a casual reading of the brochure suggested that Gerald Ford had helped Cheney govern the country, the candidate grinned broadly and said, "That's a fair comment."
This self-deprising humor has served Cheney in good stead. Though Wyoming is certainly proud of its hometown heroes who make good, it also is quick to notice if they seem too big for their blue jeans.
On the stump in Wyoming, Cheney reassures them that he does not have the big head with a joke about the important jobs held by chiefs of staff after they left the White House.
"And of course before Al (Haig) had the job it was held by Bob Haldeman, who is now doing one to four in a federal pen in California," Cheney concludes.
The humor masks but does not hide the serious, intense personality - too serious and intense, say some - of a man who in Wyoming seems as much a governmental junkie as he did in Washington. For the truth about Dick Cheney is that he is hooked on politics, hooked on the political process and intensely interested in some of the esoteric issues of government, such as reorganization, as well as the familiar ones of taxes and defense spending.
Cheney was a high school jock who struggled without success to make the grades at Yale, eventually graduating from the University of Wyoming with the express aim of being a political science teacher. Somewhere along the way, perhaps when he was an aide to Wisconsin Rep. William Steiger, Cheney became fascinated with the inner working of Washington and desired to become a part of it rather than to teach about it. His friends say that he has approached each new job with the enthusiasm of a man who retains an almost civicsbook delight in being part of the American political system.
This is no less true for Lynne Cheney, who has just finished a novel, "Executive Privilege," that will be published by Simon and Schuster next spring. "I read so many trashy novels, I thought I could write one," says Lynne with a smile. But Lynne Cheney is an accomplished historical writer in her own right and no one who knows her thinks the novel will be "trashy."
In fact, there are those in Wyoming who say that one reason the Cheney campaign never slowed down while he was recuperating from the heart attack is that Lynn Cheney filed in at campaign appearances as competently as the candidate. She was known in Casper as a former baton twirling queen, but she is as able and willing to discuss issues as is her husband.
The Cheneys have two daughters and an irresolute beagle named Cyrane. They live in a fine old house in a tree-shaded section of Casper. Though they are both under 40, they talk and act like people of a much older time. In short, they seem almost too good to be true.
"All of us, Lynne, our two daughters and myself, like being involved in an effort which goes beyond our own personal interests," Cheney wrote in a letter explaining why he was going to run despite the heart attack. "Trying to achieve goals which benefit many people gives all of us a good feeling, an up lifting sense of purpose."