A man’s character lives in the books he loves. So perhaps the search for the soul of Dick Cheney should lead to the books that mean enough to him to merit a mention in his new memoir, “In My Time,” which is due out Tuesday.
It may not be surprising that the former vice president, who has a warrior’s soul if not the combat boots, had an early fascination with the battlefield. Before he was a teenager, Cheney writes, he pored over battlefield maps detailing French forces at war in Vietnam. When his family moved to Casper, Wy., in 1954, Cheney, just 13, turned his imagination toward World War II. He read “Guadalcanal Diary,” correspondent Richard Tregaskis’s classic account of Marines at rest and in battle, and “Those Devils in Baggy Pants,”paratrooper Ross S. Carter’s account of fighting the Nazis.
In Casper, young Cheney was drawn to stories of Western mountain men full of whiskey and curses. He loved A.B. Guthrie’s 1947 novel “The Big Sky,” which, he writes, recreated the “high plains and higher mountains that was now my backyard.”The Guthrie novel was surpassed in his heart only by Bernard De Voto’s “Across the Wide Missouri.” This 1947 history of the Western fur trade brought the landscape, in De Voto’s words — “gullies, knife-edges, sage, greasewood, and . . . small sweet creeks flowing among cottonwoods” into sharp relief. “I’ve reread ‘Across the Wide Missouri’ many times since my youth,” Cheney writes, “It’s one of those books I’ve never really put away.”
By 1962, Cheney was a groundman, or grunt, working for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. A book making the rounds among the crews was “Slim,” William Wister Haines’s 1934 novel about the life and lore of line work, later a movie starring Henry Fonda. Cheney was drawn to the story of a young line crew member who, as he writes, “learned how great it felt to do work he was good at and could take pride in, how satisfying it was to have the money he earned in his pocket.” Meanwhile, his appetite for war books remained strong. Around this time, he also had his nose in Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II.
While serving in the House in the late 1970s and 80s, Cheney read Barbara Tuchman’s “The Proud Tower,” her masterful collection of essays on the run-up to World War I. Tuchman’s portrayal of House Speaker Tom Reed prompted the congressman and his wife Lynne to write a book of their own on speakers of the House. “Kings of the Hill” came out in 1983 and reveals the prickly perspective of the future vice president. A reviewer for the Post noted that Cheney’s book drew portraits of “kings [that] are more repellant than inspirational.”Sam Rayburn, the reviewer said, “is portrayed as a pathetic self-promoter obsessed by power’s trappings, not its constructive fruits.” In his memoir, Cheney recounts that Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill complained about the chapter on Rayburn. “He did not think that we had sufficiently praised ‘Mr. Sam,’ whom he had known and loved,”Cheney writes.
And well, that’s it. Noticeably missing from the pages of Cheney’s memoir are references to books examining the big issues of our day — issues of crucial importance during his tenure with the Bush administration. From his memoir, it is impossible to know if he took any counsel at all from the estimable books of the past decade on national security, terrorism, torture, Islam, domestic surveillance. He remains opaque to the end.
Steven Levingston is Book World’s nonfiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveLevingston.