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.
Then Dubya came calling with an offer. "Initially I said, no to being Vice President," recalls Cheney, who cited health concerns and professional commitments as reasons for his rejection. Cheney did agree to help find a suitable running mate. A long search ensued, after which Bush looked at Cheney and said, 'I want your name on that list as a possibility. I want to be able to consider you as my running mate.'" Cheney said he would consider it. That was enough. "A few days later he called me and said, 'okay, you're it. I want you to be my Vice President.' And I saluted smartly and said, 'yes, sir.'"
It was a decision that would impact the safety and security of the nation. That came clear on September 11, 2001. "I was in the West Wing, and I watched on television as the second plane came into the World Trade Center -- the first one had already hit -- and knew at that minute that it was a terrorist attack…when I saw the second aircraft -- a beautiful, clear day, there was no other explanation," recalls Cheney.
Chaos ensued. There was talk of another plane heading toward the white house. Cheney wondered about his family, scattered across the country. The Secret service came stalking through the door, clutching the Vice President's shoulder and literally propelling him down a corridor, and into the emergency operation center underneath the White House.
From that bunker Cheney directed a response team, while remaining in constant contact with the President. Later that evening, his immediate family was rounded up. They were taken to an undisclosed, separate location from the president, to ensure that the two most powerful men in the world could not be killed by a single attack.
The Vice president continues to carry with him the thoughts and emotions from that day. They remain as both memory and a source of unending resolve. Cheney explains: "It's easy in these jobs to pass on to your successors a particular problem that's a difficult one to deal with, rather than grab hold of it aggressively now. We know that to the extent that we pursue the war on terror aggressively now, that our kids and grandkids are going to be better off. If we duck, if we postpone it, if we pursue sort of a turn-the-other-cheek approach to international terrorism, the problem will only get worse, and some future administration will have to take on the task that rightfully we should because we're here now, we understand it. It's been brought home to us with those 3,000 deaths on 9/11."
For four decades Vice President Cheney has left an imprint on work-a-day functions of our republic. His contribution to public policy remains as vivid as fingerprints. But it is the role of defender, has been the most important. It is his resolve to do what's right, as opposed to what's merely politically correct, that secures the well being of our nation.
"To serve the president well, to offer up wisdom and counsel, that makes it possible to do his job more effectively," is Cheney's declared goal; a commendable one too, which he continues to serve admirably.