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VEEP 46: The Consequentialist

President George W. Bush talks to reporters Friday, Aug. 18, 2006 in Camp David, Md., Dick Cheney seen in background

President George W. Bush talks to reporters Friday, Aug. 18, 2006 in Camp David, Md., following a meeting with his economic advisors and Vice President Dick Cheney, seen in background. White House photo by David Bohrer.

In April, Richard Cheney gave Mitt Romney this advice: ignore the talking heads and select someone who can govern well. In a series of posts, we look beyond the headlines focusing on the current VEEPstakes and dig into our archives at the Miller Center to examine the contributions of previous vice presidents. In this edition, we examine Richard Cheney, one of the most powerful, if not controversial, vice presidents in American history. Previous posts include J. Danforth Quayle and Walter F. Mondale.

Speaking on the criteria for selecting a vice president on CSPAN in April, Cheney said:

The single most important criteria has to be the capacity to be president. That's why you pick them. Lots of times in the past that has not been the foremost criteria. The decision you make as a presidential candidate on who your running mate is going to be is the first presidential-level decision the public sees you make.

Indeed, Cheney’s advice comports with his own selection experience. George W. Bush asked Cheney to head his vice presidential selection committee and, after reviewing candidates, Cheney emerged as the leading candidate. Cheney’s brought extensive government experience and Washington insider knowledge to the Republican ticket. (In March 2000, the Miller Center interviewed Cheney on his extensive experience in government from the Ford administration through the administration of George H.W. Bush.) Cheney’s views also closely aligned with those of George W. Bush. As Bush said in 2000:

I didn't pick Dick Cheney because of Wyoming's three electoral votes... (Laughter) although we're going to work hard to earn them. I picked him because he is, without a doubt, fully capable of being the President of the United States. And I picked him because he will be a valuable partner in a Bush administration.

Cheney expanded the office and power of the vice presidency perhaps more than any of his predecessors. The extent of Cheney’s power was even debated in the 2008 elections as both Republican and Democratic candidates made statements suggesting they would not allow their vice presidents to hold the same degree of power. Cheney’s good relationship with President Bush was one of the most important factors that contributed to his ability to expand the power and office of vice president. Cheney met regularly with President Bush and spoke with him privately before each cabinet meeting. Like Mondale and other predecessors, Cheney conceived of his position as being a general adviser. President Bush trusted him and delegated significant details of policymaking to him.

Richard Haass, who served in the State Department during the Reagan administration and as National Security Council Staff in the George H.W. Bush administration, placed the expansion of the office of the vice presidency in perspective during an interview with the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Project. According to Haass:

It’s hard to imagine now, given the prominence not simply of Vice President [Richard] Cheney, but of his staff. The Vice President’s office has almost become the equivalent of another bureaucracy; it’s almost as if there is now something called the Department of the Vice President, where you have all this staff and at every meeting you attend in the interagency process you have Vice Presidential staffers sitting at the table in the same way you have people from the NSC [National Security Council], Defense, State, what have you. Well, in those days it just wasn’t there. The Vice President was pretty much the Vice President, and his role was pretty much whatever it was personally with the President.

Haass also remarked on how much Cheney’s prominence grew from when he worked with him in the first Bush administration:

In the current context when one reads about him being the most powerful Vice President in history, extremely forceful, I don’t doubt any of that. He didn’t have anything comparable to that role in the first Bush administration. Firstly, he wasn’t Vice President, he was Secretary of Defense. Secondly, whereas in the current Bush administration he’s much more what you might call at the political and geopolitical center of the administration, I think in the first Bush administration, that was less the case. Scowcroft, Baker, and President Bush were all in one place and to some extent—it might be too strong to call Dick Cheney the odd man out, but he clearly was not at the center of the first Bush administration in any way like he’s at the center of the second Bush administration.

