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Dick Cheney’s Psychology | Part 2: The “Attendant Lord”

Cheney has fashioned his vassal relationship with Bush into a tightly co-dependent one.

For a couple of years in the early 1960s, Dick Cheney keeps returning to Yale, floundering again, before totally flunking out and losing his scholarship. In between he’s on crews building power lines. His first-year roommate, Jacob Plotkin, doesn’t quite understand why he keeps coming back to New Haven, since he still apparently doesn’t study. Is it a combination of Lynne’s insistence and his resistance?

Then finally it’s over. Plotkin vividly remembers seeing Cheney for the last time. “It was a cold day and he was standing on the approach to the library steps and I was coming out of Calhoun College and I greeted him because I hadn’t seen very much of him, and he told me he was leaving and wasn’t coming back.” Plotkin says that in the memory, “I can almost feel the cold breeze blowing on me.” Standing by the library, Cheney seemed to Plotkin not angry or bitter, but “resigned.”

Back in Wyoming, Cheney returns to his job on the power lines. Joan Frandsen says, “It is what guys do around here if you don’t go to college.” He continues drinking, gets arrested a couple of times for drunk driving in 1962 and 1963. At one level he seems comfortable with just drifting, as he had in high school. Resigned. Letting things happen. At another level he wants to succeed, whatever that means. But he can’t find the engine of his own. Lynne has the engine. As Cheney later tells it, “She made it clear she wasn’t interested in marrying a lineman for the county.” When Lynne gives him the final ultimatum – succeed in the world or we’re through – by his own account, everything changes. (Nichols 26)

In short order, he enrolls in Casper Community College, then the University of Wyoming in 1963. He and Lynne marry in 1964. He follows an interest in the subject of politics. In 1965, he gets a degree from the University of Wyoming and follows Lynne to the University of Wisconsin for graduate work. She plans to make college professors out of both of them – but perhaps anything will do. The Vietnam War is on. Cheney gets five draft deferments during this period, the fifth one remarkably calculated. Cheney applies for his exemption three months into Lynne’s first trimester of pregnancy, and then, exactly nine months and two days after the Selective Service eliminated special protections for childless married men, the Cheneys have their first daughter. Years later, the future secretary of defense tells a reporter that he didn’t go to Vietnam because “I had other priorities.” At confirmation hearings, Cheney told a lie that would have been laughable if it hadn’t been swaddled in the famous basso, you’re-in-good-hands Cheney voice: “I would have been happy to serve had I been called.” (Nichols 33, 37, 107)

We believe the “other priorities” came from Cheney having come upon a way to resolve his conflicted ambivalence. The resolution allows him to overcome his passivity by letting activity and purpose flow into him from an outside force. With Lynne’s fierce wind now filling his phlegmatic sails, he finds he can move.

In the mid 1960s, a couple of academic internships take Cheney into the world of politics, where he ingeniously applies the template of his dependent relationship with Lynne to relationships with political patrons. He does their bidding, his strength of will pumped up by working for their ambitions so that a magic occurs. He holds the campaign button bag for Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles; Knowles recommends him as a staffer to Bill Steiger, a new congressman heading for Washington. Already a master go-fer, Cheney gets the Washington nod, though he is only fourth choice for the congressman’s staff (an early, “What about Dick?” moment). He next offers his services to Donald Rumsfeld, a rising star of the Nixon administration.

The Rumsfeld relationship illustrates how Cheney’s dependency “solution” worked in the political arena. In his book, “Rumsfeld,” Andrew Cockburn says: “Observers of this relationship in its early years were in no doubt as to its internal dynamic: Rumsfeld ruled; Cheney served … To the extent that Rumsfeld’s social circle took note of the dour young assistant and his buxom spouse, a former drum majorette with literary pretensions named Lynne, it was to remark on Cheney’s subservient attitude to his ebullient boss. ‘Flunky’ is the word that most often comes up in reminiscences of the period. ” (Cockburn, Rumsfeld 17-18)

It’s easy to imagine from this description the high cost for Cheney of taking this subservient position.

Cheney described his first interview with the notoriously arrogant, abusive Rumsfeld in 1968 as “one of the more unpleasant experiences of my life…. The truth is I flunked the interview.” He tried again, and Rumsfeld took him on. Cheney’s initial difficulty seems to have involved finding the right tone, mixing confidence with cringing so as to construct a relationship that would energize him (as had happened with Lynne).

