Loyal service under four Republican presidents and a decade of leadership in Congress brought Richard B. Cheney (born 1941) to the inner circle in President George Bush's cabinet as secretary of defense. Assuming the post in March 1989, he faced Panamanian and Iraqi crises as well as an altered relationship with a disintegrating Soviet Union.
After weeks of contentious testimony, President George Bush suffered the first major defeat of his presidency when former Senator John Tower of Texas, his original choice for secretary of defense, was rejected by the full Senate. A day later, on March 10, 1989, the president nominated Representative Richard Bruce Cheney of Wyoming to the post. In a week the Senate confirmed him unanimously.
The 48-year-old legislator came to the office strictly through the political route, but both sides of the Senate aisle agreed that he brought to it an agreeable style, an amiable outlook on life, and a near flawless gift for dealing with people. A dedicated Republican, he left the 101st Congress as its newly-minted minority whip, a position second only to that of minority leader.
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on January 30, 1941, "Dick" Cheney was raised in Casper, Wyoming, by his parents, Richard H., a Department of Agriculture employee, and Marjorie L. Dickey. After a stellar secondary school career, he floundered at Yale, leaving in his sophomore year to return home, where he worked for the next two years before returning to college. Beginning again at the University of Wyoming in 1963, he quickly won his B.A. in political science in 1965 and one year later was granted the M.A. in the same discipline.
The Road to Washington Through Wyoming
While at Wyoming he undertook several internships, one with the state legislature and another in the governor's office. These whetted his appetite for government service and led him to apply for a coveted fellowship which brought him to the Washington office of one of the House's most highly respected members, William A. Steiger of Wisconsin.
The assignment drew him to the capital in 1968, a year of turmoil marking the end of eight years of Democratic control of both White House and Congress. While some careers were eclipsing, Cheney's was just beginning to rise. The Nixon administration, hungry for youthful blood, put him to work as special assistant to Donald Rumsfeld, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Cheney and Rumsfeld worked well together, the latter taking Cheney with him as deputy when he became White House counsel and as assistant director of operations when Rumsfeld became director of the Cost of Living Council. These positions, which Cheney held from May 1969 to March 1973, gave him an enviable education in government from the inside.
But Watergate Washington in 1973 was no place for a non-lawyer in his early thirties, particularly one with limited private employment experience. He took the vice presidency of an investment advisory group named Bradley, Woods and Company. Agnew's resignation in 1973 and Nixon's departure the following summer thus passed him harmlessly by and in fact opened new horizons.
Joining the Ford Administration
In August 1974 the call came to join Donald Rumsfeld on President Gerald Ford's transition staff. Cheney began life in the new administration at a considerably higher level than he had left the old. He was to serve as deputy assistant to the president, seconding yet again his close associate, Rumsfeld.
In the heady air of the White House, where absurdity is often called reality, Cheney remained himself: loyal, good-natured, pragmatically conservative, extremely civil, and extraordinarily hard-working. These traits brought him to the post of assistant to the president and chief of staff when Rumsfeld became Ford's choice to head the Department of Defense.
Cheney served the president from November 1975 until the end of his administration in January 1977. In the execution of his duties, he cultivated an old-fashioned "passion for anonymity" that would have done justice to many in the eras of Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower.
As chief of staff he was privy to the issues confronting Ford those days and had a direct role in advisement on political matters as well as responsibilities for scheduling the president and managing the White House staff. Once more, this was an education no graduate school could impart.
Return to Wyoming, Then a Return to Washington
Ford's defeat by Jimmy Carter sent Cheney back to Wyoming and private employment. But the lure of Washington was too great, and in 1978 he entered the Republican primary, winning it despite being stricken by a coronary attack in the midst of his campaign. Defeating his Democratic opponent in November, he entered the 96th Congress as his state's solitary member of the House of Representatives.
During the next decade of his life, from January 1979 until March 1989, Congressman Cheney consistently defined himself as a compassionate conservative. He made friends easily in both parties, assuming a leadership position early in his career. Re-election came easy to him, and he captured Wyoming's seat five times. Well-liked by his party, he was elected chairman of the Republican House Policy Committee in his second term, an unprecedented feat.
Cheney's political career as a congressman was benefitted greatly by the return of the Republicans to the White House in 1981. In domestic matters he joined right-of-center Republicans on issues such as abortion. In defense policy, he enthusiastically endorsed Carter, then Reagan, defense build up, including the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or Star Wars). And in foreign policy he supported Reagan's stands on Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Nor did he neglect Wyoming, espousing popular positions on environmental issues while supporting reasonable use of the state's mineral and forestry resources. For example, Cheney once refused the requests of other congressmen who only wanted to "borrow" some of Wyoming's share of Colorado River water. They would give it back, they promised, and were even willing to put it in writing, after the water shortage eased. "No way," said Cheney. "Once they get it we'll never get it back. That's how things work."