Cheney’s administrative genius and his understanding of the pivot points in government also contributed to his ability to expand the office of the vice presidency. But, Cheney had been cultivating these skills since his tenure as Chief of Staff in the Ford administration. Carla Hills, Housing and Urban Development Secretary and U.S. Trade Representative in the Ford administration, discussed how Cheney streamlined access and decision-making on important issues facing the president with the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Project. According to Hills:

Dick [Cheney] was religious about putting the proponent’s memorandum in to the President. Subsequently, I think, it has been the custom for the Chief of Staff to summarize the position of the parties. That summary would go in with the recommendation from the White House staff. It is very a different process to read the original proposal and have the staff simply say, Mr. President, there are three people in favor and one against. I’m attaching the memorandum from the proponent and also the dissent. Then President Ford would very rapidly make a decision. But I think the process aided in making good decisions. There were no end runs on the President because he wouldn’t permit it. It was very open, a fresh air policy.

Hills also explained that Cheney held open-access meetings with cabinet members, “so as not to consume the President’s time, which is the most precious of all resources”:

There have been instances in other administrations where poor decisions were made because they were made by someone coming into the Oval Office making a proposal that had not been staffed out. President Ford, thanks to the process, was fully apprised of the premises, and what the outcomes might be.

Barton Gellman, a special projects reporter at the Washington Post and author of Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency discussed Cheney’s vice presidency and its implications for the Obama administration during a forum at the Miller Center in 2009. (“Angler” was Cheney’s Secret Service codename, but Gellman asserted it also serves as a powerful metaphor for the vice president’s view of the office.) According to Gellman, one can not understand the Bush years without understanding the influence of Cheney as vice president.

One of Cheney’s rules about acquisition and exposition of power is to fly under the radar and this applied first and foremost in the vice presidential selection and vetting process. Cheney devised the most intrusive vetting system for selecting Bush’s running mate, but he didn’t fill out his own questionnaire and no one ever really vetted him as a candidate. In office, the vice president knew what he wanted and seldom indulged in ambivalence, even when the White House was ambivalent on domestic policy in the first year of the administration.

Almost every administration has faced the challenge that, on the one hand, the president should not be asked to make decisions below his pay grade, but he also needs to know enough to intervene when necessary. According to John Marsh, one of Cheney’s confidants, Cheney’s philosophy on the vice presidency was that you get everything off the president’s plate you can. Gellman asserted that the decision to begin military commissions for terrorists is illustrative of how the vice president used this philosophy in office. Attorney General John Ashcroft didn’t like the idea and went to the White House to protest. Ashcroft didn’t know how much the president knew about the order on the military commissions that he was about to sign or whether the president knew his objections. Ashcroft saw Cheney, not the president, waiting in the Roosevelt Room when he arrived and he decided to save his political chits for another issue.

During exit interviews, Cheney continued to defend the memos on torture by John Yoo as “sound” and he redoubled his defense of the doctrine of executive supremacy saying that “Congress can write statutes, but can’t override the president’s Constitutional authority and responsibilities.” Cheney also said that governing the country is a “tough, mean, dirty business.”

“Consequential” was the one word Cheney used to describe his own legacy, meaning that it mattered. As many political observers and historians have noted, Cheney’s legacy has had important implications for the Obama administration’s policies, much to the frustration of Mr. Obama’s liberal supporters. While Cheney may be remembered as someone who guided the country toward “the dark side,” a term Cheney used himself on Meet the Press the first weekend after September 11, he does not see himself as evil or power hungry. Rather, he truly believes that ruthless action has been vital to America’s survival.

Since leaving office, Cheney has maintained a rather public profile and has often criticized the Obama administration, especially on national security policy. In May 2009, Cheney became one of the most prominent Republicans to express support for same-sex marriage, but argued it should be regulated at the state-level. In August 2011, he published In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, which was co-authored with his daughter Liz. Cheney endorsed Mitt Romney in April and will host a fundraiser for the Romney campaign at his home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on July 12.

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