The Great Insider-Outsider

Just who is Dick Cheney?

This week, I finally finished reading Dick Cheney’s fascinating but remote autobiography, In My Time.  It’s fascinating because it is a window on history – Cheney served in four administrations, helped guide the country during the first Gulf War and the War on Terror, watched one president fall (Nixon), and served in Congress, too.  Not a bad career.

But the book is remote because we never really get to see what shaped Cheney.  Where did his political philosophy come from?  Cheney cites only a few books he read growing up: Guadalcanal Diary and Those Devils in Baggy Pants, The Big Sky and Across the Wide Missouri – tales of adventure and daring and wholehearted Americanism.  His parents were Democrats, but we never find out what prompted his political transformation.  He was an academic, but never talks about the nature of his political science.  We don’t get much of the inner Cheney aside from his daily frustrations or celebrations of the nation’s biggest events.  We get a front-row view of the unfolding American drama, but we don’t get into Cheney’s head.

There is one portion of the book that is especially illuminating, however.  It describes Cheney’s first foray into Washington, D.C.  Cheney was accepted to a congressional fellowship, and he attempted to get a job with a young Congressman named Donald Rumsfeld.  Rumsfeld turned him down.  Instead, Cheney ended up working for Rep. Bill Steiger (R-WI).  When Nixon nominated Rumsfeld to become the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Steiger was recruited to join the brain trust for Rumsfeld’s nomination.  “It was widely thought that Nixon wanted someone to oversee the dismantling of the agency,” writes Cheney, “but that was a mistaken assumption.”  In fact, Rumsfeld then turned around and recruited Cheney for the task force on OEO; eventually he became Rumsfeld’s assistant.  “I didn’t know I was saying goodbye to the academic world forever and signing up for a forty-year career in politics and government – but it was exactly the right call,” Cheney writes.

Then comes the telling episode.  In September 1969, Gov. Louie Nunn (R-KY) vetoed OEO funding for a program in eastern Kentucky, “charging corruption and claiming that federal funds were being used to entrench the local Democratic Party and the Turner family that controlled it. Nunn, a Republican governor, had been an early an strong supporter of Nixon, and the White House naturally wanted to be responsive.  But the program was in the home district of Democratic congressman Carl Perkins, one of the most powerful men in Washington and chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, which authorized OEO’s budget.”

Rumsfeld promptly sends Cheney to Kentucky, where he pokes around and meets with the Turners.  There was no question, Cheney writes, that the funding was helping the Turners.  But his job “was to find out whether it was illegal.”  He told Rumsfeld, “There doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to charge illegality.”  Rumsfeld overrode the Nunn veto.

There are a few elements here that are particularly important for those of us outside of Washington, D.C. to understand.  First, those inside Washington, D.C. live inside their own little world, looking myopically at the tasks in front of them and the funding they need to accomplish those objectives.  They do not think bigger – why do we need an EOE? Who should pay for it? Why is funding more important than principle? – and so they end up perpetuating and growing the status quo.

Second, those inside Washington, D.C. see politics as a friendly dance rather than as the important competition for the future that it truly is.  They are playing on a whole different field from the rest of us.  In sports, many fans really dislike the opposing team. They are mortally offended when a member of that team cheats; they curse the referee when the ref allows that cheating to take place.  They don’t want players from opposing teams hanging out with each other.  But the players on the different teams rarely dislike each other.  They talk before the games and go out to dinner afterward.  It is left to the fans to fuel the simmering resentment that makes sports a draw.

The same holds true in politics.  Those of us who follow politics want to see the animosity that should naturally arise from a total conflict of ideology.  We don’t want to see John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi lunching together – we want to see them not speaking to one another, because they should be that committed to their positions.  The unspoken logic is that if they hang out together, they will come up with backroom deals together which will sell out both sides.  And that logic is, more often than not, correct.

Cheney’s book is a must-read because of his take on foreign policy, where he truly is a bulldog – that’s where the iconoclast Cheney who tells Pat Leahy to f— himself comes through loud and clear.  But when it comes to domestic policy, even our biggest Republican bulldogs are spending too much time in the bowels of government, learning to get along with the Democratic fat cats.