This week, I finally finished reading Dick Cheney’s fascinating but remote autobiography, In My Time. It’s fascinating because it is a window on history – Cheney served in four administrations, helped guide the country during the first Gulf War and the War on Terror, watched one president fall (Nixon), and served in Congress, too. Not a bad career.
But the book is remote because we never really get to see what shaped Cheney. Where did his political philosophy come from? Cheney cites only a few books he read growing up: Guadalcanal Diary and Those Devils in Baggy Pants, The Big Sky and Across the Wide Missouri – tales of adventure and daring and wholehearted Americanism. His parents were Democrats, but we never find out what prompted his political transformation. He was an academic, but never talks about the nature of his political science. We don’t get much of the inner Cheney aside from his daily frustrations or celebrations of the nation’s biggest events. We get a front-row view of the unfolding American drama, but we don’t get into Cheney’s head.
There is one portion of the book that is especially illuminating, however. It describes Cheney’s first foray into Washington, D.C. Cheney was accepted to a congressional fellowship, and he attempted to get a job with a young Congressman named Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld turned him down. Instead, Cheney ended up working for Rep. Bill Steiger (R-WI). When Nixon nominated Rumsfeld to become the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Steiger was recruited to join the brain trust for Rumsfeld’s nomination. “It was widely thought that Nixon wanted someone to oversee the dismantling of the agency,” writes Cheney, “but that was a mistaken assumption.” In fact, Rumsfeld then turned around and recruited Cheney for the task force on OEO; eventually he became Rumsfeld’s assistant. “I didn’t know I was saying goodbye to the academic world forever and signing up for a forty-year career in politics and government – but it was exactly the right call,” Cheney writes.
Then comes the telling episode. In September 1969, Gov. Louie Nunn (R-KY) vetoed OEO funding for a program in eastern Kentucky, “charging corruption and claiming that federal funds were being used to entrench the local Democratic Party and the Turner family that controlled it. Nunn, a Republican governor, had been an early an strong supporter of Nixon, and the White House naturally wanted to be responsive. But the program was in the home district of Democratic congressman Carl Perkins, one of the most powerful men in Washington and chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, which authorized OEO’s budget.”
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