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The Cheney Government in Exile

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Donna Brazile and Liz Cheney sparring on CNN in January.  

In fact, no issue is too small for Liz Cheney to deny to liberal detractors. When Chris Matthews, a vocal critic of Dick Cheney, pointed out that the Cheneys pronounced their last name “Chay-nee” on TV instead of “Chee-nee,” as the name is actually pronounced by the family back in Wyoming, Liz Cheney went on MSNBC the next day to declare Matthews misinformed. “I pronounce it ‘Chay-nee,’ ” she said with a genial smile. Later, however, a clip of her mother on the Diane Rehm radio show in 2007 appeared on the Internet: “Dick’s family always has said ‘Chee-nee,’ ” she said. “Most people say ‘Chay-nee.’ I think it’s out of politeness.”

But for Liz Cheney, it didn’t matter: “Chay-nee” isn’t just a name anymore, it’s a political brand.

The Cheneys all live within blocks of one another in and around the affluent Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia, where Liz Cheney resides with her husband and five children. Liz’s friends say she sets the bar for all-American normality: She watches Mad Men and 24 on TV, drives an SUV, attends Girl Scout meetings, and is frequently spotted on the sidelines of soccer fields, trading gossip with people like Terry McAuliffe, Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler, and other power players whose kids go to the Country Day School or the Potomac School. Her friends often point to her children as proof of her humility. “I think when you have that many children pulling on your pant leg and demanding a refill on the sippy cup, you come down to size pretty quickly,” observes Pete Williams.

It’s a well-honed political image that is more or less true, save for the power, privilege, and issues of national security: When Liz outfitted her dad’s office with toys to occupy her kids when they pay a visit to grandpa, the office was an undisclosed location meant to protect the line of succession in case a dirty bomb blew up the capital and killed the president.

People who have known them for years describe the Cheney family as unfailingly tight-knit, bound by their insular life together in the 40-year bubble of Dick’s career. In all things, they work as a focused political unit. “If you give them a choice of ten people to hang out with, they’ll pick their own family every time,” says Kennerly.

“Honestly, they’re like a Korean family,” says another person with ties to the Cheneys. “They actually sit around, the four of them, and come to a corporate decision.”

This spring, Dick and daughter Mary will roll out a new consulting firm called Yellowstone Associates, exploiting Dick’s ample Rolodex of energy-industry chieftains and Middle East dignitaries.

Growing up as the daughter of a Washington power broker, Liz Cheney was less Chee-nee and more Chay-nee, not nearly as interested in fishing and hunting in Wyoming as her sister, Mary, would become. “She was impressive even as a younger kid: bright, solid, not quirky or flighty,” says D. J. Gribbin, a family friend who walked to school with Liz in Bethesda in the late seventies, adding that she wasn’t “subject to the whims of fashion.”

Liz attended McLean High School, where she was captain of the cheerleading team, class of 1984. She rarely got into trouble, though she did once take Dick’s prized sports car for a spin against his wishes and wrecked it. It was a period, according to Pete Williams, when she was “testing the bounds of freedom.”

“She called his personal assistant asking her to soften the old man up before he got home, so it wouldn’t come as a huge shock,” he says.

Evidently crashing the car is a family tradition: It was after a 16-year-old Mary Cheney crashed her parents’ car, according to her memoir, that she confessed to her parents that she was gay. Liz clearly struggled with her sister’s sexuality. In 1991, the year gay-rights activists were threatening to out Mary, Liz approached family friend and Cheney State Department ally Richard Armitage for his opinion: Was homosexuality a function of nature or nurture? When Armitage said he believed it was genetic, Cheney seemed relieved. (A spokesperson for Cheney denies this conversation took place.)

At Colorado College, her mother’s alma mater, Liz felt outnumbered by liberals but didn’t bend to their views—a point of family pride. “Her mom was proud of the fact that Liz was very engaged, espousing her worldview and what was best for America, even in a context where most listeners wouldn’t have shared her worldview,” says Gribbin. Her 125-page senior thesis, “The Evolution of Presidential War Powers,” tackled the subject that had fascinated her father since Nixon’s fall and would consume him in the aftermath of 9/11. She argued that presidents had virtually unchecked powers during times of war, foreshadowing the legal advice of Bush-administration lawyer John Yoo, who wrote the legal memos justifying waterboarding.


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