Cheney rises rapidly, almost miraculously, by becoming an all-purpose servant to the powerful boss – whether it’s Rumsfeld, Republican Minority Leader Bob Michel, George Bush Sr., the bigwigs at Halliburton or George W. Bush – slavishly loyal and willing to do anything asked. He first becomes useful, then indispensable.

One recalls T.S. Eliot’s lines:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use …

– (“The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock“)

The efforts that other politicians expend in trying to get love from the public, Cheney puts into making powerful patrons have confidence in him. He writes everyone else off. Reportedly, Cheney does not seek praise for his behind-the-scenes work, nor does he give it to his underlings. (New Yorker, May 7, 2001) It may well be precisely the held-out-but-withheld carrot of approval from his patron (including Lynne) that pulls him forward. In any case, safely inside the framework of his dependent relationship, the passive Cheney becomes hyperactive, focusing on details and manipulating the system, which he treats as “a game where you never stop pushing,” as a Cheney friend from the 1970s remarked. Cheney’s father was a bureaucrat; the son becomes the ultimate bureaucrat, a Wizard of Oz moving to convince himself (and, obliquely, the world) that he’s running the show from behind the curtain while reassuring the patron that the patron is in charge. In the process he becomes increasingly isolated in his secrecy, hidden by the threads of the plots he spins around himself, remaining always tethered to his external power source.

Cheney’s Conflicted Ambivalence

We might picture many of the feeling layers of Cheney’s psyche caught up in a strongly conflicted ambivalence that can be dramatized as “Do I exist as a separate and solitary identity or is my identity entirely dependent on attachment to a stronger person?” This ambivalence gives rise at a more conscious level to thoughts, feelings and behaviors that attempt to resolve the internal conflict. These shape Dick Cheney as a public servant.

Fixation on authority. Over the years, Cheney has argued that executive authority should be essentially unaccountable and unlimited. His machinations have pushed, usually secretly, to assert presidential power to spy on American citizens, torture prisoners and abrogate treaties. His idea places the American people in a subservient position to authority. Their subservience mirrors his own. But when he seeks a unique, unlimited father-knows-best authority for the president, is he really seeking that authority for Dick Cheney, as part of a scheme to be his own man? The answer is confused in his own mind as well as the public’s.

Secrecy. Secrecy pervades Cheney’s thinking. The Washington Post’s recent four-part series on the vice president provides many examples: For instance, in Cheney’s office “Man-size Mosler safes, used elsewhere in government for classified secrets, store the workaday business of the office of the vice president. Even talking points for reporters are sometimes stamped ‘Treated As: Top Secret/SCI (sensitive compartmented information).'” It’s as if his least machinations were a matter of national security.

For Cheney, secrecy is required by a paragraph of the unspoken dependency contract with his patron. It reads, “I’ll secretly do for you, patron, things you couldn’t get away with doing yourself. In return, you provide me an identity and power in the world.” Cheney is known for leaving no fingerprints on even his most important successes. This sacrifice on Cheney’s part is part of the psychological deal to inspire the patron’s confidence and bond.

On the other hand, only in the darkness can he seem to be The One, the autonomous power, since he has foresworn taking that leading role in public. A psychological advantage for him of secrecy is that when he fails few know about it. Secrecy probably also grips his psyche because of a need to hide the humiliating depth of his subservient arrangement.

Secrecy has an accompaniment in Cheney’s notorious silence. Colleagues remark that no one’s ever sure what Cheney is thinking, or doing. (New Yorker, May 7, 2001) “In my experience,” Cheney says, “those who have the most impact are people who keep their own counsel.” His assertion implies to the reporter that he’s an “impact” person. It also reveals how he copes with being in the back seat. Working behind the scenes and in silence is “what I’m comfortable with,” he says. Silence is often a defense a weaker person employs against a powerful one to avert conflicts and cling to dignity. There is no report of Cheney ever disagreeing in meetings with the president. He carefully keeps any disagreements to himself.

Anxiety. A byproduct of dependency is anxiety – fear that if you’re not very careful you could lose your connection with the powerful partner and be left without the partner’s power source. T.S. Eliot’s passive Prufrock character remains in constant dread. He asks, “Do I dare” and, “do I dare?”

In Lynne Cheney’s book, “Executive Privilege,” a character reputedly patterned after her husband works to keep his outward demeanor “calm and positive,” though it’s a mask. (Dubose and Bernstein 125) The fictional character may reveal Lynne’s awareness of her husband’s underlying anxiety.

