Big Number Two


Campaigning in Michigan for the Bush-Cheney ticket last Friday, John McCain introduced the next speaker as a man of “resolve, experience, patriotism,” and slyly went on to dub him “very debonair.” Needless to say, he was talking about Dick Cheney. Perhaps the most hated figure in an administration crawling with them, Cheney is surely the spookiest veep in American history, a man who spent most of the last three years in some undisclosed location, seemingly unable to decide if he’s Dr. No or He Who Must Not Be Named. Now that it’s election time, he’s turning up everywhere, serving up dripping red meat at Republican fundraisers, defending the honor of the nice folks at Halliburton, and contrary to all evidence, insisting on Saddam’s links to 9-11. Oh well, at least William Safire believes him.

Each time Cheney emerges from the shadows, you grasp why he’s been wise to spend most of his career there. This became doubly apparent when John Kerry selected John Edwards, whose effervescence perked up that logy campaign like a tall stack of Alka-Seltzer. In contrast, Cheney’s been an overdose of Lomotil. When asked who would make a better president, 47 percent said Edwards compared to only 38 percent for Cheney—and half the voters said they didn’t know anything about Edwards. Then New York’s ex-senator Al D’Amato emerged from the Black Lagoon to float the idea of dumping Cheney. His words were picked up by CNN’s Paula Zahn, and soon you were hearing references to the Bad Ticker Scenario—you know, Dick’s heart problems would force him to “withdraw.” The idea reached its tipping point on July 15 when Elizabeth Bumiller began her article on the dump-Cheney talk by calling it “as ingenious as it is far-fetched”—and The New York Times put it on the front page.

Although the punditry was united in its conviction that the vice president’s place on the ticket was secure, this didn’t alter the basic facts about his dour unlikability. Cheney’s a Wyoming Hobbesian whose doom-laden vision of life as a dog-eat-dog struggle has not only defined our nation’s foreign policy but his own public persona. He’s become one of our pop culture’s sickest jokes. When most Americans under 30 think of Cheney, they picture Eminem electrocuting him with his defibrillator in the great “Without Me” video or Saturday Night Live‘s Darrell Hammond portraying him as a maniac prone to bursts of mad glee—only half his face can smile.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Bush first chose him, he was considered a reassuring Number Two. “His unique talent,” writes James Mann in Rise of the Vulcans, “was to convey a sense of soothing solemnity; Cheney could make whatever he said so obvious, reasonable and self-evident that listeners often didn’t stop to question it.” Moderate in manner if not in essence—his House voting record was to the right of Newt Gingrich’s—he developed a mystique as the acme of hard-nosed competence, who could transform an underperforming bureaucracy the way 007 could convert a killer lesbian. Even better, he was reckoned a level-headed adviser, schooled in the catechism of omertà. Think Tom Hagen. (In Showtime’s preposterous docudrama D.C. 9/11: Time of Crisis, Bush tells Cheney, “I’m going to need you at my side at all times, consigliere.” The veep beams.)

Poppy was delighted when Dubya chose Cheney as a running mate. This loyal family retainer would help keep his hotheaded son out of trouble as neatly as Cheney had kept himself out of Vietnam (he’s the peregrine falcon of chicken hawks). But having lived a charmed life, the elder Bush didn’t know the riptides of thwarted ambition that tear at any politician who devotes years to deference. Cheney himself had once dreamed of running for the White House. Something deep in him rebelled at playing second fiddle to a dabbler like George W. Far from serving as a dutiful éminence grise, he became an intimidating veep who surrounded the president with a praetorian guard that kept out dissenting opinions. “That’s the way Dick likes it,” observed former secretary of the treasury Paul O’Neill.

