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The Insider

Dick Cheney comes from well within the old Bush inner circle. Is that all we need to know?

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There are a lot of reasons why George W. Bush picked Dick Cheney as his running mate. Charisma isn't one of them. When the Gulf War ended, you could have made a ticker-tape parade just from the press clips devoted to Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf. In that media rush Cheney went mostly unnoticed, though as the hawkish Secretary of Defense, it was he as much as anyone who put in motion the military option against Saddam. That's what a retiring manner will sometimes get you. On a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when Cheney was a powerful but mostly unassuming Congressman, he and a few other House members killed some time with a pop-psychology test. It was supposed to indicate the profession best suited to your personality. Cheney's turned out to be funeral director.

Henry Hyde, the Illinois Congressman, got it right a few years ago. "Dick doesn't make you want to throw your shoes over the Riggs National Bank Building," he said. "But he makes you nod affirmatively when you're thinking about a cool, competent, smart guy with good judgment, and a conservative." There were a lot of affirmative nods last week, even among some Democrats, when George W. settled on Cheney. Like the elder George Bush, he has a serious resume, with stops at the White House, Congress and the Pentagon, plus a career that hit warp speed when he was just 34 and became Gerald Ford's chief of staff. "He's bright. He doesn't have a mean streak. He deals with issues, not personalities. He doesn't run to the cameras," says Lee Hamilton, a leading House Democrat when Cheney was minority whip, the No. 2 G.O.P. leadership post in the House. "Dick always has been a person you can take ideas to and see how he reacts to them. You can confide in him."

Whether he confides in you is another matter. Around Washington, Cheney has long had a reputation as affable but guarded, easy to like but hard to read. In The Commanders, Bob Woodward's account of top-level decision making during the Panama invasion and the Gulf War, Powell, whom Cheney had recommended to be head of the Joint Chiefs and who depended on Cheney as a pipeline to Cabinet meetings he did not sit in on, complains that "Cheney comes back from the White House and tells nothing." Pete Williams, an NBC News correspondent who was for years Cheney's press spokesman, used to joke about how the capital was full of Che-ney watchers, a breed like Kremlin watchers, who would try to fathom the man's thinking from whatever small signs he gave.

We're all Cheney watchers now. Democrats started right away to claw through his congressional voting record for proof that he's no kinder, gentler Republican. Meanwhile, the Republican right is trying to decide what it will mean for the party message that Cheney's younger daughter Mary is openly and comfortably gay. But if you know any longtime Westerners, some of Cheney's reserve is not so mysterious. He was born in Lincoln, Neb., and he was just 13 when his father, a U.S. government soil-conservation agent, moved the family to Casper, a Wyoming oil town with sagebrush edges. At Casper's Natrona County High School he met his future wife Lynne. He was co-captain of the football team and president of the senior class. She was an academic star and, with some campaigning help from her beau, became prom queen--a preview of their status as Washington power couple three decades later, when he was in the Cabinet and she was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Until he arrived in Washington, Cheney's only substantial foray East was his four semesters at Yale. He entered on a scholarship, but flunked out--as he once explained it, he goofed off at Yale. Before long he returned to school at the University of Wyoming to pick up bachelor's and master's degrees in political science. Though he moved on to one of the most radicalized campuses of the late 1960s, the University of Wisconsin, he took no part in the campus protests against the Vietnam War. Like George W., who came to a tumultuous Yale two years after Cheney left, he held the revolution at arm's length.

He also kept his distance from military service. Though there is no evidence that he intervened with his draft board to stay out of uniform, Cheney made full use of legal means to avoid being called up. From 1963 to 1965, he got four student deferments. By the following year, he was married and got a different deferment, as an expectant father. (Yet as Secretary of Defense during the Gulf War, he opposed a bill, the Military Orphans Prevention Act, that would have allowed one member of a two-military-career family to stay back from the front lines if the couple had children.) Soon after, he was 26 years old and no longer draft age.

Not long after that, in 1968, Cheney left Wisconsin without finishing his doctoral dissertation. The outside world had a better offer--to become a Congressional Fellow for a Wisconsin Republican, William Steiger. In a pivotal moment in Cheney-lore, he caught the attention of Donald Rumsfeld, future chief of staff and Defense Secretary for Gerald Ford, when Rumsfeld asked Steiger to help him reorganize the Office of Economic Opportunity for Nixon. As Steiger's aide, Cheney wrote a precocious 12-page memo outlining how the place should be run. Rumsfeld, impressed, brought him into the agency and, after Nixon resigned, to the Ford White House. When Rumsfeld, by then Ford's chief of staff, was tapped for Defense chief, Cheney, despite his youth, was the obvious candidate to step into his mentor's job. "Cheney had evolved into a person who was interchangeable with me," Rumsfeld recalls. "By the time it came for the President to ask me to go to the Pentagon, really, it was a five-minute decision--and the first three were for coffee."

"He was very, very low key," recalls Brent Scowcroft, who was elevated to National Security Adviser the day Cheney was made chief of staff. "He made the system run. Everybody had access to the President, but it was smooth, orderly. He didn't try to be a deputy President." He even refused the limousine that came with the job, preferring to stick with his old Volkswagen, a beater so threadbare it had no knob at the top of the gearshift.

