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The Cheney Government in Exile

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Liz Cheney
Illustration by Roberto Parada  

Five days after the conference, the former vice-president suffered his fifth heart attack. Liz told reporters that he was fine and following doctors’ orders. It’s no easy thing to be calm in the face of such health scares, but Liz and Mary have been dealing with them for most of their lives. Their father had his first heart attack in 1978, when he was just 37. That was the summer of his first run for Congress, when Liz and Mary campaigned with him, wearing HONK FOR CHENEY sandwich boards and waving American flags from the family RV.

By that point, the girls had already begun to view their father as a historical figure. As chief of staff to Gerald Ford, Cheney had worked seven days a week, bringing his daughters to the West Wing on Saturdays to let them watch cartoons (and eat the candy they found in Donald Rumsfeld’s secretary’s desk). White House photographer and Cheney-family friend David Kennerly teased them and snapped photos at Camp David.

History is a theme for the Cheneys. Lynne, who holds a doctorate in literature and writes children’s history books (America: A Patriotic Primer), is presently working on a biography of James Madison. Dick gravitates to military and war histories and took the girls, when they were young, on summer trips to Civil War sites. In 2000, when Cheney was elected vice-president, Liz and Mary commissioned a cartographer to create a map depicting the route taken by their great-great-grandfather’s Union regiment. Their father hung it in his White House office.

Through the years, Liz recorded numerous interviews with her father for posterity. She sat in on about 30 of the 40 hours of interviews with Cheney’s official biographer, Stephen Hayes, a writer for The Weekly Standard whom Liz personally vetted before introducing him to her father. When Hayes pressed record on two tape recorders, Hayes recounts, Liz Cheney turned on two tape recorders of her own.

Hayes says she frequently interjected, prompting Cheney to recall certain anecdotes. When Liz reminded her father about a fabled makeout spot where he used to take her mother during their courtship days in Casper, Wyoming, he surprised her with recollections of another place he liked better. “It was darker,” he said. “You could get around much better.” Liz rolled her eyes: “You guys can talk all about that later.”

When Dick Cheney left office in January 2009, it appeared he’d lost the historical argument—the legacy of botched Middle East warfare, legalized waterboarding, secret detentions, and domestic wiretapping hanging around his neck like a millstone. His final months in office were unhappy ones, and he told friends he was looking forward to retirement. But just two weeks into Obama’s presidency, he launched himself back into the national dialogue, warning of the “high probability” of nuclear or biological attack if his policies were softened. Sitting by Cheney’s side during the first fateful interview was Liz.

Cheney’s appearance stunned colleagues, especially former Bush aides, who didn’t like the idea of him as the face of the administration’s legacy. It seemed preposterous to think Cheney could somehow escape the bonds of the Bush years, but his unwillingness to cede any ground turned out to be a political masterstroke. “At the end of the day, the debate on national-security policy, removed from Afghanistan and Iraq, is a live debate,” says Steve Schmidt, the senior adviser for Senator John McCain’s presidential bid. “It’s not over yet. Vice-President Cheney’s record isn’t going to be judged in isolation.”

The Cheneys are now a stripped-down operation: Dick Cheney keeps an office at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, where he has an aide, Peter Long, helping him with research. But mostly he works from home. On weekdays, Liz leaves her small children with a nanny, so she can work on the memoir either at her house or at her parents’. When her father has something to say about Obama, the former vice-president takes a break from the book to prepare a political attack, feeding statements to his preferred media conduit, Politico.com. Liz, who advises him on his statements, serves as the media go-between. “She is a conduit of information to and from her family,” says a former Cheney staffer.

Setting the Cheney record straight is going to be a long battle on multiple fronts. The first, of course, is the book. Mary Matalin, a longtime family friend and adviser, is the publisher, having acquired it for the conservative imprint she runs for Simon & Schuster. According to Matalin, Liz “helps pull material together for him, provides outlines of key topics, supervises research projects, and helps in the drafting.”

“It’s going to be Dick Cheney in full,” promises Alan Simpson. “And Liz will assure that it is. It will be a hell of a book. She is right there with him because she can recall things that he couldn’t.”


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