Sunday, February 19, 2006
Feb. 27, 2006 issue - Dick Cheney has never been your normal politician. He has never seemed as eager to please, as needy for votes and approval and headlines as, say, Bill Clinton. Cheney can seem taciturn, self-contained, a little gloomy; in recent years, his manner has been not just unwelcoming but stand-offish. This is not to say, however, that he is entirely modest and self-effacing, or that he does not crave power as much as or more than any office-seeker. This, after all, is a man who, in conducting a search for George W. Bush's vice president, picked himself. Indeed, since 9/11, Cheney has struck a pose more familiar to readers of Greek tragedies than the daily Hotline. At times, he appears to be the lonely leader, brooding in his tent, knowing that doom may be inevitable, but that the battle must be fought, and that glory can be eternal.
If, as he ponders the Threat Matrix at his daily intelligence briefing, Cheney really sees himself as a modern Achilles or Hector on the plains at Troy, he is not just being grandiose. A few weeks after 9/11, NEWSWEEK has learned, Cheney worried that he and his family and his staff might have been exposed in an anthrax attack. According to knowledgeable former officials, a mysterious letter turned up at the vice president's mansion. (A former senior law-enforcement official recalled that sensors went off.) The alarm turned out to be false. Still, to be safe, Cheney and his entourage began taking Cipro, the powerful antibiotic. The story was hushed up. (Cheney's office referred NEWSWEEK to the Secret Service, which declined to comment.) Cheney prefers to be a quiet warrior, severe perhaps, but not bleak—just resolute.
Stoicism can be a great attribute in a leader. "I have no feelings," the statesman Gen. George C. Marshall once said, "except for those I reserve for Mrs. Marshall." And there can be no doubt that, privately, Cheney was badly upset by shooting another man, 78-year-old Texas lawyer Harry Whittington, in a hunting accident. That night Cheney sat alone on the porch of his guesthouse, saying very little as others came and went. "He was shaken, crushed, miserable," his host, Katharine Armstrong, told NEWSWEEK. "I could have gotten up and wrapped my arms around the vice president." But she didn't; no one did. (Lynne Cheney had not accompanied her husband on the trip.)
In human terms, it is perfectly understandable why Cheney was in no mood to talk to reporters then or for several days thereafter. It is a little odd, however, that he did not speak to President George W. Bush until Monday morning, 36 hours after the shooting, and just as peculiar that Bush did not call him. The talking heads immediately speculated that Bush had somehow cooled on the vice president for his handling of the shooting incident, for pushing the invasion of Iraq, for becoming a lightning rod for administration critics.
Cheney is often lauded as that rare No. 2 who, having no political ambition for himself, can give his all to the president. But Cheney's aloofness from the ebb and flow of politics and public opinion has apparently dulled his senses in a way that is not helpful to his boss, who has been busy lately defending his administration from criticism that it was badly out of touch during Hurricane Katrina.
Sounding less than convinced himself, Bush tried to calm down the hunting-accident press flap. Cheney, said Bush, had done "just fine" with Fox News anchorman Brit Hume, who was granted an exclusive interview with the veep four days after the shooting.
Cheney's words and manner in that 20-minute session were indeed affecting: "Ultimately, I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry," he said, speaking in a monotone but looking grave and sad. "That is something I'll never forget ... It was ... one of the worst days of my life." Cheney's backers lashed out at the pundits and comics for taking ghoulish delight in the accident. "The vice president has so pissed off the establishment media that they've been waiting for anything to get him," says former senator Alan Simpson, Cheney's old Wyoming friend of 40 years.
But the shooting incident once again drew attention to the unusual nature of Cheney's power. He remains by far the most powerful vice president in history, and one of the most secretive and mysterious public officials to ever hold such high office in America. He is caricatured as a Darth Vader, spooky, above the law; nefarious.
What happened to the genial, gently amusing Dick Cheney of the 2000 vice presidential debate? After he and Al Gore's running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, exchanged good-humored quips, more than a few voters wondered why the tickets couldn't be flipped—allowing a couple of affable, common-sensical Washington hands to run for president instead of Bush and Gore, who at times seemed like the wounded sons of great political dynasties, groaning under the burden of expectation. Cheney, the conservative that moderates once seemed to like, has strangely iced over in recent years. Even his old friends sometimes wonder if he has not grown angrier, more suspicious, even paranoid. Last fall, Brent Scowcroft, national-security adviser in the George H.W. Bush administration, caused a stir by telling The New Yorker magazine, "I consider Cheney a good friend—I've known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore."
