There is something any reporter knows about President Bush and Vice President Cheney: They don't answer hypotheticals. Ask either about Iraq and you'll get a well rehearsed, cogent missions statement in response. They altogether snub "what if scenarios," twisting the question toward whatever points they wish to convey.
But what happens when you engage the Vice President on topics that do not stud the copy of our newspapers? What happens when you ask about the personal decisions that influenced his career? As I learned last week, he leans forward with delight and the words come-no pour-out.
Such was the case during a recent conversation I had with Cheney. To my surprise, the Vice President turned out to be an unskimping conversationalist, zigzagging from his health to the buffooning of his younger days to his current role in the war on terror.
Most surprising, perhaps, were the stories of his misspent youth. He was, admittedly, a precocious 18-year old, hard at work following his whims and puffing away on three packs of cigarettes a day. "I did not distinguish myself," deadpans Cheney, who ended up flunking out of Yale.
After spending some time in the real world, building power and transmission lines in the West, ambition blossomed. Cheney went back to school, burrowed through his classes, and promptly graduated from the University of Wyoming. He returned for an MA, and nearly completed all of the work for a PhD at the University of Wisconsin, before traveling to DC with a grant to study Congress for a year.
It was while maneuvering through the political thickets that his future emerged with sudden clarity: "I realized I enjoyed doing it more than I did talking about it or studying it, that I loved politics and public policy." Cheney quit the PhD program and sincerely embarked on his life's calling: politics. A few years later President Gerald Ford tapped him to be Deputy Chief of staff. Cheney was 34 years old when he took over as Chief of Staff.
In the ensuing decades Cheney served in four administrations, all invaluable experience that left him quite convinced that he could do the job himself. Cheney set up a political action committee for a few months in 1994, before deciding "I really didn't want to do those things I would have to do to be a candidate." And so he receded into private life.