The name Dick Cheney conjures images of Svengali or Rasputin. Even Republican White House staffers have called him “Edgar,” referring to the vaudeville ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, whom they see as Bush.
But has the man who’s considered a master at manufacturing false realities successfully manufactured one about himself?
Adversaries and defenders alike find Dick Cheney a puzzling character: taciturn and so obsessed with secrecy that he is willing to go to any (sometimes paranoid) lengths to elude accountability and remain in the shadows; simultaneously arrogant and non-egotistical; a problem-solving technocrat or a Machiavellian monster, depending on your point of view; an avuncular presence with a soothing voice capable of delivering untruth or preposterous distortion with such breathtaking reassurance that even experienced politicians or journalists come away convinced; reassuring to some, vicious to others; a factotum to his political masters and yet, somehow, their behind-the-scenes puppeteer; a brilliant opportunist; a man who always seems in control and careful, yet is sloppy and takes aggressive risks; an apparently committed ideologue who is also apparently utterly amoral and without real principle except for a determination to accumulate power (but not necessarily for himself); self-sacrificing of his own personal ambition (to be the president, for instance), yet nonetheless ruthlessly ambitious; a man whose mature “adult” demeanor is contradicted by an adolescent locker room snideness; a personality tinged with gloom and resignation.
From a psychological point of view, how do all these odd pieces fit together, and, most importantly, what effect does the psychodynamic that binds them have on the processes and the policies of the administration of President George W. Bush?
Finding information about the vice president on which to base a psychological understanding of him is not easy. His friends like to say jokingly that “Dick Cheney is always at a secure undisclosed location, even when he’s sitting right in front of you.” His daughters describe him as a remote figure, a bull walrus out on a rock by the Arctic Ocean.
When Cheney was 13, his family moved to Casper, Wyoming, from Lincoln, Nebraska. Accounts of his days at Casper’s Natrona County High School offer early glimpses into his psychology.
The coach wanted to reject Cheney and his buddy Tom Fake from the varsity football squad because they were too small. The pair demonstrated potential usefulness by charging hard at each other four or five times. They made the team. Biographer John Nichols believes that a Cheney life theme also shows up at this point. “He was not all that big or strong, but hinting at things to come, he showed up early, stayed late, and made himself the essential player on a team of better athletes. Someone else could be the star quarterback; Dick, a linebacker, managed things as the team’s ‘co-captain.'” (Nichols, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney 18)
Joan Frandsen met Cheney at a sock hop at the end of junior high school. They went steady for three years (1955 to 1958). Lengthy interviews with her reveal a young Cheney who seems far different from the Darth Vader character of current conception. He was a “real charmer,” says Frandsen, “and everybody really liked him.” She portrays a very popular young man – a bright, “sweet guy,” always with “a big smile for you” and lots of laughter, attentive to buying corsages when he was supposed to, remembering Valentine’s Day and his girlfriend’s birthday. “In the three years I knew him, I never heard him say anything negative about anything.” He was easygoing. He won school elections with little effort; he wasn’t full of himself. He coasted along smoothly on his laid-back geniality and traded running for class offices with his friend Tom Fake. Frandsen, who went on in life to be an airline attendant, a community organizer and self-described “beatnik,” portrays Natrona County High School as a 1950s “Happy Days” world where “everything was laid out for us and we did what they said, and it was okay.” Nobody thought about the future.
The people who were there agree that Lynne Ann Vincent was a phenomenon: a petite, smart, ambitious, ruthless, competitive teenager with a Playboy figure. Frandsen says that Lynne was the only one of their group who had “foresight.” She plotted for the future. She let nothing get in her way. Frandsen and Lynne had been friends since first grade, yet when Lynne suddenly lost her date for the homecoming dance to another girl, she thought nothing of betraying her best friend. The next day Lynne went to Dick’s house for a dinner with his parents to celebrate his birthday. “I was way taken aback by that,” said Frandsen, “I never got invited over for dinner.”
But by the rules of their social world, taking Dick from her oldest friend enabled Lynne to become Homecoming Queen, and that’s what mattered. A short time after, Dick became Lynne’s campaign manager for another honor, Mustang Queen, in their last semester. He put up posters, “making sure everyone knew Lynne was the person who should be homecoming queen because of everything she does for the school,” recalled one classmate. (Nichols 18)
And there’s the well-known story of Lynne’s baton-twirling career. Frandsen had taken up the baton, but wasn’t good at it. Says Frandsen, “Lynne used to peek through the fence watching me practice. By the time Lynne got through baton twirling, she was twirling two batons with fire on both ends.” Dick Cheney stood offstage to douse the fire in a can of water as she competed and eventually won the state championship.
In his later years, Dick would regularly tell the joke about Lynne that seems to go the heart of their relationship. “I explained to friends the other day that if I hadn’t moved to Casper, she would have married someone else. And she said, ‘Right, and HE would be vice president of the United States.'”
Frandsen thinks this is the only way to answer the question of how the easygoing Dick Cheney people knew in high school became the Machiavellian Cheney who purportedly runs the country. “It kind of takes a lot of us around here aback. Then we say, well, you know, he had Lynne. That was it, right there.”