Has Cheney changed? Has he been transformed, warped, perhaps corrupted—by stress, wealth, aging, illness, the real terrors of the world or possibly some inner goblins? The few who know him (and few really do) aren't saying much, except to argue that he takes a longer view than the mean politics of the moment. But there is no doubt that Cheney has become less amiable, less open, less willing to conciliate and seek common ground than he was as a younger politician. A man who was shepherded by the Secret Service to his bunker during 9/11 has stayed there—even when that has not been helpful to the president.
Guessing at the causes of his darkening persona is a favorite Washington pastime. A widely held theory is that Cheney, 65, was affected by heart surgery (he has had four heart attacks, angioplasty, a quadruple bypass and a pacemaker). It is true that heart patients sometimes undergo mood or even personality changes, but there is no solid evidence in Cheney's case.
A surer bet may be that he changed with his circumstances. As President Gerald Ford's young (age 34) chief of staff, as a six-term congressman and then as secretary of Defense in the Bush 41 administration, Cheney was surrounded by, and required to work with, moderate Republicans. Though his own politics were very conservative, there was always someone around like former Reagan chief of staff and Bush secretary of State James A. Baker to rein him in.
Then, in 1995, Cheney became CEO of Halliburton Co., the giant military contractor. He entered the exclusive preserve of very rich men who could, by and large, get their way. The new role suited Cheney. He began going on frequent hunting trips, partaking of a sport he had enjoyed since youth. (His partners in recent years have included various tycoons and sports heroes including oilman T. Boone Pickens and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach.) He flew around on corporate jets; aides and retainers attended to his whims. His political ties were to True Believer conservatives—especially his wife, Lynne, a feisty ideologue and, by most reports, a bit of a diva, though an engaging one.
The VIP world inhabited by Cheney is perfectly symbolized by the Armstrong Ranch, where the hunting accident occurred. More than 50,000 acres of rolling country, the ranch is "Gosford Park" with a twang—not quite as gilded or as pampered as an English country house on a shooting weekend between the wars, but just as private and entitled in an understated, elegant way. Quail hunting is an elaborate ritual on the great Texas ranches, performed with outriding guides to find the birds and trained dogs to flush and point and fetch. There are servants and cocktails and barbecues and not a reporter for miles around. The ranch is as insular, in its own way, as the vice president's official bubble.
Cheney's shooting party was a cozy group of rich Republicans and Texas "squirearchy." The owner of the ranch is Anne Armstrong, a grande dame of the GOP, onetime ambassador to the Court of St. James and a former member of the Halliburton board that picked Cheney to be CEO. (She was also mentioned as a possible vice president for Gerald Ford.) Armstrong's daughter Katharine, strong-willed and lively (Laura Bush chose her to sit beside Prince Charles at a recent White House dinner), accompanied Cheney on the shoot and described the scene to NEWSWEEK:
It was late afternoon, and the hunters were ready to call it a day. Harry Whittington, a prominent Austin lawyer and big-time GOP donor, had bagged two birds with two shots. "Great shot, Harry, you got a double!" called out Katharine. While Whittington went off with his dog and his guides to find the dead birds, Cheney and Pam Willeford, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein and another major GOP donor, went ahead to look for another covey of birds. Cheney spotted a bird flying behind him, swung around with his Italian-made 28-gauge shotgun toward the setting sun and pulled the trigger. Whittington, wearing a regulation orange vest, was approaching out of a slight gully, some 30 yards away.
Armstrong, watching from an off-road vehicle about a hundred yards away, saw Whittington fall. A team of Secret Service agents bolted out of the car and ran past her, one of them shouting an expletive. Gun in hand, Cheney rushed over to the fallen Whittington. Later, the vice president rode back with Armstrong. "You'd have to be an idiot not to see what the poor man was going through," recalled Armstrong. "It was very quiet. I remember leaning forward and squeezing him on the shoulder." At one point Cheney said, "I never saw him."
Back at Cheney's lodgings at the ranch—guest quarters called Uncle Tom's House—there was no discussion of a public statement. The White House was at first informed in surprisingly cryptic and cursory fashion—the Situation Room was told of an unspecified shooting accident in the vice president's hunting party. It took a phone call from presidential counselor Karl Rove to Katharine Armstrong ("Karl's one of my closest friends in life," she told NEWSWEEK) to sort out what had happened and report back to President Bush—that the vice president was the shooter and that Whittington had been wounded, though apparently not fatally. That night, according to a senior White House official who refused to be identified discussing a sensitive matter, Cheney did not speak to either Bush or the White House staff or his own press people. He did speak with David Addington, his chief of staff and former lawyer who is a strong proponent of executive power and secrecy.
