What is it about Dick Cheney? He's become nothing less than a hate icon for many, if not most, Americans, with unfavorables nearing 50 percent and climbing faster than former vice presidential hopeful Bob Dole on a dishful of Viagra and Britney Spears videos.
Indeed, you've got to go back to the abuse dealt to Spiro Agnew to match the ferocity of the negative response to Cheney. The pride and shame of Greek America until Michael Dukakis thankfully relieved him of that post, Agnew was the target of perhaps the cruelest and most effective campaign commercial of all time: raucous laughter played over the simple image of the man's name.
But even then, Agnew was really just a joke, beneath serious contempt. The same can be said of two other recent and reviled Oval Office Ed McMahons, Dan Quayle and Lyndon Johnson. (Well, it was true of LBJ until the dog-abusing Texan actually became chief executive and started shipping American boys to Southeast Asia and bugging Martin Luther King, Jr.'s sex romps; prior to that, he was best known as a running punch line on the old First Family LP.)
In contrast, Cheney, a former White House chief of staff (under Ford), congressman (from Wyoming), and secretary of defense (under Bush I), is not simply the latest doofus in a long line of doofi who, through electoral fate, is a heartbeat away from running the Free World, Inc. He's not even a marginally bad guy with a seriously bum ticker. To his detractors, he's the devil incarnate, worse than Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Rush Limbaugh rolled into one. People respond to him the way Mermaid Man, the senile spoof superhero on Spongebob Squarepants, responds to wrongdoers: with a bellowing cry of "Eeeeevvviiillll!"
While I'm no fan of Cheney—or the Bush administration—this intense reaction has always puzzled me. Sure, Cheney exudes the paunchy, late-middle-age menace of a stereotypical businessman villain from an episode of Mannix or Cannon. It's a little too easy to picture him picking up the phone after a snooping private investigator has just left his office and snarling, "Don't let him leave the parking lot alive!" In short, he may certainly be no better than most politicians, but he also doesn't seem to me to be any worse.
Make no mistake: There's plenty to find detestable. Consider the VP's Vietnam days—or, more precisely, the lack thereof. Cheney's failure to serve—despite getting five draft notices—seems pretty awful, especially since he claimed during his 1989 defense secretary confirmation hearings that he would have been happy to serve if only he'd been asked. Notoriously, he had "other priorities in the '60s than military service." Well, so did just about every politician this side of John McCain and John Kerry (and the ongoing flap about Kerry's service record shows that even doing a hitch in Vietnam is no unambiguous plus). Bill Clinton fudged his way out; so did Dan Quayle and George W. Bush by getting coveted slots in the National Guard (those who insist the National Guard wasn't difficult to get into without connections and widely recognized as a safe, non-combat option should read My Race Be Won, the great autobiography of disgraced 1972 Olympian Vince Mathews, who lays out in fascinating detail just how that deal worked). Al Gore worked the war a bit more smartly, going over to 'Nam as a sacrificial lamb for his father's reelection campaign while remaining resolutely protected from actual harm.
In such a context, Cheney's forthrightness on this issue is almost refreshing, a cool sip of Sierra Mist in a Sahara-like political landscape choked with cloying, heavy colas. And let's face it, he's got the zipper scars from multiple heart operations to suggest that had he actually made it over there, the U.S. would have simply lost Vietnam much sooner.
A seemingly more serious charge against Cheney is that he got filthy stinking rich as CEO of Halliburton, surely the most reviled, scarifying, and omnipotent corporate entity since the days when AT&T was widely understood to run the world. Supplemental to this is that he's still doing his former employer's business from wherever the vice president's office actually is. That Cheney made a pile is neither here nor there; all major politicians are rich bastards and, as John Edwards, George W. Bush, John Kerry, and Balzac could all tell you, behind every great fortune is, if not a crime, then some sort of shady, dubious, or semi-embarrassing dealings, ranging from ambulance-chasing lawyering to tacky public-private partnerships to marrying up (way, way up).
"Cheney still receives deferred compensation from [Halliburton]" frets the Center for American Progress in a breathless—and typical of this sort—article ominously titled "Government by and for Halliburton."
This group, which espouses "progressive ideas for a strong, just and free America," goes beyond the yadda-yadda-yadda charges that the entire Iraq war is being conducted for the benefit of Halliburton's balance sheet to suggest that even outer-space exploration is only taking place because Cheney's former paymasters demand it. Of course big business tries to sway government (that's a standing argument to reduce the scope of government). But when it comes to Halliburton, you've got to remember that the firm did tons of business with the Clinton administration—and that the Iraq war resolution was signed off on by, oh just about every senator and member of Congress in the country; are they also on the take from Halliburton? As with most Conspiracies So Vast, the Halliburton-as-motive-force-behind-the-Florida-Marlins-winning-the-World-Series-and-the-bad-weather-on-my-birthday-last-year one is a mostly empty canard. As for Cheney's connection to the company, he's simply yet another politician who cashed in on his DC experience for a big-bucks job, albeit with a firm that, like every other government contractor, bilked the government. We can all agree that Halliburton is loathsome, and that Cheney is loathsome, but again, it fails to suggest anything singular about the current occupant of Number One Observatory Circle.
Then there's the charge that Cheney is really the puppet master of the Bush White House, that even more than Karl Rove, he's the William Gaines to Bush's Alfred E. Neuman, the Roy Disney to Bush's Walt, the Raul Castro to Bush's Fidel, etc. This has a certain intuitive appeal to it but I think it's not only wrong, it gets to why Cheney is actually held in so much contempt.
Far from being the Richelieu of latter-day America, Cheney is the ultimate organization man, an insecure yes man whose balls are so tightly in the vise that he's always struggling not break down and cry. If anything, he's the Larry Tate of contemporary politics, a shameless ass-kisser who changes his opinions to flatter those in power, just like Darren Stephen's "bombastic boss" on Bewitched did. There's something about his demeanor that, to me anyway, suggests his entire adult life has been one never-ending Maalox moment—that he's always choking down a sour stomach.
You can see this from his shifting stance on gay rights. Famously the father of a lesbian, during the 2000 campaign Cheney was a refreshing voice of tolerance within the GOP, saying he had no problems with same-sex relationships. What's more, he pooh-poohed federal actions like the Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed by President Clinton and sought to limit states' flexibility in sanctioning gay marriage. These days, after his boss emphatically endorsed a constitutional amendment precluding same-sex marriage, he's singing a very different tune. That he won't talk about his switch tells you something, too: That he knows he's acting out of cowardice, not principle.
You can see it, too, in his two infamous moments involving foul language. The first came during a 2000 election stop in Illinois, where George W. Bush pointed to New York Times scribe Adam Clymer from the stage and whispered to Cheney that he was a "major league asshole." Cheney's widely sampled retort, "big time," is the sort of thing a hanger-on says, the sort of sequel joke that Peter Lawford would utter in the presence of Sinatra. Hardly the language of a man in full. The same goes for Cheney's more recent—and fulsome—exchange with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). "Fuck yourself," the vice president snapped to a Green Mountain State legislator who is widely recognized as a schmuck. That's hardly the action of a master machiavellian—it's the brittle rejoinder of a frazzled, heart attack survivor who's barely hanging on—to life, his job, his position, his sense of self-esteem.
In such moments, we sense in full relief the pathetic handmaid's role that Dick Cheney has played his entire adult life. He is, if not an errand boy sent by grocery clerks, a bag man all the same, covered in flop-sweat; our disgust quickly turns to contempt. We hate him not because he's too powerful, but quite the opposite.