It was Cheney who tapped James Baker to run Ford's '76 presidential campaign. After Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, Cheney decided to make his own try for Wyoming's sole House seat. But just weeks into the campaign, he had the first of the three mild heart attacks he suffered between the ages of 37 and 48. While Cheney recuperated and brooded over what to do, his wife Lynne went out on the campaign trail for him for six weeks. He won with 59% of the vote. Twelve years later he underwent a quadruple coronary bypass--mostly, he insists, so he could continue hard-breathing pursuits like skiing and backpacking. Today he sticks to fly fishing and daily time on the treadmill.

As a House member, Cheney quickly started piling up the voting record that Democrats are now using for target practice. In some years it got him a 100% approval rating from the American Conservative Union. Cheney opposed the 1987 reauthorization of the Clean Water Act, a bill that most Republicans supported. He cast one of only eight nay votes. He voted against Head Start funding. He says he did that because of his fears about budget deficits, but Democrats were shooting back last week that those fears didn't prevent him from supporting Reagan's massive military-spending increase. By the end of last week Cheney was also fumbling for a way to explain his opposition in 1986 to a call for the release of Nelson Mandela from a South African prison. And he has been mostly silent on why he was one of only 21 House members who voted against a bill to regulate armor-piercing "cop-killer" bullets, then one of just four who voted against a ban on plastic guns that cannot be picked up by metal detectors.

If Cheney was a dedicated conservative, he was one of the pre-Gingrich variety, the kind who could vote against the Democrats all day and still abide by the old rules of cordiality toward the opposition, however much he grew to resent the autocratic leadership style of Jim Wright, the Democratic Speaker. When a young reporter asked Che-ney who was worth listening to among his House colleagues, he pointed her to Ron Dellums, a black Democrat from Oakland, Calif., who was far to the left of Cheney on just about everything. Whenever Dellums had the floor, Cheney told her, he always stopped to listen to what the man was saying.

It was around that time, in 1983, that Cheney and his wife Lynne co-wrote Kings of the Hill, a very readable history of House leadership. One of their conclusions was that many of the most effective Speakers rose to power by taking an obscure post within the institution and making it important. Cheney did just that with the House Republican Policy Committee, a moribund operation whose chief function when he reached it in 1980 after only one term in Congress was to crank out explanations to members of the G.O.P. position on various issues. Cheney turned it into an internal party forum, where a rising generation of G.O.P. bomb throwers led by Newt Gingrich could gain a hearing from the older leadership, who sometimes seemed to have made their peace with the idea that the Democratic majority in Congress was a permanent fact of life. Cheney used his stewardship of the committee to gain credibility with both generations of Republicans.

Early in 1989, the newly elected President George Bush ran into trouble with his first nominee for Defense Secretary, Texas Senator John Tower. Facing accusations about heavy drinking, womanizing and security lapses, Tower withdrew his name. Bush, who needed a new nominee who would get a quick confirmation from Congress, reached for Cheney, a popular Congressman. Cheney, who had little hope of reaching his dream of Speaker so long as the Democrats had a lock on the majority, quickly accepted. He was approved by a Senate vote of 92 to 0.

That was the year the Berlin Wall came down, but Cheney arrived at the Pentagon as a Gorbachev skeptic, unconvinced that this was the beginning of a new era in which the U.S. defense budget could be reduced by much. In the end, he delivered a 25% cut in the military, which required a major rethinking of Pentagon doctrine, and an ambitious and politically difficult plan for closing military bases in the U.S. He also went after some of the expensive but dubious weapons programs he had supported in Congress. He canceled the Navy's $57 billion A-12 attack jet, a move that stunned the weapons industry, and denounced the Pentagon procurement chiefs in public for lying about weapons costs, a problem that Reagan's Defense Secretary, Caspar Weinberger, would never so much as acknowledge. On arms control, however, Cheney, a skeptic again, dug in his heels. In his memoirs, Baker says Cheney argued so consistently in early 1990 that the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe was a bad idea that eventually Bush had to say, "I want this done. Don't keep telling me why it can't be." Says Scowcroft: "He's not a fan of negotiated arms control."

In the months leading up to the Gulf War, Cheney was far more aggressive about countering Saddam Hussein by military means than Powell, who, like Baker, believed that economic sanctions would bring Iraq to heel. Just two days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Cheney was pushing for American troops to go in to defend Saudi Arabia. "Dick was probably ahead of his military on this," Bush wrote in his and Scowcroft's memoir, A World Transformed. Cheney was dispatched to Saudi Arabia for one of the most sensitive missions of the war, persuading King Fahd to agree to a massive deployment of U.S. forces in the region--425,000 troops as it turned out, by January 1991.

When Bill Clinton unexpectedly ended the Bush years, Cheney found himself for the first time in decades without a government job or the prospect of one. Eventually he entered the same line of work as the Bush family, the oil business. The Halliburton Co., where Cheney has been CEO for the past five years, is the world's leading supplier of oil-field equipment. It hasn't been a job that requires charisma. Its labor and environmental practices have opened him up to attack. But it's been a job that in some ways he has done pretty well. All of that makes it a lot like the Cheney resume in general. --Reported by Massimo Calabresi, Viveca Novak and Karen Tumulty/Washington


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Cover Date: July 31, 2000

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