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The Trouble With Cheney:
He’s Dumb
by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Newt Gingrich had the first take on George W.’s pick for veep: “Dick Cheney is even more conservative than me.” Leave it to the Bush crowd to allow the Democrats to resurrect Gingrich once more in their campaign ads. Of course, Newt has always been misclassified by the political taxonimists as a conservative. Underneath the bluster, Gingrich is a closet neo-liberal and a technophile, fully marinated in the argot of third-wavism and cyberspeak. It’s not surprising that he and Al Gore (frequent dining companions during their days in the House) are both disciples of Alvin Toffler and Carl Sagan and share the belief that getting urban America wired up to the Internet is a fast-track out of poverty.

Dick Cheney comes from more archaic stock. Though he is only 59, Cheney has been around the national political scene for more than 30 years. He was a Nixon man, serving his apprenticeship with Donald Rumsfeld, one of the dullest members of the permanent government, where he helped run the Office of Economic Policy. In 1974, Cheney was called upon to serve as Gerald Ford’s political eye-seeing dog, leading the clueless president through his uneventful tenure. Cheney was the youngest chief of staff ever, but always seemed more mature and sure-footed than Ford. Then, after Carter chased Ford out of the White House, Cheney fled back to Wyoming, surprising many there with his return to the very state that as a youth he couldn’t wait to leave. He wasn’t there long. Cheney ran for Congress, overcame charges of carpetbaggerhood and became part of a nasty triumverate of Wyoming legislators that ran rampant across the West through the 1980s, including the cruel-tongued Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop, a political narcoleptic, who was long considered by staffers the second dumbest member of the senate, an eyelash behind Idaho’s Steve Symms.

Cheney rose rapidly up the ranks of the Republican leadership. In his second term, he became leader of the party’s influential policy committee and later Minority Whip. As a congressman his record was unremittingly rightwing, voting against abortion at every turn, against the ERA, for funding the contras, the Muj and UNITA, against affirmative action and Head Start, against the Endangered Species Act and for selling off public lands and oil reserves. He even went so far as to accuse Ronald Reagan of “selling out to Rostenkowsi” on the 1986 tax bill.

Cheney was briefly considered as a replacement for James Watt as secretary of interior. But Cheney rightly thought he could do more damage in the House. And, as a member of the House Interior Committee, he did–pushing for increased oil and gas development in wilderness areas, securing private water rights over public lands and blocking several wilderness proposals in the northern Rockies.

The big prize in those days was the shale-oil deposits along the Rocky Mountain front, much of it in Wyoming, which Cheney endeavored to open up for development backed by billions in federal handouts–but when oil prices stabilized in the mid-80s the scheme largely fell apart. Cheney and Simpson also tried to micro-manage Yellowstone Park and succeeded in forcing the Park Service to build the Grant Village resort complex on Yellowstone Lake in habitat park biologists considered vital for the survival of the park’s dwindling population of grizzlies.

Cheney was briefly considered as a replacement for James Watt as secretary of interior. But Cheney rightly thought he could do more damage to the environment in the House of Representatives.

If Plutarch were around to write a contemporary version of his Parallel Lives, he could do much worse than to pair Cheney with Al Gore. There are striking constrasts, of course. Gore was born into political royalty and Cheney came from working class stock. Cheney dodged the draft, saying “I had better things to do in the 60s than fight in Vietnam,” while Gore went to Vietnam (although practically under a Praetorian guard to insure his safety) in order to butteress his political resume. Like Gore, Cheney was captain of his football team and president of his high school class. Like Gore, he married his high school sweetheart, Lynne, who, like Tipper, went on to wage a war against pop culture. Despite their reputations as eggheads, Cheney and Gore both had mediocre academic careers. Cheney won a scholarship to Yale, but flunked out after his first year, later saying “I didn’t like the East and I wasn’t a good student.” Al nearly flunked out of the Harvard English department (defeated by Chaucer) and fled to the more accomdating political science program. In 1981, Gore and Cheney both used their political connections to land seats on the House Intelligence Committee and have remained CIA loyalists ever since. In 1984, Gore and Cheney worked side-by-side to save the MX missile, the imperilled mega-MIRV that carried 10 big nuclear warheads each. Gore offered up his plan to build both the MX and the Midgetman (a single warhead nuke designed to rove around the Western deserts on the back of a truck). In 1990, as secretary of defense, Cheney, who never cared for the costly (less bang for more bucks) Midgetman, convinced Bush to cancel the program.