One expression of Cheney’s anxiety shows up in his fears that the US is afflicted by a national passivity that needs to be overcome by a constant vigilance if he is to prevent catastrophe. (New Yorker, May 7, 2001) Cheney’s sense of inner dread, gloom and fear is so high that he insisted he and the president shouldn’t be in the same place together. He vanished into a “secure undisclosed location” for the president’s first State of the Union message after 9/11, despite the fact that the Capitol Building was apparently safe enough for the rest of the government to appear, including the Supreme Court and both houses of Congress.

Cheney has organic heart disease, but anxiety and internal stress have undoubtedly played a key role in his several heart attacks.

Anger and aggression. Cheney’s anger percolates beneath his calm exterior. One reporter who interviewed him used the words “venom” and “vicious” to characterize the way Cheney talked about opponents. (Nichols 77) Even his humor has an aggressive cast, as when he remarked that “a dunk in the water” for terrorists is “a no-brainer for me.” The violent mental world he lives in came out when he wrote in a meeting note that his associate Lewis “Scooter” Libby was being asked to “stick his head in the meat grinder.” Was this a moment of Cheneyian empathy for Libby’s service in a subordinate role analogous to Cheney’s?

When Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy tried to question the vice president about his days at Halliburton, Cheney startlingly told the senator to “Go fuck yourself.” Was this a moment of displaced anger he would like to launch at his domineering patrons? – an anger he feels at his own weakness for needing them? In Eliot’s poem, the passive Prufrock displays his aggression in the line, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Tied to his patrons (including Lynne), Cheney probably longs to exist alone and without anybody. New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann writes that Cheney prefers to be teased by his male friends in patently unmeant locker room type insults, though he never teases back. (New Yorker, May 7, 2001)

Working the problem. Cheney manages the stress of his negative feelings by concentrating his focus, like a pilot in an emergency, on the problems in front of him. He works incessantly across the broad range of the federal bureaucracy to manipulate the results and bring more power to his patron. (Or is it to really himself? He’s not sure). A man always found “working the problem,” Cheney is flexible and creative at locating its hidden “pivot points” to accomplish his tasks. During the Ford administration, he wrote memos about drainage problems in a White House bathroom. (Nichols 58) Reportedly, he is unable converse normally in the way that people do to feel each other out emotionally. But he becomes energized by discussions of strategies for how to get things done. (New Yorker, May 7, 2007)

Lying, deception, amoral behavior. Bluffing, which comes from Cheney’s passivity, was a characteristic noted by his Yale roommates. Biographers and profile writers cite many instances of Cheney’s lies and deceptions. They construct the reality his patron wants to hear. But Cheney’s lies begin at home. The whole structure of his dependent relationships involves lies. He can’t tell his dominant partners what he’s really feeling, or even what he’s really doing. He is an amoral public official. He will say or do almost anything that serves the purposes of the symbiotic relationship. The patron’s needs are the greater good which justifies any means. Then Cheney’s anxiety, aggression, silence and emotional detachment (one associate described him as “the coldest fish there is” ) come into play in achieving the ends.

Impulsiveness.Dick Cheney’s image is of a man always in control; however, biographer Nichols describes Cheney’s recurring “decide first and analyze later” impulse. (Nichols 140) Cheney’s underlying anxiety from time to time causes him to leap. Then control calls for him rationalize why he jumped. He knows his calm, deliberative voice can make even the most outlandish construction of reality sound reasonable. In February 2006, Cheney enters a highly controlled, “canned hunt” where birds are placed in front of hunters’ guns. He shoots his friend in the face in an impulsive moment, then he detaches himself from the emotions of the accident and focuses on micromanaging the release of the information to the media in order to make it appear nothing much has happened. Think of the “canned hunt” as the war on Iraq.

Attempts to escape his subordinate condition. The dependent arrangement that Cheney enters into with his patron energizes him to operate with “a singular force of will,” as the Washington Post described it, within the limited sphere that falls to him. But he is also enslaved by the arrangement, which crushes his identity. He attempts to escape its bonds by expanding his sphere of influence – for example, writing administrative orders that give the vice president the same powers to classify documents as the president has. But he can’t escape. The subordination that enslaves him is exactly the arrangement that empowers him.

When Cheney first ran for Congress in 1978, journalist Lou Cannon observed that sometimes while listening to Cheney, it sounded like “Gerald Ford had helped Cheney run the country.” Cheney smiled and replied, “That’s a fair comment.” (Nichols 82) On the stump in 2004, Cheney entertained audiences by telling them how little influence he had in the White House, the laughter of the crowd affirming their awareness of his Edgar Bergen trick. It’s Cheney claiming he’s The One even as he is compelled to deny it.

