Has everybody recovered from the overpowering excitement and eye-popping surprise of George W. Bush’s Vice Presidential announcement? Assuming that the national swoon-or was that a coma?-has lifted, it is our unavoidable duty to take a closer look at Richard B. Cheney.
He is a familiar kind of Washington fixture, almost universally described in mainstream press accounts as “sound” and “solid” and a man of “gravitas” who, after this week, may rarely be heard from again. While a few critics wondered what possessed Dubya to choose this worthy dullard, the attraction is perfectly understandable. There is no chance that he will outshine Mr. Bush himself, as John McCain or Colin Powell would have. And leaving aside their contrasting public personalities, this is a pair with a lot in common.
Their most obvious point of mutual reference is former President Bush, who is widely suspected of imposing his former Defense Secretary on the Republican ticket as his son’s minder. Whatever distinctions Mr. Cheney may or may not have achieved in public service, he has certainly been around Washington for a long while and knows that the people who live in Greece are called Greeks.
Yet while Mr. Cheney appears considerably more mature than the Texas governor, he’s less than six years older. Both came of age during the 1960′s and thus share that quintessential generational memory of escaping service in Vietnam, a war they considered essential to the defense of Western civilization so long as less fortunate Americans did the dying. As is well known already, Mr. Bush was ushered into the Texas Air National Guard in lieu of a draft notice. Mr. Cheney simply took advantage of existing student and family deferments (a fact that none of our hawkish politicians, including President Bush, regarded as an impediment to Mr. Cheney’s role during the Gulf War, when he was responsible for sending thousands of young soldiers into harm’s way).
Staying clear of combat doesn’t imply any distaste for guns on the part of either man. Mr. Cheney’s voting record on firearms regulation during his tenure in Congress was so extreme-so far to the right even of the National Rifle Association-that he can accurately be classified as a “gun nut.” He was one of only 21 members to vote against a ban on armor-piercing ammunition, also known as “cop-killer bullets,” and one of only four to vote against a ban on plastic guns (which can evade metal detectors at airports and schools). This is about as mentally “sound” and “solid” as Mr. Bush’s support of legislation permitting Texans to carry concealed weapons into church.
That image of guns in church is suggestive indeed. Mr. Cheney represents a capitulation by Mr. Bush to the religious far right, whose leaders had clearly warned the Republican nominee that he could not expect their support if he dared to place Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania or Governor George Pataki on the ticket. They regard both governors as offensively moderate on abortion and other issues. Mr. Cheney suffers no such disability, since he consistently voted to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
Beneath all the publicity about his reasonable persona, Mr. Cheney is just a more presentable version of the heavy-breathing conservatives who tend to scare off centrist voters in a national election, but he is no less reliably reactionary than Tom DeLay or Dick Armey. In Congress he was the kind of appallingly small-minded and expedient politician who opposed negligible expenditures on programs like Head Start while fiercely supporting every weapons system, no matter how useless or redundant. He did cast that much-lauded vote in favor of the Martin Luther King holiday, but he also voted against a resolution urging the South African government to free Nelson Mandela from almost three decades of imprisonment on Robben Island.
The notion that Mr. Cheney is a thoughtful conservative was contradicted by his mindless conduct during one of the gravest moments in recent history. As the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, he was a blind partisan who-unlike other, more responsible Republicans-proclaimed that he perceived nothing more serious than a few “mistakes” by the Reagan administration in the Iran-contra affair. Presumably his unquestioning loyalty is a quality that convinced President Bush to elevate him to the Cabinet in 1989 and which still endears him to the Bushes today. With the millions he has made in the oil industry during five years of private-sector exile, Mr. Cheney, another transplanted Texan, could practically be a member of the Bush clan.
The only apparent risk in Mr. Bush’s safe-seeming choice is that voters may wonder why Mr. Cheney is at the bottom of this ticket. It is somewhat reminiscent of another Republican team-if, in 1988, the bumper stickers had read “Quayle-Bush.”