Cheney's aides would later say that he wanted to be absolutely sure of the facts before going public, and Whittington's condition remained a little uncertain. At first, the wounds were deemed to be minor, but on Sunday morning the hospital was reporting that some of the tiny birdshot had penetrated his body in potentially dangerous ways. In Washington, White House staffers were quietly urging Cheney's staff to somehow go public with the shooting. But Bush never picked up the phone to call Cheney, either to console or to offer counsel.
Shortly after 8 a.m., a local deputy sheriff arrived at the ranch to take a statement from Cheney. By then, it was clear the story could not be contained. Cheney and Katharine Armstrong talked about how to get the story out. "What do you want me to do?" Armstrong asked. "What do you feel comfortable doing?" Cheney replied. Armstrong knew a reporter at the local paper, Jaime Powell of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Powell understood hunting and had written a sensitive and favorable obituary of her father the year before. Frantically leaving messages ("Jaime, I need you immediately"), Armstrong couldn't find Powell on her cell phone, and it was nearly 2 p.m., after much back and forth between Armstrong and the paper, that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times finally put up a short story on its Web site.
VICE PRESIDENT SHOOTS MAN, as some news services announced the story Sunday afternoon, was a headline guaranteed to create a press frenzy. Armstrong proved to be a less-than-ideal spokesperson for Cheney. She appeared to blame Whittington for the accident, noting that he had failed to announce himself as he approached Cheney from behind. (Most hunters squarely put the responsibility on the man with the gun.) She said there had been "no, zero, zippo" drinking at lunch, whereas, as Cheney later acknowledged, he had drunk a beer.
Cheney has long had a chilly relationship with the press. Some of his advisers say he is merely indifferent to reporters, while his wife and daughters are more aggressively hostile. But in any case, journalists are usually left guessing at his whereabouts and activities, and the vice president seems to take a certain pleasure in keeping it that way. NEWSWEEK once accompanied Cheney on a trip to upstate New York, where he met with several Marines just returning from Iraq. After about 30 seconds, Cheney asked his handlers to "kick the press out." Eying the departing reporters, he offered his slightly lopsided grin and announced, "It always makes my day."
Cheney's chief press adviser through a series of press secretaries and communications directors has been Mary Matalin, longtime GOP politico, wife of fellow media celebrity James Carville, and now a private consultant. If anything, Matalin reinforces the Cheney family's disdain for the Fourth Estate (Matalin did not return several phone calls from NEWSWEEK).
Matalin is about the only one who could even try to persuade Cheney to talk. His official staff is a little afraid of him. NEWSWEEK once asked his press secretary (there have been seven of them since he became vice president) if Cheney went to church on Sundays. The spokesperson confessed she really couldn't ask the veep; the question was just "too personal."
By Monday, Matalin was toying with some kind of public statement by Cheney, but then on Tuesday Whittington's condition took a slight turn for the worse—a birdshot pellet was inflaming some tissue near his heart. On Tuesday the vice president remained silent. White House aides were becoming increasingly restive, anxiously joking that if Cheney were more of an ambitious veep, like Al Gore, he would be crying on "Oprah."
The president had met with Cheney privately on Monday morning at the White House before the daily intelligence briefing. According to a White House aide speaking, as usual, anonymously, Bush listened closely and watched Cheney's body language to see how emotional the accident had been for someone not given to public displays of feeling. "The president wanted to give him some room to handle this," the senior aide said. "The president could visibly tell this was weighing heavily on him and he felt, in his judgment, that he should not push him too hard."
Finally, on Wednesday, as the press continued to fulminate and the late-night comics had their fun, Cheney decided—apparently on his own initiative—to go public. A press conference was out of the question; it would have turned into a circus, Matalin told radio host Don Imus. Fox News's Brit Hume was chosen as a friendly but also serious and credible interrogator, which he was.
Cheney told Hume that hunting has "brought me great pleasure over the years," but that "the season is ending, and I'm going to let some time pass over it and think about the future." Cheney's hunting friends, who describe him as a crack shot (the veep has downed as many as 70 pheasants in a single day) as well as a by-the-book and safety-conscious hunter, don't believe he will permanently lay his gun down. "You have to learn from these things, and that's the kind of hunter he is," says Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, a close friend. "He'll be back. He'll be out there as soon as he can. It's in his blood."