The Dick Cheney of high school recollection appears passive, lacking focus like many teenage boys. He takes a backseat role in football as a “slower than a fencepost” linebacker, but because he impresses his peers with a dependableness and seriousness of manner, perhaps a trait modeled on his silent, dependable bureaucrat father, he gets a passenger-seat job as co-captain.
Lynne Vincent would probably have sensed young Dick Cheney’s passivity, dependency, his uncertainty about himself, his protective need to be liked and his emotional distance. This last trait was on display when he wrote a dispassionate line in Frandsen’s yearbook after three years of going steady with her, “Joanie, I enjoyed knowing you and going out with you.”
Of course, almost none of what we’re describing occurred in the minds of these individuals as thoughts or concepts. It took place as feelings.
Lynne has been called by one biographer “Lady McCheney,” likening her to Shakespeare’s famous female villain. Macbeth sees his wife as a masculine soul inhabiting a female body, and at one point she herself wishes she were not a woman so that she could act in her own right. Like Lady Macbeth, Lynne Ann Vincent has remarkable strength of will that takes her outside the 1950s gender stereotype, and her classmates notice. Where did it come from?
Another childhood friend of Lynne’s, Diane Jacobs Schatz, told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Mike Weiss a revealing incident before the time Lynne took Dick from Frandsen. Schatz had a crush on a boy and was going to invite him to a dance. She told her girlfriend Lynne about her plans. Lynne immediately asked the boy out. But Schatz got back at her. In front of their friends, Schatz said that Lynne’s mother – whom Schatz called “very pushy, very ambitious for Lynne” – had arranged the date. Lynne was humiliated and ran away in tears.
Frandsen agrees that Lynne’s mother – who did clerical work for the sheriff’s office, but carried a deputy’s badge – had something to do with her daughter’s ambition. Frandsen says, “Lynne’s mom never hung out with other moms or did anything that other moms did. She was a bit of an outcast.” There was rumored to be a “dark secret” about Lynne’s mother and her father’s former marriage. “Her mother was real, I guess you’d say, pushy. I think that’s where Lynne Ann came from – from her mom being such a strong-willed person.”
It’s not hard to see the high school Lynne in the adult Lynne who became the feared culture warrior when she ran the National Endowment for the Humanities, who regularly flattened guests on CNN’s Crossfire and who more recently excoriated CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer had invited her on his show to hawk her children’s book, then tried to challenge her about her earlier trash novels that dwelled on brothels, lesbian relationships and rape. She immediately went into a high-gear attack mode that left Blitzer shaken. But he had touched the nerve of a contradiction: Lynne Cheney as author of erotic fiction and patriotic children’s books. One senses in the children’s books and moral values stance some attempt to cover up her aggressiveness, her hostility – a defensiveness, that, in fact, reflexively emerged when Blitzer questioned her.
It is also Lynne who feels humiliated. If the observations about her mother are correct, she also probably feels lacking, and the bullying bluster means to cover that up. Perhaps she feels unfeminine in some deep way. Marriage and family would be necessary to mask these feelings. Her history suggests she’s also conflicted between a sense of herself as a liberated woman pushing to succeed on her own in a male dominated world and a conventional draw to be the good wife supporting her husband. Her conflicted ambivalence is mirrored by her husband’s. Our important voluntary relationships come with people we sense – rightly or wrongly – need something from us that we can provide; we’re going to help them out. Also, subliminally, we feel they’re going to help us out.
So there, passively available and bedazzled by her, was Dick.
Biographer Nichols emphasizes an oddly recurring pattern in Dick Cheney’s life. Cheney appears to linger passively on the periphery of the action when someone says, “Well, we don’t have anybody now to fill that position, so why not Dick?” For example, when Donald Rumsfeld moved from President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff to become secretary of defense, Rumsfeld said to Ford, “Well, why not Dick?” As a result, Rumsfeld’s 34-year-old assistant suddenly became the youngest chief of staff in modern history. When the House Republicans were seeking a new whip, Minority Leader Bob Michel asked, “What about Dick?” When the first George Bush’s nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense crashed in scandal and Bush needed a quick replacement, someone asked, “What about Cheney?” After Bush 41 lost the White House, Cheney went on a fishing trip, and, as Nichols describes it, “As it happens Cheney’s fishing partners were a group of corporate bigwigs who were concerned about the coming transition at Halliburton, a firm that was in the process of a management shuffle. After Cheney had said good night, the others began talking about Halliburton’s need for a new CEO. ‘Why not Dick?'” one of them asked. (Nichols 138) Finally, in 2000, exhibiting the humorous passivity of a technocrat fulfilling a mildly burdensome task, Cheney sets out to find a vice-presidential candidate for George W. Bush and stumbles on himself: “Well, why not Dick?”
Perhaps emotionally, young Lynne Ann Vincent, too, was saying, “Well, why not Dick?” as she contemplated her future.
