Liz Cheney: When Your Dad is 'Darth Vader'
What do you do when your father’s been pilloried but you’re convinced his policies will be vindicated by history? If you’re Liz Cheney, you help him write a memoir, In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, in the hope of setting the record straight.
Anyone who has seen Liz Cheney on the political-talk-show circuit knows that besides being an attorney and a former State Department official, she is a proudly hard-core conervative and a warrior for her clan. Now chair of the national-security advocacy group Keep America Safe, Cheney has suggested to Fox News that President Obama found it “fashionable” to side with terrorists. Her leave-behind is almost always the same: that the policies of the George W. Bush administration were absolutely right.
Despite her loyalty, Dick Cheney remains one of the least popular vice presidents in American history (rivaling Dan Quayle), the government official whom critics from Hillary Clinton to Popular Science have compared to Darth Vader. That’s one reason Cheney urged her father to write his memoirs, and it’s why she has spent nearly every day for the past five years with him—taking dictation and line-editing his handwritten drafts, all the while slamming Starbucks skim lattes. “He does Grande skim. I do quad Venti—that’s four shots of espresso,” she says.
The book—In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir—was withheld from the press until its late-August release, so More could not interview Cheney about its contents. Instead, she talked about her motives for doing the book and her own warm view of the man many Americans found cold. She wants people to understand her father’s “amazing” backstory: At age 22 a college dropout who had been arrested twice for DUI, he then got his act together and by 34 was White House chief of staff. “For people who have only known him as a vice president,” says Cheney, “this book is a chance to have insight -into who he is as a person.”
Do you feel your father has been misjudged?
Certainly there has been a lot of criticism. That is why it’s so important to have a book like this one. He’ll say, “Look, here is what we did, here is why we did it, here’s our thinking behind these decisions.” It’s not easy to see someone you love criticized. [But] we laugh about the Darth Vader thing. Dad always reminded us that it just goes with the territory. I think it bothers us more than him.
You and your father seem especially close.
We are. The family has always campaigned together. We spent years traveling around Wyoming [the state he represented for six terms as a congressman] in a motor home. When he ran for vice president [the first time], my sister, Mary, was his personal aide, and in 2004 she ran the vice-president piece of the campaign. Both times I managed his debate preparation. And there are a lot of grandkid stories in the book. In 2002 we were in Wyoming when he was supposed to do a video conference with a number of [anti-Saddam Iraqis] in Washington. But before he could get into the room, my daughter Elizabeth, who was about three, did some dances. She had on a pink tutu, and she stuck out her tongue and entertained the Iraqis, who were on a split screen next to her image.
Do you disagree with any of his positions?
That’s part of what was interesting about doing the book together: having the chance to talk about what we have disagreed about over the years. When he was secretary of defense, he didn’t think women should serve in combat. I remember debating him about it. Now he recognizes that the nature of combat is changing, and I think our positions on this are more alike. We talked about Monica Brown, the young medic who earned a Silver Star in Afghanistan. My dad had been so honored to award her the medal, but then the army pulled her from the unit [because it was on a combat mission]. He doesn’t think that was the right decision.
While working on the book, did you learn anything about your father that surprised you?
I asked him if he was angry when Al Gore retracted his concession during the 2000 election. He said, “Not really. I felt more like it was amateur hour at the Gore campaign. You know, they didn’t have to concede that night. There’s no rule that you have to. So I felt if it had been a professional operation, they would have waited. The fact that they did concede ended up hurting them throughout the recount.” That was very surprising to me. He has an ability to step out of situations that involve him and look at them analytically.
How have your thoughts about the Bush administration evolved?
A lot of what has happened since [they left] has vindicated the decisions they made. President Obama has kept Guantánamo Bay open. Some of the controversial -programs, like the terrorist-surveillance program, are still going on. President Obama made the decision to surge troops in Afghanistan. Frankly, it’s become clear that a lot of the policies [my dad and President Bush] adopted are necessary for keeping the country safe. The big change, of course, was with enhanced interrogation [such as waterboarding, a practice Obama has ended]. My dad played a big role in 2009 in getting documents declassified that showed that those programs generated intelligence that saved lives and prevented attacks.
What does the killing of Osama bin Laden under President Obama’s watch mean in the context of your father’s and President Bush’s policies?
Our ability to find and kill bin Laden is really [due to the fact] that a lot of people worked very hard for a lot of years, especially our intelligence community and our Navy Seals, who went in and did it. They deserve credit, and certainly President Obama deserves credit for making the decision to send those Seals in. I think it was the result of years of work and a very good decision by President Obama.
You were a high-ranking State Department official under George W. Bush. What’s your take on recent events in the Middle East?
I think it’s very complicated. The early days of the revolt in Egypt, where you saw young people holding their smartphones in the air saying, “These are our weapons,” that’s very positive. But now we’re seeing some groups that are not interested in true democracy who are taking advantage of the vacuum. I have been pretty dis-appointed in this administration’s ability to deal with these challenges.
Should we be doing anything with the Saudis regarding women’s rights?
We should be pushing them. We should be standing up behind these women who are now driving. One thing that the Bush administration worked on and that I worked on is empowering women in the Middle East and sending the mes-sage that when you teach a woman to read, you are teaching her whole family to read. These are policies that have been continued by the Obama administration.
What do you think of the current Republican presidential field?
I think we have a good one. But I am worried about the national-security position of the Republican Party. We have a number of candidates who want to adopt an isolationist approach. It’s understandable that people are war weary. And with the economy as bad as it is, people are very worried about defense spending. But I think it is a dangerous and naive approach to believe if we simply bring our troops home, the threat will be over.
What do you think of Michele Bachmann?
She was one of the best on this national–security issue in the [June] debate. I find her very impressive. As a mother of five, I like to see someone else with five kids out there, throwing her hat in the ring.
You say you’re a strong believer in “American exceptionalism.” What does that mean?
To me it means that the United States of America is the best nation that has ever existed. Our ideals, our freedom and our values are a guiding light for countries all around the world, and I don’t think an American president should be embarrassed to stand up and say so. I think that the world is safer when America leads. Nobody else will step in and do it if we don’t. My sense is that President Obama is in some instances unwilling to lead, that he is sort of embarrassed about having America in a leadership role.
Any plans to run for office yourself?
I have huge respect for people who do that. I think it’s truly noble to go out and not just talk about issues but actually put your name on the ballot. But I haven’t decided that I am actually going to do it. It has a lot to do with how to balance the demands of being a mom [of three girls and two boys, ages five through 17] and the demands of public service. I have been totally focused on the book and told myself I would make some decisions about what I am going to do once the book is out.
Click to buy In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir.
AMANDA ROBB is a frequent contributor to MORE.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of MORE.