Cheney is accustomed to being feared and even loathed; still, to be an object of ridicule cannot be easy. Last week Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the former majority leader who was pushed out by the White House in 2002, told The Washington Post that he had greeted the vice president, who had gone to Capitol Hill to meet with some lawmakers, as the "Shooter-in-Chief." Cheney, Lott reported, did not seem amused.
Cheney may simply accept that his lot is to be vilified—and that history can be his only redeemer. In the late fall of 2002, as the Bush administration was readying for the invasion of Iraq, Victor Davis Hanson, an agrarian classicist whose writings about the 9/11 attacks, primarily in the National Review online, had attracted Cheney's attention, was invited to dine at the vice president's mansion. Hanson found Cheney to be intellectually curious, well read, and not at all zealous. "He had no illusions about going to war with Iraq," Hanson said. "It was to him a least bad choice." Over dinner, Hanson recalled, "we talked about Lincoln, about leaders who had gone through hell. I had a vague feeling of tragedy," Hanson said, then corrected himself: "Tragedy is the wrong word. There was a sort of resignation. I think he understands that the vilification of the moment is not the final word."
Others close to Cheney had suggested that he was profoundly affected by 9/11. It is hard for anyone who was not in Cheney's shoes that day, and in the weeks and months that followed, to appreciate the stress and uncertainty of that time. Around 9:35 on the morning of 9/11, Cheney was lifted off his feet by the Secret Service and hustled into the White House bunker. Cheney testified to the 9/11 Commission that he spoke with President Bush before giving an order to shoot down a hijacked civilian airliner that appeared headed toward Washington. (The plane was United Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field after a brave revolt by the passengers.) But a source close to the commission, who declined to be identified revealing sensitive information, says that none of the staffers who worked on this aspect of the investigation believed Cheney's version of events.
A draft of the report conveyed their skepticism. But when top White House officials, including chief of staff Andy Card and the then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, reviewed the draft, they became extremely agitated. After a prolonged battle, the report was toned down. The factual narrative, closely read, offers no evidence that Cheney sought initial authorization from the president. The point is not a small one. Legally, Cheney was required to get permission from his commander in chief, who was traveling (but reachable) at the time. If the public ever found out that Cheney gave the order on his own, it would have strongly fed the view that he was the real power behind the throne.
Cheney spent much of his time after 9/11 in his "undisclosed location." The threat seemed terribly real. Cheney spent a great deal of time working on a "decapitation plan"—i.e., shaping a fill-in government in a horrific event in which he and the president and other top leaders were taken out by a terrorist chem-bio or nuclear attack. After the suspected anthrax attack, a gallows humor permeated the veep's office. Watching Cheney load his hunting guns into his car as he prepared to leave the mansion on a trip that fall, an aide cracked, "I hope it's not that bad." Actually, Cheney was getting in plenty of hunting—in upstate New York, South Dakota, southern Georgia and Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Cheney unquestionably exerted enormous influence on Bush in those early days. But Bush's aides say that the president has become less dependent on Cheney for advice, particularly in foreign affairs. The two men still have private lunches, but no longer every week. There are signs now that Bush listens to more-moderate voices on national security. On a range of foreign-policy crises, from Iran to North Korea, Cheney's forward-leaning posture has given way to the mainstream, multilateralist approach advocated now by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
It was possible to dimly discern Cheney's shakier footing last week in the ongoing dispute with Capitol Hill over warrant-less eavesdropping. Uneasy about the administration's disregard for the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires court warrants to eavesdrop on communications into the United States, three Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee were agitating for greater oversight. Cheney, who has been the most aggressive defender of the administration's power to wage war (including spying) without congressional approval, went up to the Hill to quell the rebellion. For several hours on Tuesday, he met behind closed doors in the intelligence committee's secret hearing room with the senators. Two days later intelligence committee chairman Pat Roberts, a staunch Bush ally, was able to put off a vote on whether to open an investigation.
It appeared that Cheney, though pale and obviously distressed by his hunting accident, was still capable of quietly exerting influence. But then Roberts began showing some restlessness. He began suggesting that perhaps the wiretapping program should be brought under FISA after all. His remarks came after the White House seemed to soften a little and suggest that it would be willing to disclose more information about the program and talk to senators about changing the law. Suddenly, Cheney no longer seemed so all-powerful, so sure of getting his way.