His standing in Congress made him a natural choice for service on the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Deals with Iran. Elected as the ranking Republican, and therefore co-chair, he disagreed strongly with the majority report, defending the Reagan administration on the Iran-Contra episode without whitewashing it.
Secretary of Defense
His ten years of service in the House made him a widely respected national figure. The combination of executive-legislative experience gave him an uncommon perspective and compensated for some of the shortcomings which might have impeded his confirmation as defense secretary. Lack of personal military service and little experience in dealing with the Pentagon were built-in objections to his suitability. But these were not seriously entertained, partly because of the circumstances of the Tower rejection but most probably and principally because of the character and nature of Cheney himself. He was up to the job, even if his resume might not trumpet the fact.
He came to the position with a track record of enthusiasm for weapons systems but at a time of severe retrenchment made imperative by the deficit crisis at home and possible by the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a world-class antagonist. He early established control over the massive military-civilian bureaucracy, reprimanding one general and removing another for remarks he deemed beyond their authority. It was clear that civilian control of the military as a principle would not suffer under his tenure.
His capacity for crisis management was demonstrated in the invasion of Panama, a foreign policy-military operation that proceeded successfully to the seizure of Panama's free-wheeling chief of state, General Manual Noriega. But Secretary Cheney's most important test came in August 1990 with the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Responding to President Bush's call for American troop involvement in the defense of Saudi Arabia, Secretary Cheney undertook a massive movement of material and personnel to the Persian Gulf, where, in response to United Nations Security Council resolutions, they joined other nations from all quarters in pursuing the restoration of the Kuwait monarchy and the protection of America's interests. On January 16, 1991 these resources were employed in a violent air war against Iraq. This was followed by a ground attack launched February 23 that destroyed the bulk of Iraq's military forces in 100 hours. Cheney's key role, along with Chief of Staff Colin Powell, made both men popular heroes. With the formal surrender of Iraq, Cheney turned to the task of reducing the strength of the U.S. military, closing surplus military bases, and other cost-cutting devices. His solid reputation and stand-out professionalism helped him carry out these largely unpopular measures.
During his tenure, President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and Cheney shaped their party's national security policy. The Bush team reduced the military budget, shrank the size of U.S. military forces, and engaged in a flurry of negotiations that ultimately produced the START I and START II treaties, the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Bush and Baker led the way to a doubling of the number of U.N. peacekeeping operations across the globe. They all grappled with the issue of disarmament. Cheney's statement, reflecting the Bush administration's course, attested to no new or emerging policy on arms and security: "Arms for America's friends and arms control for its potential foes."
A Voice in Government
Cheney remained Secretary of Defense until 1994, through the political changing of the guard which resulted in the election of Democrat Bill Clinton as president. After leaving his official duties as Secretary of Defense, Cheney remained a voice in government affairs, and frequently commented on Clinton administration choices. In January 1994, Cheney said that the United States should avoid "getting consumed with the problems in Moscow" and instead concentrate on building strong relationships with all the republics of the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine. In September 1994, he described the U.S. attempts to withdraw quickly from Haiti as "serious misjudgement" while pointing to the difficulties faced while attempting to leave Somalia. With tight budget times and downsizing at the Pentagon under way under the Clinton administration, Cheney was one of the eight civilian Secretaries of Defense invited to give "advice to the re-elected commander in chief" at a special event in Atlanta. In April 1997, he sent a letter to the Senate to protest the imminent ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Cheney was regarded as corporate America's choice for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, although he removed his name from consideration almost two years before the election. His name was published as one of 15 possible vice presidential candidates as selected by Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.
His wife, Lynne (Vincent) Cheney, whom he married in 1964, was a distinguished author and public figure and chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has a doctorate in English, is a former editor of Washingtonian magazine and taught at several colleges and universities. They have two daughters, Elizabeth and Mary.
Further Reading on Richard B. Cheney
Some biographical data on Cheney's governmental career can be gleaned from accounts of his White House contemporaries and from those of journalists. Gerald Ford's account, A Time To Heal (1979), and John Osborne's White House Watch: The Ford Years (1977), fit those categories. For Cheney's part in the Iran-Contra investigation, see Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1987, Vol. LXIII. His views on congressional responsibilities over national security, delivered at the end of his first year at the Department of Defense, can be found in "Legislative-Executive Relations in National Security," Vital Speeches (March 15, 1990).