Backseat Driver: From the Ford Years to the Gulf War, Dick Cheney Served as the Model of a Discreet Insider. Now He Will Add Depth to the Bush Ticket-But Will He Also Tilt It to the Right? the Man beneath the Placid Surface

Newsweek, August 7, 2000 | Go to article overview

Backseat Driver: From the Ford Years to the Gulf War, Dick Cheney Served as the Model of a Discreet Insider. Now He Will Add Depth to the Bush Ticket-But Will He Also Tilt It to the Right? the Man beneath the Placid Surface


Colin Powell had barely closed the door to Dick Cheney's Pentagon office when the secretary of Defense broke the news. "I'm going to fire Mike Dugan," Cheney told Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was September 1990, and the United States was headed for war with Iraq. Dugan, the Air Force chief of staff, had just told The Washington Post, among other things, that air power was the only way to beat Saddam Hussein, and that the Israelis had advised that the best way to hurt him was to target his family, personal guard and mistress. Powell was appalled by Dugan's loose lips but, according to his 1995 memoirs, still tried to save the general's job. "Let's make sure the punishment fits the crime," he cautioned Cheney. When Powell watched his facial expression "set like hardening concrete," he knew there was no dissuading him. "As soon as you leave the room," Cheney said, "I'm calling Dugan and I'm relieving him."

Indiscretion and self-promotion are high crimes in Cheney's world. His Secret Service code name was once "Backseat," and not by accident. From his days as a whiz-kid chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, he has been both faithful subordinate and ultimate insider. As a vice presidential running mate, Cheney, now 59, fits seamlessly into the culture of the Bush family, where loyalty and team play count for just about everything. Cheney the candidate makes Al Gore look almost electric, something many Republicans discovered when he took a short-lived look at entering the 1996 presidential race. But he also brings a resume that may reassure voters with doubts about Bush's depth. And Bush clearly aims to use Cheney's reputation for probity and plain-speaking as a contrast to Bill Clinton's evasions. In a debut rally at the Casper, Wyo., high school Cheney attended, Bush described his new partner as a man who "knows what the meaning of 'is' is."

But Cheney's rollout also hit some bumps. His heart problems--three attacks and a bypass since 1978--raised questions. So did his rigorously conservative voting record, which Democrats quickly began to pick apart. Cheney's moderate and quietly congenial style made his legislative scorecard a surprise for those who thought congressional conservatives come only in the Tom DeLay and Jesse Helms models. But Cheney, vehement defender of Ollie North and foe of social spending and abortion rights, was no moderate in 10 years (1979-89) as Wyoming's sole House member:

Cheney opposed a 1985 ban on armor-piercing "cop-killer" bullets. He says that gun violence can be curbed by enforcing existing laws.

He voted against continuing Head Start in 1986, although he now says he would support the preschool progam.

A Westerner instinctively wary of federal interference, he fought initiatives protecting clean water and endangered species. One exception: voting to protect Wyoming wilderness from oil and gas drilling.

Cheney opposed economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa in 1986, and voted against a resolution calling for Nelson Mandela's release from prison. He says he believed that sanctions would only harm black workers. As for Mandela, conservatives complained that his party, the African National Congress, was communist-dominated.

Cheney fired back in interviews, calling the criticism "crap." He said he was proud of his record, but also backpedaled a bit, claiming that some of the votes were the result of procedural traps set by Democrats. Bush defended his new partner unconditionally. "This is a conservative man," he said. …

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Backseat Driver: From the Ford Years to the Gulf War, Dick Cheney Served as the Model of a Discreet Insider. Now He Will Add Depth to the Bush Ticket-But Will He Also Tilt It to the Right? the Man beneath the Placid Surface
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