It is Lynne who gets Dick into Yale. She is working part-time for a big Yale donor in Casper, introduces him to her boyfriend, and the donor calls Yale to admit Cheney with a scholarship, while Lynne goes to Colorado College. (Doubose and Bernstein, Vice 123) Lynne Vincent has stirred in her boyfriend dreams that he could be drawn out of a safe, phlegmatic state to conquer reality – which he encounters immediately.
The Fall at Yale
Interviews with Jacob Plotkin and Stephen Billings, Cheney’s roommates in 1959-1960, his first failed year at Yale, when taken together with the probable influence of his relationship with Lynne, suggest a young man in crisis.
His education at Natrona has not prepared Cheney for what he meets at Yale, filled as it is with well-trained prep school boys. “It didn’t take long for the competition to be something he didn’t expect,” says Plotkin, now a mathematics professor retired from Michigan State University. Cheney fails his courses – but it’s essentially by default: he just doesn’t attend classes. He immediately joins the freshman football team, though his size and modest athletic talents ensure that he will never move on to varsity. He begins drinking heavily. He sports cowboy boots and a Western drawl, appearing something like Heath Ledger in ‘Brokeback Mountain,'” says Plotkin. To project an identity, he brags to his roommates about working in the summer on power utility line crews in back country Wyoming. “He was proud of that,” says Plotkin – “the fact that he could stand up and work with these guys who were full-time linemen.”
Cheney’s other roommate that year, Stephen Billings, was smaller in stature than Cheney. “There was a little friction there between Steve and Dick,” remembers Plotkin, “mostly because Steve was not the sort of manly Western type.” Plotkin remembers Cheney calling Steve “Mother Billings.” Billings, now a retired Episcopalian minister from the Philadelphia area, says that Cheney occasionally tried to humiliate him. Billings remembers him as “a rough fellow” with humor that had “an edge,” different from the person his high school friends remember. Billings recalls a “lopsided smile, almost a smirk, an ‘aw shucks.’ But you’d feel, who’s being kidded here?” Especially when Cheney was drinking, the anger, nastiness and smirk seeped out. We believe his hostility was partly an overcompensation, the weak-feeling tough guy teasing someone smaller. It was also probably a reaction to his situation. One of the key issues for each of us in the evolution of our psychology is, “How do I feel good about myself in the world?” For Cheney, in high school that was not a big problem. At Yale it became a big problem.
Perhaps Cheney, during this first year away from home, is also subjecting Billings to a little of the humiliation and emasculation he feels for failing to live up to the active dreams awakened by the girl back home. He’s probably also rebelling against her dominant grip and his dependency on her. Perhaps that rebellion is one reason he doesn’t go to class. Plotkin teases him about spending hours almost every day typing long letters to Lynne. “If he wasn’t at football practice, he would just keep on writing those letters.” Lynne excited a critical ambivalence in him between making his mark or just letting life happen. Perhaps an early referent for him of this ambivalence lies in the juxtaposition of Cheney’s reportedly silent, almost invisible father and his mother, described in her obituary as a constant “high-spirited competitor.” (Lemann, New Yorker, May 7, 2001; obituary by Nadia White, Casper Star Tribune 12/28/93)
Plotkin also recalls seeing the charming side of his roommate, the side that comes from his friendly, going-along-to-get-along passive personality. “If you watch him on Meet the Press, he has this way of hunching over and leaning into you and cocking his head to the side, and this familiarity develops almost instantly. And he had that as an 18-year-old.” That’s the Cheney that Frandsen remembers from high school.
Another reason Cheney doesn’t go to class is obvious. He can’t be successful immediately or in the same way as these students raised with advantages. Billings, who was later trained in psychology, sensed him “wanting to belong and be accepted and entitled.” Billings’s characterization highlights the hidden passive, dependent cast in young Cheney’s aspirations: successes would happen to him, bestowed. Despite his reputation as a workaholic, all through his life he would espouse a reverence for the magic of the passive point of view. In a commencement speech at Michigan State University in 2002, Cheney talked about opportunities “that come out of the blue,” and how “others know better than we do just what our gifts are, and how we can use them” – “Why not Dick?” raised to a cosmic principle.
To think through a subject, either to learn it or to act on it, requires engaging the uncertainties of what you don’t know and letting the conclusions emerge out of a chaotic mental process. Plotkin remembers Cheney bragging about passing a psychology course without going to class. He gives Plotkin the impression that he’s thinking maybe he doesn’t need much information in order to understand a subject. It’s a defense for not wanting to do the anxiety-producing real work of learning. Cheney will eventually develop a reputation for attention to detail. For now, in the one political science course he enjoys and concentrates on, he only gets a “C.” (Nichols 24) Does that reinforce his fears about the difficulties of a world filled with focused or well-connected people?
Both Plotkin and Billings remember Cheney as a person inclined to bluffing. Plotkin describes him as projecting an air of confidence. But Billings feels that even there “he may have been bluffing; I think underneath he was pretty insecure. I think he still is.”
Part 2 will explore how Cheney used his dependence on Lynne as a template for the political relationships that lifted him to the national stage. Dick Cheney’s Psychology | Part 2: The “Attendant Lord” will be published on Thursday.