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Dave Gribbin, a longtime Wyoming friend who worked for Cheney on the Hill and in the Pentagon, traces the Vice President's take on American exceptionalism to his experience in the Ford White House. "Here you are chief of staff, and one of the things you begin to experience up close is the degree to which America is looked upon to do things that other countries can't," says Gribbin. "Not just the use of force, but dealing with hunger and failing economies. He got a firsthand look at the awesome responsibility that that unique position imposes on those who lead." Rather than shrink from that burden, Cheney embraced it. He reasoned, says Gribbin, "Why not enhance and protect that responsibility? Why not make sure you don't fritter it away?"
Years later, during Cheney's tenure as Defense Secretary, his preference for American forcefulness was reinforced when, in the weeks before Iraq overran Kuwait, the U.S. sent mixed signals to Saddam Hussein about the consequences of an invasion. According to friends and aides, Cheney believes that if the U.S. had been more forceful in threatening retaliation against Iraq, Saddam might have stood down and the Gulf War would have been avoided. "You have to be clear and forceful about U.S. intentions," says a current adviser to Cheney. "That way nobody misunderstands our resolve."
Just as Cheney believes bad things happen when the U.S. acts meekly, he believes the converse as well. "The reason that the 20th century ended with the forces of communism and fascism defeated and with capitalism and democracy increasing as the political and economic models people aspire to is due in no small part to U.S. leadership, backed by U.S. military force," Cheney recently told Mary Matalin, a top aide. "Our leadership and our might shaped the events of the last century."
When Bush needed a new national-security strategy for the post-9/11 world, he turned to Cheney, who had been carrying one around in his briefcase for a decade. As Secretary of Defense, Cheney had commissioned two top aides, Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, to draw up a plan to reorient U.S. defense policy after the cold war. When word of the strategy was leaked, its muscular call for the U.S. to prevent the rise of hostile powers and act pre-emptively against states developing weapons of mass destruction was met with an uproar in the foreign policy establishment. But what was considered right-wing fringe thinking a decade ago is currently U.S. policy. Wolfowitz is Deputy Secretary of Defense today, and Libby is Cheney's chief of staff. The strategy they drew up for Cheney then reads like a blueprint for the Bush doctrine now.
2. Late Bloomer
On a personal level, Cheney was not always a bull-by-the-horns guy. After Cheney graduated from high school, Tom Stroock, a local oilman who was impressed by the young man, arranged his entrance and full scholarship to Yale. After four semesters, Cheney's grades were so bad, the university asked him to leave. David Nicholas, who has known Cheney since junior high school and who went to Harvard, thinks part of the problem was that the Casper schools had not prepared the boys for Ivy League academics. "We were competing with kids who went to Andover and Exeter, and they knew what it was all about," Nicholas observes. What's more, say those who knew Cheney then, he spent more time "in the bend-your-elbow club," as a former Yalie puts it, than in the library. Cheney hung out with his cohort on the freshman football team, stayed up late playing cards and drinking beer. "Dick wasn't big on studying," remembers Jacob Plotkin, one of his roommates.
Cheney got a union job laying power lines in the blue-collar town of Rock Springs, Wyo. He stayed in constant touch with Lynne, who was in college in Colorado; he had had to endure teasing from Plotkin for writing her almost daily from Yale. On occasion, he drank too much a practice that led to two DUI arrests within a year. Cheney told Nicholas years later that the arrests motivated him to get his career on track. In addition, Lynne, according to Stroock, "was firm that she did not want to spend the rest of her life married to a lineman."