As a regular matter, Dick Cheney does much of the family grocery shopping, and the cooking too. During the war he didn't do as much of this, of course, because he was busy. But the other day he and his wife, Lynne, were back at the shopping center in McLean, just like any other suburban couple on a Saturday morning, and he was loading his shirts in the car in front of the cleaner's when an old guy pulled up and said, "Are you who I think you are?" "Well, I'm the secretary of defense," Cheney replied in his usual understated way. And the old guy got out and said, "I just feel really proud of what happened in the Persian Gulf."

The same sort of thing happened when he went into Crown Books to stock up on the histories and biographies he favors but hasn't had time for. And in the Gourmet Giant the guys behind the meat and fish counter even made up a "thank you" card for him with a little American flag pasted inside. Although, as Ken Adelman, the conservative arms control intellectual who is one of Cheney's old buddies and not a man to let any slight irony go unremarked, notes, "There was dried meat juice on it."

While the warplanes were bombing Baghdad, Cheney still managed to be home by 8 or 8:30 most nights, chatting about his day with Lynne over dinner, hearing about hers. Weekends, they sometimes got in some tennis with Ken and Carol Adelman, and one Sunday the couples drove out to L'Auberge Chez Francois for a leisurely brunch, getting pleasantly lost in the Virginia countryside for a couple of hours on the way back. All in all, though, he didn't get out much, because people tended to worry: Lord, who's running the war?

Indeed, at the Pentagon, Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, seemed so unfailingly cool and competent when they appeared on television to explain the action that a jittery nation was soothed. There was the immediate sense that here was no new American Desert Screw-Up. Here, finally, was some fahrvergnuegen you could get into, tanks that worked, choppers that flew, bombs that were smart.

Even Cheney's mom and dad, back home in Casper, Wyo., were impressed. "We had mixed feelings on the whole thing when it started," admits Richard Cheney Sr., a retired U.S. soil conservation official, "and were more than agreeably surprised at the progress. It seems unbelievable they can run around that sandpile like that."

"Be sure to put in there that he was senior class president," adds Marjorie Cheney.

"And he played high school football," says her husband.

"And Lynne was homecoming queen," says Marjorie.

Having moved to Defense from the number two Republican spot in the House, that of party whip, Cheney was surefootedly political throughout the Persian Gulf crisis, massaging congressional egos and delivering a barrage of speeches in support of the president's policies. Just before the ground offensive, he asked Hill leaders in charge of defense issues -- including Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and John Warner (R-Va.) -- to make a secret visit to the gulf and report back, which they did. They were happy to be asked.

"Believe me," said one participant, "there was a sigh of relief on Capitol Hill that John Tower wasn't there during the sensitive business of using these troops and balancing it with diplomacy." (Humor among the big boys: After Cheney was "inducted" into his Pentagon job in the spring of '89 following the Tower fiasco, Adelman offered him a beer. "Beer, hell," Cheney said, "I'll have a double Scotch.") When Saudi King Fahd was less than enthusiastic about the proposed influx of U.S. forces last August, it was Cheney the president dispatched to perform the delicate arm-twist.

When the war was over, America seemingly stood atop golden hours. Bush basked in his 91 percent approval rating, Powell was being touted for -- at least -- vice president, and two publishing houses were scheduling instant books on Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf, the growling, tenderhearted commander of Desert Storm.

But where was Cheney?

"Wow, Cheney?" exclaimed an aide to former defense secretary Frank Carlucci, who with Cheney, Adelman and Donald Rumsfeld had been a bright young Nixonaut at the Office of Economic Opportunity, where they set about dismantling the poverty program. "We've had 500 requests for interviews about Powell. This is the first one for Cheney."

Talk about low profile.

Here's a man who's ambitious, respected by his party and whose name keeps popping up as a presidential possible for '96. So why hasn't he ascended to hero status? Was he too cool on the tube, not human enough, less than charismatic? Is it that it's tough to get a patriotic lump in your throat about a desk-chair warrior who had so many draft deferments during Vietnam that it takes all the fingers on one hand to count them? Is it that he has a reputation among his opponents for getting a little nasty in the clinches? Or is it simply that Cheney, ever wary of the kind of verbal misstep that embarrassed Schwarzkopf last week, has pulled back, to watch and await his opportunity? "I'm very much a fatalist about the future," he says smoothly. "I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what I'm going to do next."

He just turned 50, yet seems already to have been around Washington forever. Dick and Lynne moved here in 1968 when he took a congressional internship, rented an apartment in Annandale and settled in to write their doctoral dissertations (his: models of congressional roll call voting; hers: influence of Kant on the poetry of Arnold). Six years later, at 34, he became Gerald Ford's chief of staff, and began working closely with Brent Scowcroft, who was then, as now, the president's national security adviser. Pictures from the time show young Cheney with a worried, almost sour look on his face. "I'm so proud of him," Ford says today, "because I knew him when he was a young man."

