NPR logo Dick Cheney: The Man and the Mission

Dick Cheney: The Man and the Mission

There's an old saying that's often borne out in politics: Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.

The latest proof of this adage may be Vice President Dick Cheney, who came to Washington with an academic's intention to study power but stayed to learn how it felt to wield it — big time.

In the course of his career, Cheney rose to be a leader in Congress, a wartime secretary of defense, a multinational corporate chieftain and finally, the most influential vice president ever.

Some people rise to prominence in Washington while still quite young. Others reach their zenith at an age most people associate with retirement. Cheney's experience defines both extremes.

Arriving in town as a congressional fellow with the American Political Science Association in the late 1960s, he went to work for a young House member from Illinois named Donald Rumsfeld. When Rumsfeld moved into the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, Cheney went with him. When Gerald R. Ford succeeded Nixon, Rumsfeld's star rose still further and Cheney's with it.

In 1975, not yet turned 35, Cheney took Rumsfeld's place as White House chief of staff. During his time in the Ford White House, battling huge Democratic majorities in Congress, Cheney became convinced that the militants from the Hill were emasculating the presidency. It became his mission to resist and reverse that trend.

As it happened, he found the best way to do this was to enter Congress and take part in a revolt against its long-dominant Democratic culture. He was elected to the House in 1978, got on the leadership ladder after just one term and eventually rose to the No. 2 job. Along the way, he was a strong backer of President Ronald Reagan on nearly all issues, and he defended the chief executive as the top House Republican on the Iran-Contra investigating committee in 1987.

In 1989, he gave up his clear shot at the top GOP position in the House to return to the administration, this time as secretary of defense for the first President Bush. His main task in this job was helping to win the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But in short order, he found himself unemployed: The first Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992.

That formative experience was quickly followed by another. He became chairman and CEO of Halliburton, the giant energy company with interests around the globe. Although he had no experience in business, Cheney was just the government savvy, world-wise operator Halliburton's board wanted. And he led the company through a period of expansion. Nonetheless, he had to watch from afar as others ran the White House in ways he could not abide.

Then, in 2000, Cheney was tapped to lead a search for a running mate for Bush's son, George W. Bush. In the process of doing so, he impressed the younger Bush so much that he was asked to fill the role himself. If he hesitated, it was not widely noticed. After all, this was the chance to return to the mission Cheney had set out for himself a quarter of a century earlier.

And who can argue that Cheney has not devoted himself totally to accomplishing that mission over the past five years? From the earliest days of the second Bush administration, Cheney has been asserting the primacy of the executive branch over other power centers in government. Moreover, he has been insisting on the right of the executive to exercise these powers with a minimum of oversight by others — inside the government or out.

Far from submitting White House plans to others for discussion, Cheney asks why others need to know about those plans at all. And as for the media, well, the less said to them the better. Cheney has simply never accepted the notion that the media represent something other than themselves.

His modus operandi was evident with the task force Cheney assembled to advise the president on energy policy in the weeks after the Supreme Court declared President Bush the winner of the 2000 election. To this day, the White House has refused to say who took part, let alone what advice they offered.

In the year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Cheney became the leading advocate of a response strategy centered on Saddam Hussein. That strategy was carried forward by a leadership team that started with Rumsfeld, Cheney's old mentor, and a top level policy crew of their choosing. The continuing war in Iraq is likely to be remembered as Mr. Bush's war, but it might as well be called Mr. Cheney's.

More recently, the Bush administration has raised warning flags with its efforts to discredit war critics tied to the State Department or the CIA (the Valerie Plame affair), and again with its efforts to wiretap domestic calls originating with suspected terrorists overseas (the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program). Cheney says such activities are plainly within the president's rights — even his duties.

In the one interview Cheney has given about his hunting accident, he also mentioned to Fox News anchor Brit Hume that the vice president has the power to declassify documents. He referred to an executive order, signed the month of the Iraqi invasion, which extends to Cheney the presidential power to classify information.

Whether that extends to declassifying is far less clear, and Cheney immediately refused to say whether he had declassified any information unilaterally. But here again, Cheney presented this executive assumption of major authorities long thought to be delimited by law almost casually — as if it were obvious to anyone.

So to a degree, at least, the mission of Dick Cheney has been accomplished. The powers of the presidency he once saw as diminished have been restored and made more robust.

But here is where the game gets more difficult. If there is a long-lasting effect from the riot of interest in Cheney's wayward shotgun blast, it may be a heightened awareness of Cheney himself. He has prospered by operating offstage, and that may well be harder to do now. If Cheney has drawn too much attention to himself, people are likely to ask more questions about what he and the rest of the Bush team have been up to — and plan to do next.

The expansion of powers has brought many another chief executive to grief, in this country and in others. A long, steep climb to a peak can easily be followed by a sudden fall. And in such a fall, the executive office itself could be damaged for many years to come.