In 1984, running for another term in Congress, Cheney told a home state magazine, “I used to worry about what I’m going to do when I grow up…. I’ve gotten to be pretty fatalistic about it.” (Horizons magazine, Casper Star Tribune, April 1, 1984) It’s a revealing comment that recalls Plotkin’s image of him “resigned” on the steps of the Yale library. Why fatalistic? There is an odd mix of superiority and self-effacement in his phrasing, as well as hopelessness. At a psychological level, he appears fatalistic about ever finding an identity that is truly his own – a place in the world not determined by others.

Perhaps the closest Dick Cheney has come being The Man was on 9/11. He seemed to take charge. He ordered the president to stay away from Washington, made the call to shoot down any further airliners. He could feel confident at that moment because he could operate behind the scenes in a secure undisclosed location, the position where he feels most comfortable.

Dick Cheney’s parents were staunch New Deal Democrats. His father worked for the Soil Conversation Service, which made him an early environmentalist. In the name of powerful patrons, their son spent a career working to savage the environment and wreak havoc on other progressive causes his parents would have held dear. When Dick returned to Wyoming to run for Congress in 1977, his father remarked, “You can’t take my vote for granted.” (Nichols 16) A Washington Post profile during the first Gulf War in 1991, when Cheney was secretary of defense under the first George Bush, offers a vignette of Cheney’s parents seeming not to know what to say about their radically conservative, warmaking son.

“We had mixed feelings on the whole thing when it started,” Cheney’s father told the Post reporter, referring to the US assault on Kuwait, “It seems unbelievable they can run around the sandpile like that.”

“Be sure to put in there that he was senior class president,” added his mother.

And that he played football,” said her husband.

Parlaying his passivity, Cheney had come a long way from the easygoing, popular boy at Natrona County High School.

Cheney and Bush

The analysis here does not support the conventional wisdom that, as vice president, Dick Cheney is a malevolent Edgar Bergen manipulating George W. Bush into positions and actions he would otherwise not take. Critics typically imagine Bush too simple-minded to run the country, so it must be men like Cheney or Carl Rove (“Bush’s brain”) who are really in charge. But the ability to dominate has little to do with intelligence, and Bush, for all his blundering speaking skills and dysfunctional analytical abilities, dominates. In fact, as we discussed in a previous analysis, Bush is an effective emotional bully. Rather, Cheney has engineered with the president a variation of the relationship he made with Lynne.

The recent Post series points out emphatically that “Cheney is not, by nearly every inside account, the shadow president of popular lore.” (Post chapter 1, pg. 2) Rather, Cheney “inhabits an operational world.” Of course, the devil is in the details; since that’s precisely where Dick Cheney resides, he seems the devil. At a subtler dimension, Cheney has fashioned his vassal relationship with Bush into a tightly co-dependent one. This was illustrated by Bush’s insistence that both appear together at the 9/11 commission where, as the president said, commission members can “see our body language … how we work together.” In fact, we have seen them leaning together making snide comments like boys in a locker room. Bush told one Republican senator repeatedly, “When you’re talking to Dick Cheney, you’re talking to me. When Dick Cheney’s talking, it’s me talking.” (The New Yorker, May 7, 2007)

Cheney shares with Bush the characteristic of reacting to situations strongly from individual psychology, rather than from an engagement in a seriously deliberative process. For Bush, decisions come by his “gut,” an illusion of divine inspiration, which frees him of his pervasive fear that he is inadequate to engage any truly analytical decision process. In Cheney’s case, his underlying passivity, his dependency solution and his authoritarian longings lead to a web of secretive actions, jury-rigged rationales and clever stratagems.

In 2002 and 2003, the world saw the result. There was no discussion in the small White House decision circle about whether invading Iraq was the right thing to do, only how to get it done because the president wanted it done. It fell to Cheney to work the problem: to manipulate intelligence and various levels of government to make the war happen.

George Bush Sr. had reportedly pushed the idea of Cheney for vice president in order to provide his son with adult supervision. (Nichols 168) What the father didn’t realize was that the psychology of Dick Cheney – the man Gerald Ford’s security detail dubbed “Backseat” and the current White House security dubs “Angler” – predestined him to subordinate himself in his own special way to the son. Bush’s father sought a regent and instead found a man who would make his son’s dysfunctions worse.