Cheney "hired" Jim Baker, as he puts it, to chair Ford's '76 campaign, and after the defeat ("White House Chief of Staff Richard Cheney ... is blamed by Ford insiders for a succession of campaign blunders," Evans and Novak reported) began his meteoric career in the House. Lynne went on to the chairmanship, today, of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Their friend Adelman, who became chief of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under Reagan, now hangs his hat at the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a conservative think tank on K Street where -- as he sits spinning yarns about Cheney to a reporter -- Vice President Quayle telephones him to shoot the breeze.

You start to get the picture of a tight little group. Carol Adelman has become a high official at the Agency for International Development, and Elizabeth Cheney, Dick and Lynne's oldest daughter, works for her. And so on.

The old Cheney-Scowcroft-Baker ties are one reason the war was managed so seamlessly. Baker couldn't be bothered getting uptight when Cheney did the Fahd thing. And Bush likes it this way -- his own management style tends toward the informal. "There was never a time," Cheney says, "when I went to the president and said, you know, 'I need call-up authority, you've got to sign an executive order so I can call up 250,000 reservists,' " when the president wouldn't do it. "Done! No problem!"

Sure, friends say today, Dick would make a great president himself -- if it weren't for those three heart attacks (the first at 37), and the quadruple bypass (June of '88), or the fact that Wyoming has only three electoral votes.

Or, they say, he'd make a great House speaker, a job he always wanted, except the Democrats seem to have it permanently locked.

So Cheney is back cruising the aisles of the Gourmet Giant, taking morning walks with his wife, planning his next fly-fishing trip to Wyoming. And, at work, getting the boys and girls home, making postwar security arrangements in the gulf and hunkering down for the budget battle with Congress.

Part of the Eternal Government.

Heart and Mind Of all the president's close advisers, Cheney was said to be the most hawkish, prepared to ride the stallion of battle all the way to the Apocalypse. But suppose things hadn't gone so well, and those 16,099 olive-drab, chloroprene-coated body bags the Pentagon ordered had been needed? Would Dick Cheney still be cruising for Lean Cuisine, still defending president and policy?

Absolutely.

"The first obligation of the federal government," he says flatly, "is to provide for the national security." This, he believes. In speeches during the war, he'd joked about himself: the congressman who never saw a weapons system he didn't love. Now, in an interview in his Pentagon office, Cheney presents his usual competent, low-profile image, talking with amazing speed, as if he were reading aloud from an article in Foreign Affairs, his head cocked to one side, then the other, words spewing in a soft machine-gun monotone from a bunched spot somewhere toward the side of his mouth. One is reluctant to break eye contact -- perhaps the steady stream of words would suddenly come to a stop like a phonograph when the plug is yanked.

"The, uhm, I think the value of American commitments and our ability to give meaning and substance to those commitments in terms of military capability is greater today than at any time since the end of World War II," he says in one breath. "There can't be any doubt in the minds of our allies around the world about our capacity and willingness to use force to keep our commitments, to protect our interests, to protect those of our friends and allies."

And this guy flunked out of Yale.

"Uhm," he continues, "the military itself, as an institution in the United States, stands higher today than it has at any time since World War II. A lot of the criticism that was part and parcel of the '70s and '80s -- uh, stupid generals, uh, equipment that doesn't work, uh, idiots running the Pentagon who don't know what they're doing -- clearly wasn't valid."

Cheney is wearing his accustomed conservative suit, white shirt and striped tie over a pair of spit-shined Luccheses that you don't notice till he crosses his legs. He's not quite a short man, and seems heftier up close than the TV images of his abstracted talking head would suggest. You'd certainly never call him beefy, but it's suddenly clear how he could have captained the team at Natrona County High.

And how he could have had the bypass surgery -- so goes the spin -- not because his life was threatened by the repeated heart attacks or because he internalized stress or anything, but so he could "safely engage in his rather vigorous lifestyle," as his physician, Allan M. Ross, put it to the Senate committee considering the nomination: the six-day backpacking trips into the wilderness with Baker and Republican consultant Stu Spencer; the skiing out West last year, "way too fast" according to one observer, at 14,000 feet with the temperature at 20 below.

"You become very much aware of your own mortality," he says of his heart problem. "When you're 37 years old and you have a heart attack, it's a total surprise. ... It leads you to question what you're doing and why you're doing it. It happened in the middle of my first campaign for Congress, and I spent about six weeks recovering before I could go back out on the campaign trail." He had considered medical advice to change his lifestyle, but concluded that "it was really important to do what you wanted to be doing ... that coronary artery disease was something you managed."

Like war.

