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The Cheney Government in Exile

Dick and Lynne Cheney with Liz; her husband, Philip; and their daughters, Kate, Grace, and Elizabeth, near Moose, Wyoming, in 2004.  

But the medium where Liz has proved herself to be invaluable to the family cause is television. She has been waging a scorched-earth campaign to characterize Obama as “misguided” and “dangerous” and defend her father as a man of backbone in a world of wafflers and wimps. Unabashed and stunningly direct, Liz called Obama’s Nobel Prize a “farce” and the Democrats’ attacks on her father’s policies “incredibly irresponsible” and “appalling.” Most recently, she released a political ad attacking the “Al Qaeda 7,” seven unidentified Justice Department lawyers who previously represented terrorist suspects, which she equates with treason.

What inspired her anti-Obama campaign was the administration’s release of secret CIA memos detailing the legal rationale, approved by Dick Cheney, for waterboarding, which left open the possibility of criminal prosecutions for former Bush officials and CIA operatives. The Cheneys were apoplectic at the “unprecedented” move, and maybe even afraid of legal blowback, having already been stung by the prosecution of Cheney’s former chief of staff Scooter Libby, who became ensnared in the CIA-leak investigation of the Valerie Plame affair.

In April 2009, on Liz’s first major TV appearance of the Obama era, MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell grilled her about her father’s role in authorizing what she called legal torture of terrorist suspects. Cheney could hardly mask her contempt. “Well, it wasn’t torture, Norah, so that’s not the right way to lay out the argument,” she snapped. As O’Donnell, mouth agape at Cheney’s responses (“Listen to yourself, Liz!”), grew more and more exasperated, Cheney only got more defiant, arguing that the near drowning of suspects was practically humane, when you think about it, and delivering the Cheney-brand coup de grâce: a cold, brutalist vision meant to silence all comers.

“If Al Qaeda captures an American, they cut his head off,” she said. “So I think it’s very important for us to sort of take a step back from the emotion of this and say we needed to be able to get evidence about imminent attacks.”

“I was excited about Sarah Palin; I’m more excited about Liz. She gets people worked up. She is in harmony with the base.”

Cheney’s blonde coif and genial smile ostensibly made her the kinder, gentler face of Dick Cheney, a soft rebranding of the man some people called Darth Vader. But rather than distance herself from her father’s controversial actions, she embraces them, even revels in them. She takes issue with what she calls the conventional wisdom about Dick Cheney (that he had sold the war on false premises and bent the law to conduct a shadow government in the wake of 9/11), and posits an alternate universe in which Obama’s election wasn’t really a rebuke of the previous administration at all but a large-scale refutation of reality. Iraq? “We’re on the verge of winning that war, and you’ve got to give that credit to Dick Cheney and George Bush,” she said, placing her father’s name before Bush’s. Guantánamo? With Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and Debra Burlingame, the activist sister of a 9/11 victim, Cheney launched Keep America Safe with the twin goals of keeping Gitmo open and portraying Obama’s early desire to close it as dangerously weak on terror.

Despite the fact that Obama has become, in some sense, a war president, the Cheneys’ attacks have had a lingering political potency. The administration has “given the Cheneys an open field,” says Thomas Wilner, a prominent lawyer in the fight to close Gitmo. “Cheney says these things which are demonstrably wrong, and [Obama] doesn’t go rebut it, and people believe them. It’s a great mistake, I think.”

Liberal critics have been outraged that the TV networks give the Cheneys so much on-air real estate for their crusade. Fox is a regular pulpit, of course, but Liz is also all over NBC, where she happens to be social friends with Meet the Press host David Gregory (whose wife worked with Liz ’s husband at the law firm Latham & Watkins), family friends with Justice Department reporter Pete Williams (Dick Cheney’s press aide when he was secretary of Defense), and neighborhood friends with Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski, daughter of Carter-administration national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. When Mika criticized Dick Cheney on her show last year, the former vice-president sent her a box of chocolate cupcakes.

Lawrence O’Donnell, an MSNBC pundit who engaged in a particularly testy shouting match on Good Morning America with Liz Cheney over waterboarding, says the networks have allowed her a high degree of control over her appearances. “She had up to that point been completely accustomed to having interviews go her way and ceded on her terms,” he observes. “She has been careful to make sure that the interviews worked that way.”

And yet, connections aside, Liz Cheney is also remarkably effective as a television pundit, a right-wing messenger designed to infuriate the left, even her name a liberal bugaboo. She inspires hundreds of angry e-mails to MSNBC when she appears on its programs. Joe Scarborough, host of Morning Joe, told me he personally finds her “too shrill,” but he’s impressed by her spine. “She doesn’t back away from unpopular positions,” he says, “and she also doesn’t immediately swat away questions about whether death panels are contained in the health-care bill or Barack Obama was born in America. She gives absolutely no quarter.”