“Cheney’s often mistaken for a deep-thinker,” says a longtime Republican staffer on the Hill. “He’s not. He’s just a plodding thinker. His long pauses and deliberate mannerisms disquise the paucity of his political philosophy. It wasn’t that Cheney concocted reasons to vote against the ERA or the South African sanctions. He actually bought into the pr. He truly believed that the ERA was going to force women into combat and men’s bathrooms. He really believed that Nelson Mandela was a programmed tool of the Kremlin who would turn Johannesburg into a black Havana, after purging the country of all whites, if he ever got out. We called him Cheney the Credulous. But always behind his back. He had an explosive temper.”

Cheney was on the verge of becoming the minority leader of the House in 1989, when Bush tapped him to become his secretary of defense. An internal Pentagon profile of Cheney prepared after the 1992 election describes Cheney as always preferring weapons acquisition over military personnel and backing big ticket strategical systems over conventional weapons.

“Cheney’s often mistaken for a deep-thinker,” says a longtime Republican staffer on the Hill. “He’s not. He’s just a plodding thinker. His long pauses and deliberate mannerisms disquise the paucity of his political philosophy.”

Cheney presided over an open-door policy at the Pentagon–for defense contractors and big contributors. “Clinton rented out the Lincoln Bedroom to Hollywood starlets,” quipped one House staffer. “But Cheney let Lockheed execs play around in the war room.”

There is a caveat to this. Cheney took a principled stand against the V-22 Osprey helicopter, a flying deathtrap of no known military function. When Congress appropriated tk billion for the machine, Cheney instructed the Pentagon not to spend the money. Several congressmen threatened to haul Cheney into court on contempt of congress charges. Eventually, Cheney released some of the funds in 1992 at the request of Bush, who thought it might help him win Pennsylvania where much of work on the Osprey was to be done. It didn’t.

Cheney is given credit for running the Gulf War. But his skills as a military strategist haven’t inspired comparisons to General Ney at the Pentagon, where during the war he turned over much of the responsibility to his assistant secretary of defense, Instead, Cheney devoted most of his time to frequent briefings of congress, sessions that one staffer described as being “largely a horrorshow. Cheney tended to dwell on the gruesome efficiency of the bombing campaign and hyping the smart-bomb technology with piles of data that later proved bogus.”

Cheney’s most decisive action in the Gulf War had little to do with mustering support and everything to do with covering up the fact that Iraq’s army of conscripts posed little threat to US forces. The cat was let out of the bag by Gen. Tk Dugan, chief of the Air Force, who, on the eve of the war, told a Pentagon reporter that the Iraqis posed little threat and that US was basically doing the bidding of the Israelis. Cheney fired Dugan immediately.

Cheney is a member of that club of Republican men who find themselves in the intellectual shadow of their hard-driving wives: Quayle, Ford, Dole, Phil Gramm. Cheney’s wife, Lynne, is one of Washington’s top talking heads and a cohost of CNN’s Sunday edition of Crossfire. She’s a formidible intellect, who wrote a Phd dissertation at the University of Wisconsin on the influences of Kant on the poetry of Matthew Arnold. After Cheney left public office, Lynne kept the family name in the political spotlight, primarily as a crusader against any attempt by public schools to reach out to black and Hispanic children. As Bill Bennett (apparently oblivious to how it echoed Bob Haldeman’s sentiments about Martha Mitchell) put it: “she’s hard to muzzle.”

For the past five years, Cheney has been pulling down more than $1.3 million a year as CEO of Halliburton, the Bechtel of the oil services industry, a company that builds drilling rigs and pipelines for the big oil companies. Halliburton made a killing directing much of the cleanup of the mess in Kuwait left over from the Gulf War and rebuilding the infrastructure of the its petroleum industry. When Cheney came on board in 1995, he immediately began a cost-cutting regime that ending with more than 9,000 workers thrown on the streets.

Cheney’s nomination effectively mooted any RNC plans to attack Gore on playing footsie with the Chinese. In 1993, Halliburton secured a mutlibillion dollar joint services contract with the Chinese National Petroleum Company to develop and operation oil and gas fields and pipelines in the PRC. The deal was greased by the late Ron Brown and former Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary. CP