In his cavernous office, Cheney allows himself to sink into a comfortable slouch for the 25-minute appointment. He sips caffeine-free Diet Coke, though not from the can. On a table is a football, somewhere off to the side a silently flickering TV; there's an aura of dark wood paneling, deep leather. He's looking at you squarely through gold-rimmed glasses, and it's impossible to discern the color of his eyes.

Asked to recount his worst moments during the gulf crisis, he mentions a number of them, including the terrible early weeks when Saddam Hussein could simply have marched south and taken the Saudi oil fields and ports, but didn't. Then there was the ground war. "We planned for a much worse eventuality than actually occurred," he says of the action that began at 8 p.m. (Washington time) on Saturday, Feb. 23. Instead of going into why it was a "worst moment" for him, however, Cheney tells the story this way: "Sunday morning we went to church with the president across Lafayette Park, and in the church service he asked me ... how things were going, and I passed him a note saying they were going well.

"He then invited me {back at the White House} to come upstairs. The president had his wife and family with him, and I took my wife and daughter upstairs and had coffee after the church service, and then I went back in the back room and I gave him a read-out, the report I had at that point from Norm, which was that the campaign was going extraordinarily well. ... It was obviously a great relief to the president to know that it had gone that well, but also that the cost had been minimal in terms of U.S. casualties. As I recall, he said, 'You know, that's great news.' "

No kidding. Cheney has chosen to reveal this private moment between two men -- at a time that may well be remembered as a turning point in their careers, and perhaps in American history -- yet without pause he screeches verbally onward, like the political science professor he once wanted to be, with his analysis: "It was a very important moment for him because it meant the decision he'd made -- and ultimately it's his decision, the rest of us only give advice -- we had been able, it looked like we were going to pull off the ground campaign with minimal loss of life on our side, which is something that a president always thinks of."

He sips, silently, from his glass of Diet Coke.

What to make of all this? Perhaps it's simply that, as Charles Levendosky, editorial page editor of the Casper Star-Tribune, puts it, "People out here in Wyoming like the understated rather than the overstated."

Getting Serious Before the interview, there had been warnings not to attempt conversation with Cheney about his emotions, that he's very private. "He's not going to respond to feeling-type questions," advised Pete Williams, the Pentagon spokesman. "The Life magazine guys were in here and they would hold up a picture from his trip to Saudi Arabia and say, 'How did you feel at this time?' and that just didn't work at all. The interview was going nowhere."

Nor will the Cheneys receive a reporter in their McLean home, warns another spokesman. Whatever his emotional landscape, Cheney has clearly decided not to reveal it a` la Stormin' Norman, the decorated, wounded Vietnam veteran who choked up publicly over the fate of his troops and bemoaned the "profanity" of war.

Cheney's all there, his friends claim, he just doesn't gush. "What you've seen on television is what I've seen at home," says his wife. "He's calm, deliberate, not given to speechifying in an old-fashioned way, just says what he thinks the situation is. He's an unusual politician, not a back-slapping kind of guy. ... He works a room very well, by talking about things that are real and serious. He doesn't do small talk."

Dick worries privately, she says, about how "it's an amazing thing to affect the lives of so many people, and to send people in harm's way. ... I think the thing that affects him most is actually talking to enlisted people, and he makes a very great effort, when he travels, to break out of the envelope of generals and talk to people doing the hard, slogging work. ... Talking with those young people {during a trip to Saudi Arabia} was a particularly affecting experience -- just what fine young people they are, to shake their hand and feel their pride."

Meet Dick Cheney: a People Person.

Adelman calls back at one point to offer a delicate adjustment on this theme: "Dick's always less geo-strategic, in that he would talk a lot more on the horrors of Kuwait. It was kind of that, 'This occupation is terrible.' Kind of a moral crusade. He's a politician, a guy who relates to people rather than balancing triangles like Schlesinger and Kissinger and some of these guys in the field traditionally. McNamara was one of those. With Dick the war was always on a very personal level. 'This is the right thing to do. Real people are involved.' "

Cheney's admiration for these fine young Americans in uniform, however, can't quite burn with the same warmth one would feel from having been there. As a student, he enjoyed four 2-S draft deferments from 1963 through '65, and a fifth in 1966 under the 3-A classification -- "registrant with a child or children; or registrant deferred by reason of extreme hardship to dependents."

Those were frightening times for draft-eligible American men. Congress had approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on Aug. 7, 1964 (coincidentally, Dick and Lynne married 22 days later), and in March of '65 U.S. Marines landed at Danang in the Republic of South Vietnam. After six years of study at three colleges, Cheney had just received his B.A. when the troops went in, and was starting on his master's when, along with his brand-new diploma, he received a brand-new 1-A draft classification on May 19 -- "available for military service."

