Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Richard B. Cheney

Richard Bruce Cheney was born on January 30, 1941, in Lincoln, Nebraska. His father worked for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and moved the family to Casper, Wyoming, when Cheney was thirteen. There he excelled in sports, was elected president of his senior class, and began dating the homecoming queen, Lynne Vincent. After beginning at Yale University on a scholarship, Cheney failed out after three semesters and returned to Wyoming to work as a lineman for a power company. After Lynne compelled him to return to school, he went to Casper College in 1963 before transferring to the University of Wyoming. He graduated in 1965, shortly after marrying Lynne. While pursuing a master's degree at Wyoming, he interned in the Wyoming state legislature before moving to Wisconsin to pursue further studies at the University of Wisconsin. He never completed his doctorate at Wisconsin, instead deciding to intern for Governor Warren Knowles. In 1968, he received a fellowship to work on Capitol Hill for a year and began a remarkable ascent to power.

While in Washington, he applied to work in the congressional office of Representative Donald Rumsfeld of Illinois. Rumsfeld was unimpressed with Cheney and declined to hire him. Cheney eventually landed a job in the office of Republican William Steiger of Wisconsin. When President Richard Nixon appointed Rumsfeld head of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969, Cheney sent him an unsolicited advisory memo on the confirmation hearings. This time Rumsfeld was impressed and gave Cheney a job. After President Nixon resigned, President Gerald Ford appointed Rumsfeld as his chief of staff, and Cheney became Rumsfeld's deputy. Shortly before the 1976 elections, Ford shook up his cabinet and made Rumsfeld Secretary of Defense. Cheney, at the age of thirty-four, was elevated to chief of staff. His tenure was short-lived, however, as Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.

Throughout Ford's time in office, his administration had a contentious relationship with Congress, who was eager to reassert its power after the Vietnam War and Watergate had eroded public confidence in the executive branch. Ford issued sixty-one vetoes in his abbreviated term, of which Congress overrode twelve. These experiences helped shape Cheney's belief in the supremacy of executive power.

After Ford's election loss, Cheney made the long drive back to Wyoming and began exploring the possibility of a congressional campaign. He was initially interested in a Senate seat but was persuaded to pursue Wyoming's only House seat. Despite suffering a heart attack during the campaign, he won with 59 percent of the vote. He eventually served five terms in the House and established a staunchly conservative voting record. He also chaired the House Republican Policy Committee and became minority whip. During the Reagan years, he was a strong supporter of the President's policies and was one of the President's most vocal defenders during the Iran-Contra Affair. Cheney's staff drafted a report on the matter which criticized Congress for restraining the administration in the area of national security where he thought the President may be obligated to "to exceed the laws" at times.

Cheney was well-positioned to ascend further in Congress before the Senate rejected President George H.W. Bush's first choice for Secretary of Defense. Needing another nominee, Bush turned to Cheney. Cheney's departure from the House allowed Newt Gingrich to replace him as minority whip. Gingrich later became the first Republican Speaker of the House in four decades.

As Secretary of Defense, Cheney presided over a number of important military actions, most notably the Persian Gulf War. He personally flew to Saudi Arabia to persuade King Fahd to allow the United States to station thousands of troops there. After a rapid and highly successful campaign to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, Cheney supported the eventual decision not to continue advances into Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Prior the Persian Gulf conflict, Cheney oversaw the U.S. invasion of Panama. Towards the end of his tenure, he also directed early deployments of U.S. troops to Somalia.

Despite a soaring approval rating after the Persian Gulf War, President Bush lost the 1992 election, and both Cheney and his wife took jobs as senior fellows at the American Enterprise Institute. Cheney also briefly explored a presidential bid but decided against it. From 1995 until 2000, he worked as chief executive for Halliburton Company. During his tenure, the company prospered, and Cheney became quite wealthy.

In 2000, the Republican nominee for President, George W. Bush, asked Cheney to head the vice presidential selection committee. After reviewing a number of applicants, Cheney emerged as the leading candidate. When Bush offered Cheney the job, he accepted. In some ways, Cheney was an odd selection. He was not especially charismatic, and his beliefs closely matched those of Bush. He was also living in Texas at the time, although he changed his voting registration back to Wyoming to comply with constitutional law. What he did bring to the ticket was a wealth of experience and insider knowledge that Bush clearly lacked. As Bush put it, "I didn't pick Dick Cheney because of Wyoming's three electoral votes."

The election was extraordinarily close and controversial, with Bush and Cheney losing the popular vote but capturing a crucial victory in Florida by an impossibly thin margin. Even while the election was yet to be decided, Cheney was overseeing Bush's transition team and interviewing candidates for cabinet posts. He was able to secure jobs for allies such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Elliot Abrams. As with some of his more powerful predecessors, Cheney wanted to be treated more as a general adviser than a trouble-shooter or overseer of specific issues. He met with the President far more than other vice presidents and spoke with him privately before each cabinet meeting. These private meetings afforded Cheney unique and critical influence over administration policy.

Early in his tenure, he put together a task force to help put together a new energy policy for the country. When various organizations requested the names of those in the task force, Cheney controversially refused, citing executive privilege. He also oversaw the budget review panel, which gave him a great deal of authority over budget requests.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Vice President Cheney assumed an even more powerful role in the administration. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it was Cheney, not the President, who ordered the military to shoot down any hijacked aircraft still in the sky. Once the administration launched its War on Terror, Cheney's administrative skill and advice was instrumental in guiding its prosecution. Cheney and his staff advocated for the war in Afghanistan, the detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and helped shape the legal strategy that guided the war. Cheney was amongst the administration's most hawkish members and spearheaded the campaign for a preemptive war against Iraq. For the purpose of publicly promoting military action against Iraq, Cheney assumed a more public profile and was successful in building support for the war. The United States invaded Iraq on March 22, 2003. Although the Iraqi forces were quickly overwhelmed, questionable post-war planning and insufficient troop levels led to problems with long-term stability.

In 2004, President Bush was reelected, with 51 percent of the vote besting Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Cheney maintained a strong role during the second term despite some serious setbacks. In 2005, his chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was forced to resign after being indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. The allegations stemmed from an incident in which the identity of a CIA operative was disclosed after her husband revealed erroneous intelligence which both Bush and Cheney had used to promote the war in Iraq. Ongoing problems in Iraq, coupled with the departure of Donald Rumsfeld and substantial Democratic gains in the 2006 elections also made the second term difficult for Cheney.

During the 2008 elections, both Republican and Democratic candidates made statements suggesting they would not allow their vice presidents to hold the same degree of power Cheney had. When Barack Obama won the election, Cheney retired to private life.

Dick Cheney was most likely the most powerful vice president in U.S. history. His tremendous power stemmed from a number of variables, the most important being his relationship with the President. President Bush had a great deal of trust in Cheney and often delegated significant details of policy-making to him. Cheney's understanding of the channels of power in government not only allowed him to make the most of these delegated responsibilities, but also create influence in areas where he had no specific authority. Although his power was often exercised out of the public eye, Cheney was able to push the malleable parameters of his authority and leave his fingerprints on many of the Bush administrations defining initiatives.