Why Is This Man Gloomy? A Biographer Gains Rare Access to Vice President Cheney-But Little Insight into His Psyche

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Byline: Evan Thomas

Dick Cheney may be a taciturn man, writes author Stephen F. Hayes, but the vice president can become animated discussing doomsday scenarios. In his new biography, "Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President" (578 pages. HarperCollins. $27.95 ), Hayes tells the story of the Cheney family, sitting around their new big-screen TV in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on a recent Fourth of July, watching the 1997 movie "The Peacemaker." Starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, the film is about a plot to blow up New York with a nuclear bomb. Partway through the movie, Cheney's wife, Lynne, entered the room and asked what was happening. The question was directed at no one in particular, but the vice president launched into "a 10-minute, scene-by-scene synopsis of the action," according to Lynne's brother Mark Vincent. She interrupted to clarify her question: "What's happening now?"

Cheney, writes Hayes, woke up on the morning of September 12, 2001, asking: when is the next attack? A lot of Americans woke up that day asking the same question, but while many have been lulled back into semicomplacency, Cheney has never stopped worrying and wondering and--it must be said--trying to do something about it. The vice president has become a kind of modern-day prophet of doom. He is seen by many Americans as slightly creepy, if not sinister. Of course, he could be right: Al Qaeda may well be, as recent intelligence reports suggest, gearing up for another and possibly more catastrophic attack. But what makes Cheney so dire, so animated by gloom?

You won't find a psychological explanation in Hayes's new book. A writer for the conservative Weekly Standard, Hayes is largely uncritical and essentially buys into the picture of Cheney-as-Stoic, a throwback to an ancient Greek warrior who can see the Fates gathering but grimly and bravely soldiers on. Hayes recounts a scene told to him by David Bohrer, the vice president's official photographer, about Cheney at a Secret Service test-driving track in Beltsville, Md. The Secret Service was teaching Cheney how to drive to evade terrorists by executing a "J-turn." Cheney, who had not driven a car in about two years, jammed the Chevy Camaro into reverse, hit the accelerator until he was going about 40 miles an hour, then slammed on the brakes in order to spin the car a full 180 degrees. Bohrer had mounted a camera on the windshield to record Cheney's face. The veep was expressionless throughout. "It was as if he was taking a Sunday drive," Bohrer told Hayes.

Intelligence officials often talk about the importance of preparing for "worst-case scenarios." Cheney seems to have always been ready for the worst. Maybe he learned not to count on good fortune after he lost his scholarship to Yale. Kicked out a second time, Cheney drifted back to Wyoming and was twice arrested for drunken driving. Hayes reports that Cheney always felt a sense of loyalty to Donald Rumsfeld because Rumsfeld persuaded President Gerald Ford to overlook Cheney's youthful indiscretions when Cheney was under consideration to succeed Rumsfeld as White House chief of staff. It was during the Ford years that Cheney first began worrying about "continuity of government" questions--what happens if the top of the American government is "decapitated." The nuclear threat of the cold war and two unsuccessful assassination attempts on President Ford explain some of Cheney's early preoccupation, but not all of it. …