(The obituaries of most famous people are written long before the subject’s actual death! Check out Obit., a 2017 documentary about the New York Times’ Obituary desk if you don’t believe me…)
“Principle is OK up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do you any good if you lose,” Richard Bruce “Dick” Cheney, first appointed to office by Richard Nixon, told journalist Tim Russert in 1976. And it could be argued that until his closely guarded death at his Wyoming ranch sometime last week, Cheney never did truly lose, despite bringing scandal, ethics investigations, and eventual doom to every administration he worked for. By demonstrating his loyalty to an aggressive and frequently extra-legal realpolitik intentionally divorced from the realm of ethics–and getting away with it–this avid chili lover, “stump” of a high school football player from Wyoming, who dropped out of Yale, was twice nabbed for drunk driving, and who shot rabbits, birds, a hunting partner, and other animals in his free time, became a grimacingly enduring icon of American business and politics.
“He said the presidency was like one of those giant medicine balls,” said Bruce Bradley, who hired Cheney to work at his investment firm in 1973, after Cheney left the imploding Nixon administration. “If you get ahold of it, what you do is, you keep pushing that ball and you never let the other team push back.” People who think the presidency of Donald Trump is wholly unexpected should study Cheney’s playbook! During debates arranged for the benefit of Bradley’s clients at the time, Cheney would argue forcefully that Nixon’s resignation was forced merely by his enemies’ political ploys, and not because Nixon had violated any laws or betrayed the oath of his office.
In their 1983 Kings of the Hill: Power and Personality in the House of Representatives, co-authors Richard Cheney and his wife Lynne Ann Vincent Cheney fawned over House Speaker Henry Clay, describing him as the “most spectacular” asserter of power in history. “No one managed to do what young Henry Clay did to thrust a nation into war,” the couple wrote, referring to the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. “Audacious and bold, he and his war hawks were exhilarating company as they maneuvered a doubtful president and a divided nation into a firm and fiery course.”
The book, written in 1983, goes on to admit that this “firm and fiery course” into the War of 1812 met with a series of “bloody and painful defeats” on land and ultimately ended in something of a stalemate, but this did not mean that Dick Cheney, the 46th Vice President of the United States, was slated to learn the lessons of history he and his wife wrote of in their book. Almost 20 years later, after repeatedly asserting that US troops in Iraq would be greeted as liberators, and that “the streets in Basra and Baghdad [were] sure to erupt in joy,” Cheney, flanked with propaganda from the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and the American Enterprise Institute, as well as the short-lived Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), constructed a relentless and almost wholly fabricated public relations campaign that led the US into its disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Interestingly, he gave an almost exact opposite – and infinitely more accurate – analysis of the likely effects of a U.S. invasion of Iraq in a 1994 interview on C-SPAN:
Born January 30, 1941 at 7:30 pm in Lincoln, Nebraska, Richard was the oldest son of Richard, who worked for the US Soil Conservation Service, and his mother Marjorie, who was a homemaker. When he was 13, his family moved from Lincoln to Casper, Wyoming, a town of 17,000 at the time, where Cheney occupied himself hunting, playing poker, fishing, playing football, waterskiing on planks with a car towing him along the Alcova Dam aqueduct, and nurturing a reportedly lifelong love of military history and biographies.
After earning a scholarship to Yale in 1959, Cheney flunked out: “I had a lack of direction, but I had a good time,” he said. He returned to Casper, Wyoming, and worked as a lineman for a power company. In 1964 Richard married Lynne Vincent, whom he’d met at the age of 14. Lynne was a state champion baton twirler in high school. According to a Time Magazine profile, Lynne would start her routines by setting the ends of her baton on fire before hurling it impressively into the air. When she was done with her pyrotechnics, she would hand the baton to Cheney, who had been standing inconspicuously off to the side with a coffee can full of water, ready to douse the flames.
In 1973, Cheney joined Richard Nixon’s White House staff, serving in a variety of positions. In 1975, he was made the youngest ever Chief of Staff when Gerald Ford appointed him to the post. Following Ford’s defeat in 1976, Cheney successfully mounted a campaign to represent Wyoming in the US House of Representatives, where he served from 1978 until 1989.
He suffered the first of his many heart attacks in 1978, at the age of 37. Subsequent attacks are responsible for his distinctively crooked grimace of a smile.
During this time, Lynne Cheney was pursuing her own political career, and served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 until 1993.
In 1989, when George Bush Sr.’s nomination of John Tower was rejected, Cheney was nominated for Secretary of Defense. In 1993, Cheney returned to the private sector, joining the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank founded in 1943 primarily to support limited government, vigorous private enterprise, and strong national defense, for whom Lynne Cheney was also a senior fellow in education and culture. In 1995, Cheney became chairman and CEO of Halliburton Energy Services, and he put his connections to muscular use for his new employers: under his watch tax havens increased dramatically, and Halliburton won a variety of highly profitable no-bid or faux-bid contracts.
Staying busy on several fronts, Cheney, along with Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol and others, founded the previously mentioned “Project For a New American Century” (PNAC), a think tank which had a defining influence on the disastrous foreign policy of the second Bush administration.
When Cheney departed Halliburton in 2000 to run for Vice President, he was paid $20 million and retained a significant number of guaranteed stock options for his efforts. According to the New York Times, despite his great wealth (estimated at between $30 and $100 million) Cheney requested and received permission in 2001 to transfer the estimated $186,000 annual electricity bill for his 33-room mansion, on the grounds of the Washington Naval Observatory, to the Navy.
One of the more infamous and emblematic moments of Cheney’s truthless career occurred during his October 2004 debate with fellow Vice Presidential candidate, Senator John Edwards. Through his crooked half-smile, Cheney said: “”In my capacity as vice president, I am the president of the Senate, the presiding officer. I’m up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they’re in session. The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.”
Edwards, clearly rendered momentarily speechless by the statement, had met Cheney twice: in 2002, when Edwards escorted Elizabeth Dole to her swearing in as Senator for North Carolina, where Cheney administered the oath, and at a National Prayer Breakfast in February 2001, where a transcript of the event shows Cheney acknowledging Edwards. Cheney was either lying, on live television, in front of millions of people, with little regard for how easy his claim would be to disprove, or he was mentally incompetent. [Footage: Cheney meets Edwards, pt. 1; Cheney meets Edwards, pt. 2]
While some critics saw the assertion as a particularly cynical tactic, those perceiving mental infirmity were bolstered in their suspicions when, on February 11, 2006, Cheney shot alleged friend, 78-year-old attorney Harry Whittington in the face and torso while hunting quail on a Southern Texas ranch. Whittington, who suffered a non-fatal heart attack three days later, due to a piece of buckshot lodged in the outer wall of his heart, passed away a year later. [Read comedian Louis C.K.’s take on what might really have happened.]
Cheney’s back and always-troubled heart kept attacking him in the months and years after he left office. Public outcry mounted about the occupation of Iraq and his deliberate use of false information to manufacture support for the 2003 invasion, his role in the CIA leak grand jury investigation, otherwise known as the Plame Affair, and his financial dealings while affiliated with Halliburton Energy Services. Through it all, Cheney remained publicly uncowed and vociferously defended his actions.
Cheney died sometime last week, under a heavy veil of secrecy, and few details were released. There was no public viewing.
He is survived by his wife, Lynne, and his two daughters, Mary, and Elizabeth, who has four grandchildren with former Homeland Security General Counsel and probable future Republican candidate for higher office, Philip J. Perry.
His body will surely decay faster than will the stain of his legacy.