When Dick Cheney took the stage on February 18 at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where thousands of right-wingers had gathered to speechify, debate, and hone their message, it seemed just like old times. The surprise appearance of the former vice-president was the idea of his older daughter, Liz, the blonde and biting critic of President Obama who was scheduled to make her own star turn at the conference. The details of the stealth operation were known only to the Cheney family and a small circle of aides and shared, says one person involved, on “a need-to-know basis.”
Liz arrived alone at the Washington, D.C., Marriott Hotel, while her sister, Mary, spirited their father through a side door and up to a room on the eighth floor, his undisclosed location, a short walk from the main stage. With 45 minutes until showtime, Liz met them in the room, where she practiced her speech in front of her father. The message: The president is dangerous and unwise, a fact even her 9-year-old daughter can plainly see, but conservatives are now resurgent, a righteous minority on the rise.
“They’ll try to attack us, and they’ll play dirty,” she warned. “They’ll try to silence us … President Obama, you will never silence us.”
Her father was pleased and proud. It had been a long and fruitful year for the Cheneys, whose ubiquity on the national scene had surprised members of both parties. By the end of the Bush administration, Dick Cheney had become one of the least popular politicians in America (approval rating: 13 percent), and it was expected that once out of office he would, as he put it, “go fishing” and wait for history to prove him right or wrong. But it quickly became clear that Dick couldn’t sit on his hands—and neither could Liz. She has spent nearly every day since her father’s departure from the White House attempting to extricate him from the jaws of infamy by turning current events into a referendum on his policies. Casting herself as his defense lawyer, she has appeared on television 40-odd times in the last year. And she’s conducting the research for a Dick Cheney memoir, a book she persuaded her father to write.
“She’s more combative and she would rather he answer more critics than his own instincts might suggest,” says Barton Gellman, the author of Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. “He doesn’t care what people think of him; she does.”
During the Bush years, Liz Cheney became her father’s close adviser, fighting proxy battles for him inside the State Department. By the time Barack Obama was elected, her views on U.S. foreign policy had become even more hawkish than her father’s—amplified, say associates, by bitterness over Dick Cheney’s treatment in the press and by fellow Republicans, including former Bush officials.
“They were hurt,” says Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming senator and friend of the Cheneys since the sixties. “Liz especially. There’s always the feeling of the unfairness of the treatment of her dad. That would drive a person.”
It’s driving her straight into the family business. As she builds a platform for herself with a political-action group called Keep America Safe, Republican Party strategists are already taking her measure for a congressional run as early as 2012. The same people who alighted on Sarah Palin, including Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, are hoping she can tap the anxieties of the so-called security-mom base that Palin helped to energize.
“She’s likely to seek office in Wyoming or Virginia,” says Karl Rove, the former Bush political adviser and a man who knows something about the underestimated children of political families.
But it will require a serious campaign—and a bit of well-orchestrated political theater—to pull it off. So while Liz prepared to go onstage at CPAC, Mary snuck their father into the VIP holding area, where the Cheney entourage quietly fielded BlackBerry messages about the rumor that the former vice-president was in the building. Word of his appearance had been artfully leaked to friends at Fox News, prompting Greta Van Susteren, host of On the Record, to post on Twitter: “just got email from fox colleague that her father vp cheney to walk her on stage.”
The fuse was lit. As Liz spoke, the crowd roared with expectation, hanging on her every word but also looking over her shoulder, until finally: “There is one man in particular we all know who certainly has taught me what it means to have the courage of your convictions,” Liz said, a grin spreading across her face. “You know who I’m talking about.”
And out came Dick, a bit thinner than anyone remembered, his hair whiter, with a slight hobble, but beaming with delight at his rock-star reception. As the crowd chanted “Run, Dick, run!,” he looked like he could hardly believe how much fun he was having. But he reminded the crowd that he was there for his daughter: “There comes a time when those of us of our generation need to move on” to make room for the next generation. After his speech, Dick Cheney headed home, while Liz stayed and signed autographs.