That’s the way incurious George likes it too. Bush has many reasons for not cutting Cheney loose: his fetish of loyalty, his fear of appearing weak, his awareness (noted by E.J. Dionne on Sunday’s Meet the Press) that without Cheney as his extremist lightning rod, he himself would be taking the hits for his administration’s wayward policies. Most important, perhaps, Cheney is a security blanket both for Bush (who, it’s worth recalling, doesn’t travel without his home pillow) and the hardcore Republican base, which sees him as the symbol of right-wing toughness—the gentile’s Ariel Sharon. Conservatives may feign outrage at Whoopi Goldberg’s mirthless puns about Bush and pubic hair, but they adore Cheney for telling Senator Pat Leahy to “fuck off.” He was expressing their movement’s bottomless feeling of grievance.

With his conservative rhetoric and corporate values—he’s the military-industrial complex made flesh—Cheney could be the poster boy for the bait-and-switch conservatism dissected by Thomas Frank, whose new book What’s the Matter With Kansas? provides a trenchant antidote to the sociological maunderings of David Brooks, the Pangloss of patio culture. For the last several years, Frank argues, the right has perfected a potent two-pronged political strategy. It pursues “free market” policies that hurt working people while making the rich even richer, yet hides this economic class war behind a rhetorical class war against the amoral, latte-slurping “liberal elites,” who supposedly don’t share the “values” of ordinary people. This story line lets the Republicans speak a populist lingo while pursuing an anti-populist economic agenda.

Predictably, Republican Party big shots betray the “culture war” conservatives as routinely as Democratic leaders do their own most loyal minorities. The Bush administration has used its clout to pass tax cuts for the wealthy and finance the biggest weapons increase since the Reagan years, including money for research on new nukes and another $10 billion in the 2005 budget for Cheney’s prize hobby horse, the Star Wars anti-missile system. (It passed the Senate 98-0.) But when it comes to values stuff, the party tosses its supporters crumbs.

Although Reagan ostensibly backed a constitutional amendment banning abortion, he never pushed for it; in fact, he used to address the annual pro-life rally in Washington, D.C., by phone so he wouldn’t be seen with its leaders on the nightly news. The Bush administration has largely done the same, making a halfhearted hash of “faith-based” programs and vaunting a “compromise” stem-cell research decision so cynically incoherent it even got twinkly Michael Kinsley stomping like Rumpelstiltskin. But as for attacking abortion head-on—no way. Bush and Cheney aren’t going to champion a certain electoral loser. Especially when losing on values issues is actually good for the party. As Frank observed last week on Charlie Rose, each time an anti-abortion measure fails or a court rules against prayer in the schools, this merely increases the right-wing base’s furious sense of impotent victimization.

The conservative shadow play became clear during the recent Senate debate over the amendment banning gay marriage. While Democrats could hardly be bothered to show up in the chamber—the bill’s failure was a foregone conclusion—it was a source of high feeling to the Christian right. While Pennsylvania senator Rick (“Man-on-Dog”) Santorum implicitly compared gay marriage to terrorism, Texas senator John Cornyn compared it to a man marrying a box turtle, an analogy so clueless that it made you wonder if Cornyn’s performance was an Ali G spoof.

As a born-again MBA from the Harvard Business School, Bush played the issue both ways. He spoke firmly in the amendment’s defense, then didn’t lift a finger to pass a bill that could only make him seem intolerant. Still, the real farce was the game of Twister played by the Cheney family, which has a lesbian daughter, Mary, in its midst. Or apparently in its midst: Although she’s director of vice presidential operations for the Bush-Cheney campaign, she’s been so invisible that when you Google her name, the first thing that comes up is, which wonders where she’s gone. Back during the 2000 campaign, when Republicans wanted to look inclusive, Dick Cheney declared that gay marriage was a question of states’ rights. This year, the hard right demanded more, and so our very debonair vice president used all his resolve, experience, and patriotism to pander: He backed the amendment. But lest we think he actually gives a damn, his terrifying wife, Lynne—who occupies some weird terrain of shame and denial about her daughter’s private life—neatly covered the other base. She declared that the gay marriage question should be left to the states. Say what you will against the right, it’s always heartwarming to see mere personal bigotry transcended by reactionary principle.

John Powers’s book Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America will be published by Doubleday on July 27.