CASPER — The year is 1959. Fidel Castro has seized power in Cuba. Hawaii has been admitted as the 50th state. And for Dick Cheney, it’s homecoming at Natrona County High School.
In a white jacket, black slacks and a flat-top haircut, the future vice president — months away from his first semester at Yale, hours from his coronation as homecoming king — is grinning. Beside him is his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Lynne Vincent, in white gloves and a lavish corsage pinned beneath her right shoulder, also smiling in what would soon become the photo that would help send them decades later to Washington — not as a staffer, not as an intern but as a full-fledged member of the House of Representatives.
In Wyoming politics, pedigree counts quite a bit. And in 1978, Cheney, up against a former governor and the state’s treasurer, didn’t quite have it. His experiences in Washington — which might be considered an asset for candidates in other areas of the country — would soon be one of his biggest obstacles, remembers Judy Legerski, a longtime friend and an early volunteer in his bid for Congress.
So the campaign, she remembers, set out first and foremost to remind people Cheney’s home was not in Nebraska (where he was born) nor D.C. (where he made his connections) but in the place where, for one night, he and his wife were king and queen.
So they used the photograph.
“We had to remind people that he and Lynne were both from Casper, Wyoming,” Legerski remembers, in an anecdote that could still apply to candidates even today. “Wyoming voters are quite fickle about that.”
The young, aspirational and hardworking Natrona County student in that photo, however, is not the one we’re introduced to in the movie “Vice,” the latest Adam McKay “based on reality” film documenting Cheney’s rise. Depicted as a Machiavellian character of modern U.S. politics, McKay’s version of Cheney is a man in the shadows, the type to shy from the spotlight and seek power in a subtle and intelligent way, a creature of the establishment.
Today, there are two depictions of Cheney. One is of the ruthless orchestrator of the war in Iraq, who used the attacks of 9/11 to justify the use of torture on detainees and the foundation of the modern surveillance state as a means to keep the country safe.
“We were in a new era,” he wrote in his memoir, “In My Time,” “and needed an entirely new strategy to keep America secure.”
Considered by many as the most powerful vice president in American history, Cheney has since seen his legacy projected into some sort of specter of the string-pulling nation-builder lambasted by the American public, a Darth Vader type of figure that popular opinion has morphed into some sort of shadow governor standing behind President George W. Bush, a man behind the curtain, making the big decisions.
But in Wyoming, and to the people who know him, he was the intelligent and down-to-earth man who had to be torn away from conversations at GOP picnics when they went on for too long. To them, he was just Dick Cheney.
By most accounts, McKay’s depiction of Cheney’s early years are an incomplete and possibly stilted version of history.
The film, released on Christmas, starts with a selected anecdote — Cheney swerving on a dark, backcountry road, drunk — which in real life, took place some time after a brief stint at Yale. Cheney’s interests in New Haven, Connecticut, included H. Bradford Westerfield’s course on diplomacy in the Cold War (a course he got a C in, as he remembers in his memoir) and copious amounts of beer, a love that merited a reprimand from the dean his freshman year.
“My parents began to get letters,” Cheney wrote, “one of which began ‘Dick has fallen in with a group of very high-spirited young men.’”
But Cheney was always a hard worker and, even in high school, his political aspirations were there, but not immediately apparent to his classmates. He captained the football team and served as class president.
“Looking back, you can see where he was finally geared to go,” former classmate T.J. Claunch recalled in a 2014 interview. “At the time, I didn’t know — as much as I ran around with him — that he was interested in politics.”
“He was just a leader,” he added.
Cheney’s early days in government weren’t exactly Machiavellian; after a taste of politics as a graduate intern in the Wyoming Legislature, he gained a recommendation for a program funded by the Ford Foundation, which placed political science graduate students in mayors’ and governors’ offices around the country. Cheney was sent off to the Wisconsin statehouse and, using the connections he made there, found his way to Capitol Hill for the first time, working for a young and energetic fiscal conservative who, at the time, was considered a rising star in the Republican Party.
And the rest, they say, is history. Cheney, who had befriended Donald Rumsfield during his time in Washington, used that connection to get into the Ford White House and, from there, worked his way up to become the president’s chief of staff.
Cheney’s early career seemed less engineered and more the result of preparation meeting opportunity. In 1978, with nearly every statewide office up for grabs, Cheney ran for Congress, where he set to work building a network and where he met Legerski, a self-professed political junkie who, to that point, had already been approached by each of the campaigns in their efforts to court the vote in that area of Fremont County.
Despite his running against two far more seasoned and experienced candidates that year, Legerski determined Cheney to be the most genuine and agreed to help the campaign.
“I had talked to each of them, but I was really impressed with Dick and signed on,” she said. “Dick was always a gentleman and it was obvious he was a good man. I still think, after all these years, he was the smartest person I ever met. And he doesn’t have any need to show it off. There’s a certain gravitas there.”
Their main challenge, in those days, was overcoming that barrier of name recognition, which required a “real old-fashioned campaign,” she said, involving handtyped, mimeograph-produced mailers printed on half-pages (“to save a couple of bucks,” Legerski said). Hoping for a “real Wyoming” campaign, their events were of the low-key variety, to match the changing trend of politicians going directly to the people, and political capital was built with invitations to backyard cookouts with family, friends and close associates.
“And it was really successful,” Legerski said. “We’d have 30 to 40 people, and Dick would talk with each of them. I had to keep him moving, because he would tend to get involved in a lengthy conversation with one person, where the goal was to have him chat with as many people as possible. But that was part of his personality that was never going to change.”