On July 28, President Johnson announced that draft calls would be doubled, and toward the end of the year -- on Oct. 26, 1965 -- the Selective Service lifted the ban against drafting childless married men. Nine months and two days later -- on July 28, 1966 -- Elizabeth Cheney made her entrance into this world, the first-born child of her joyful parents. Times being what they were, the new father hadn't hesitated in applying for his 3-A status -- in fact, he had already received it on Jan. 19, 1966, when Lynne was about 10 weeks pregnant.

"I had other priorities in the '60s than military service," Cheney told a reporter two years ago.

In his Senate confirmation hearing, he asserted that he "would have obviously been happy to serve had I been called."

Early in his academic career, before the draft began breathing down his neck, he admits to having goofed off. "I flunked out" of Yale, he says. Given a scholarship by the university, he entered in the fall of '59 and withdrew, according to a university spokesman, on June 14, 1962. Cheney says his grades fell "too low for me to be able to sustain the economic assistance the school was providing."

"I was not well organized in my youth," he says. "... I really didn't like it, I didn't like the East, I wasn't a good student. ... I don't like to blame the university. It wasn't their fault. I just wasn't prepared to buckle down."

So, he explains, "I left and went to work. Spent a couple years building power line transmission {towers} out in the West, then got serious about getting married, and it was clear that Lynne wasn't going to marry a lineman for the county. I had to go make something of myself if I was going to consummate the relationship, and so I went back to school at the University of Wyoming and finished up a BA and a master's there and then went to {the University of} Wisconsin and did all the work for my doctorate except the dissertation."

School records show that, while Cheney may have spent a couple years on power line jobs, he also maintained an unbroken student status from January '63, when he entered Casper Community College (he didn't mention it in the interview, perhaps because he was there only one semester), through January '67, when he turned 26 and was no longer eligible for the draft. He later abandoned his dissertation when Rumsfeld, impressed by a memo Cheney wrote while a congressional intern, hired him to come to the Office of Economic Opportunity.

"In terms of the qualification for the current job," he says now, "I'm the fourth civilian, the fourth secretary who has no prior military service. It's a civilian job, and so I've never felt it a hindrance of any kind.

"I get paid to go find people to give me military advice, not to be one of them that offers military advice."

Losing and Winning During his decade on the Hill, Cheney was also the congressman who never saw a welfare program he didn't hate. He had a reputation among Republicans as a go-along, get-along guy. With a 90 percent rating from the American Conservative Union and a 4 percent from Americans for Democratic Action, he presented a public persona as principled yet nonabrasive -- what Andrew Melnykovych, who covered him for the Star-Tribune, calls "this image as a pragmatic moderate. He wasn't aloof, but he kept his personal and professional life separate. What I always got from him was a clear sense of purpose."

Others, Democrats in particular, got something else. "He's able to appear so cool and rational, but there's this other side," says a former congressional aide who witnessed private meetings between Cheney and other members of Congress on aid to the Nicaraguan contras. "There was a harshness, that sneer he'd get, sort of attributing bad motives to his opponents, that you were suspect, that you were pro-Communist. There was venom -- he made some very vicious remarks. He scares me." This former aide asked not to be identified, citing Cheney's popularity and success in the war.

Cheney's relentless partisanship broke the surface when he issued a 155-page minority report as a member of the congressional Iran-contra committee, rejecting the committee's condemnation of the Reagan administration and asserting that there had been "no systematic disrespect for the 'rule of law.' "

But always -- in public at least -- the flat, calm exterior.

"Never loses his cool," says his buddy Carlucci.

Never?

Of their regular Sunday morning tennis games, Adelman says, "We've beat them for 15 years solid. They get such a thrill out of winning a point."

"Adelman," says Cheney, "he lies about his tennis game."

Adelman: "The only time Dick was really furious with me was on the court. Dick's a little wild on the court, winds up like crazy. Well, one time when he served, Carol got hit in the stomach, got the wind knocked out of her. And I said to her -- it was a joke -- in hushed, worried tones, 'Does Dick know your condition?' And he just about fainted. Then she said to me, 'You jerk, why'd you do that?' And Dick turned to me and said, 'That really was not funny.' He was really mad."

Usually the guy doesn't get mad, he just has heart attacks?

Adelman: "Every time he's behind in the polls, he pulls the heart attack trick. They're all in August or September, all in even years."

In 1983, the Cheneys coauthored a book, "Kings of the Hill: Power and Personality in the House of Representatives," a historical study of important House leaders. They concluded, among other things, that "a future leader will identify aspects of the institution that can be used as instruments of leadership, although their potential has heretofore gone unnoticed or been unrealized."

As he faces a battle with Congress over the shape of the mandated 25 percent cut in U.S. military forces over the next several years, Cheney says he's already identified one thing that will come in handy.

"It helps," he says, grinning, "to have just won a war."