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Inside Dick Cheney: 'Choose your friends carefully'

Published August 8, 2007 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

These days nearly all non-fiction books have subtitles, the explanatory stuff set off by a colon from the main title. In the case of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President, a new biography by Stephen F. Hayes, the subtitle needs a subtitle.

With the sub-subtitle, the cover of the book would read, Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President: Which Actually Reveals Hardly Anything You Didn't Already Know if You're Already Obsessed with Dick Cheney.

The blurb on the cover that says "With hours of exclusive interviews" should read, "With hours of exclusive interviews in which the vice president reveals hardly anything."

However, because I am obsessed with Dick Cheney, and because Jonah Goldberg, the conservative pundit, called Hayes' book "riveting," I spent $27.95 on Cheney. Here is what I learned:

(A) Jonah Goldberg is easily riveted; and (B) Dick Cheney used to be an astoundingly normal guy.

Whatever untold stuff Cheney told Hayes in the 30 hours of one-on-one interviews the subject granted his biographer had to do with his normal years, roughly those between his birth in 1941 and his rebirth in 1993 as a scholar-in-residence at the American Enterprise Institute:

The young Cheney played football, hunted and fished in Wyoming. He played pranks and flunked out of Yale. He worked on railroads and power line crews, held a union card and was arrested twice for drunken driving. He got married and got serious, started a family and enrolled at the University of Wyoming.

He played the draft deferment game with great skill, finished his bachelor's and master's degrees and the course work for his doctorate in political science. Then, more or less by accident, he wound up in Washington, where, 10 years after living in the back of a truck and stringing power poles in Wyoming, he found himself as White House chief of staff for President Gerald R. Ford.

Even then he was pretty normal, more interested in the mechanics of governance than ideology. He was the ultimate staff guy, moving paper, working the levers of power. He drove a Volkswagen and rehabbed his own house. He played elaborate practical jokes. After 1976, he spent most of the Carter and Reagan years in the House of Representatives as a loyal member of the moderate Republican leadership, and then became Secretary of Defense for President George H.W. Bush.

Four years after Bush's re-election defeat in 1992, Cheney toyed with running for president but opted out "for family reasons," notably the fact that his daughter, Mary, had come out as lesbian and he didn't want to expose her to the spotlight of a national campaign.

All normal stuff, even admirable.

And then came the transformation. He joined AEI, the neo-conservative think-tank, and began rubbing shoulders with people whose view of the world was far more ideologically driven than his. He got big-rich when he took over the Halliburton Corp., hanging out with barons of oil and industry, offering the argument that "any discussion of social responsibility has to take note of the enormous contribution made by this (oil and gas) industry." He began filtering his normal experiences through different sets of expectations. What emerged was the phlegmatic Dark Lord of secrecy and nearly unlimited executive powers we've come to know and love.

Hayes suggests as much, if only inadvertently, by quoting extensively from a graduation speech Cheney gave in May 2006, at Natrona County High School, his alma mater in Casper, Wyo. "Choose your friends carefully," Cheney advised. "They have a big influence on the kind of person you become. ... In many ways, when you choose your friends, you choose your future."

I should say that this is my interpretation of Hayes' material, and not that of the author, who writes for the neo-conservative journal The Weekly Standard. Hayes' book is uncritical of its subject. His previous book, The Connection, purported to disclose the links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, which may explain the access the vice president granted him.

For all the access and all the 600 interviews Hayes says he did in researching his book, there's not much new here for a Cheney-phobe, or even a Cheney-phile. The reader who wants to understand the vice president would be better served by reading Bart Gellman and Jo Becker's five-part series, "Angler," which appeared in The Washington Post in June (http://blog.washingtonpost.com/cheney" Target="_BLANK">http://blog.washingtonpost.com/cheney/).

The most telling quote in Hayes' book is one that the truly Cheney-obsessed may have seen before. It comes from an interview Cheney gave to USA Today in 2004; its puckish humor suggests that even the old Cheney may find the new Cheney a bit extreme:

"Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It's a nice way to operate, actually." ---

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may write to him at: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 900 North Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63101, or e-mail him at khorriganpost-dispatch.com.