The plan worked: That summer, Cheney won with 42 percent of the vote.
Once Cheney won his seat in Congress, he never lost it. His approval rating among Wyoming voters never dropped below 60 percent during his time there and, on the debate stage, reports from the time show his politics to be fairly in line with the mainstream.
His shoe leather work ethic may have helped. A 1980 report in the Casper Star-Tribune quoted the congressman as having spent 170 days in the state when Congress was out of session, and his public appearances, in true Wyoming fashion, were intimate and informal; one advertisement for a GOP political rally he appeared at in Casper in 1982 promised revelers free beer and a country-western band. Today in Wyoming, he’s known locally for his close ties to home and, even while serving as vice president, he never missed a class reunion.
His modern legacy, however, will be forever defined by his foreign policy: promoting the idea of “American exceptionalism” abroad, building nations overseas and escalating the battle for influence and control in the Middle East in a never-ending geopolitical fray. Most notably, Cheney was known for advocating the toppling of Saddam Hussein after 9/11 and the eight-year war that followed in Iraq.
There was also his approach to the job, pushing not only for expansion of the executive branch powers bestowed on the president but the vice president as well, enough to merit the criticism from Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf that Cheney “was a self-aggrandizing criminal who used his knowledge as a Washington insider to subvert both informed public debate about matters of war and peace and to manipulate presidential decision making, sometimes in ways that angered even George W. Bush.”
McKay’s depiction of Cheney paints the portrait of a man fully aware of the influence he could have on the world and sets the stage for Cheney’s redefining the vice presidency before accepting the job.
“The vice presidency is a mostly symbolic job,” Christian Bale, playing the role onscreen, tells Bush after being offered the position. “However, if we came to a different understanding, I could handle the more mundane jobs, overseeing bureaucracy, military, energy and foreign policy.”
Those who know him would find this episode strange. Though Cheney received the VP nomination while serving as the leader of the search committee to play matchmaker, he had actually picked someone else — former Senator John Danforth — as the man for the job, choosing him over several governors and former American Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole.
Whether he forced his way into the job is up for dispute. Some say he had always wanted the job and that he felt he was more prepared than anyone else to take it. In later years, he went on record to say that Danforth was his natural pick for the job, who Bush later concurred would have been his selection for the post if Cheney refused it. But friends and outside observers will maintain the Dick Cheney they knew would not have made such a deft power move.
“That’d be totally out of character,” Legerski said. “Dick is not an arrogant man.”
However contrived for cinematic purposes, the scene might have served to simplify a greater truth of how the Bush administration actually developed.
Throughout the history of the vice presidency, Pepperdine University law professor Ed Larson told the Star-Tribune, the job was always intended as an afterthought, designed only as a means to balance the powers of the president. As a result, vice presidents throughout history have often been weak figures, and even when they fulfill the president’s duties because of a death, resignation or impeachment, they’ve often been underwhelming influences on the course of history.
Eventually, however, the vice presidency began to morph as more presidents became apt to acknowledge their own shortcomings and sought vice presidents who could offer them help. Jimmy Carter, for instance, chose to give certain powers to his vice president, Walter Mondale, who could overcome Carter’s knowledge gap, and Bill Clinton offered certain influence to his VP, Al Gore.
But Cheney, Larson said, was unparalleled, a vice president who didn’t need to wait to become commander-in-chief to have substantial influence on American policy. Cheney was unique, Larson said, because Cheney had the experience to merit some degree of autonomy.
“You might be able to attribute that to the fact that George W. Bush was a lightweight president, therefore he ceded areas of power to Cheney, who was incredibly smart and talented,” Larson said. “He had this enormous depth of knowledge and connections, much deeper than George W. Bush, who had never served in Washington and had served as governor of Texas, which is an almost powerless governor.”
Cheney’s intentions may be forever unknown. He is notoriously private, something noted even by McKay in press interviews outlining how the script came together. (McKay’s publicist did not respond to several requests for an interview.) Any efforts to dive deeper were challenging as well: McKay, with a barbed interpretation of the administration, was unlikely to get cooperation from the family in pulling the film together. He had to rely on his own interpretations of events at times, leaving him to offer what McKay called his “absolute best effort.”
“It’s tricky, because if you go to them, they then have a claim that they’re involved in the movie,” he said in an interview with Deadline: Hollywood. “They weren’t going to support this. You read his autobiography, and see that he keeps everything on lockdown. He doesn’t say anything.”
Truthfully, the primary source documents are limited. A collection of his personal papers — including recordings of off-the-record conversations with biographer and journalist James Rosen, whose oral histories with Cheney are accessible — are kept under lock and key at the American Heritage Center in Laramie and have not been accessed. According to a librarian there, the Cheney family are the only people who can grant access to view the papers — a restriction that archivists have rarely granted.
The critiques of “Vice” have begun to roll out. Some consider the film rushed, an inaccurate reflection of what had actually transgressed in Cheney’s time in office. Some might consider it a carefully crafted punch to the gut, a film created to reach a succinct and digestible conclusion of Cheney’s life in as efficient a way as possible.
“What can you do?” Legerski said. “That’s what you guys (the media) do, you create something. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be correct. I remember when his name popped up for vice president and I called him, and I said, ‘I thought you weren’t ever tying your wagon to someone’s star again.’ And he said, ‘When your president calls, there’s only one answer.’ That was just classic Dick.”