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The same could be said of many of Cheney's ideological opponents today. He tends to disarm them by genially listening to what they have to say, even though they almost never change his opinion. "He doesn't have a mean streak," says Lee Hamilton, the Democrat who chaired the Iran-Contra Committee. "He deals with issues, not personalities. And he doesn't run to the cameras." Cheney's reputation during his days on the Hill was for blandness. In his book The Ambition and The Power, John M. Barry recounts the time a group of House members visiting the Soviet Union amused themselves by taking a do-it-yourself psychoanalytic test. Cheney added up his score and discovered that the one profession to which he was particularly well suited was funeral director.
Cheney's mild manner has sometimes produced misunderstandings about where he actually stands. The Washington Post once referred to Cheney the Congressman as a "moderate," prompting him to order an aide to call the paper's editors and "suggest they look at my voting record." On that point, at least, Cheney is happy to be explicit about his position. Told recently by Matalin that the press was writing stories about his being a "hard-liner," Cheney replied, "I am a hard-liner."
Keeping a low profile comes naturally to Cheney. He has little time for the public side of politics. He recoils at working a rope line, grimaces when his staff schedules him to speak at a campaign rally, bristles when forced to make small talk with anyone not on his mental list of people worth his time. Told earlier this year that his schedule included 30 minutes of schmoozing with small-bore donors after a fund-raising speech in the Midwest, Cheney curled his lip and, without even looking at the aide who delivered the news, said, "Make it five." In fact, he was gone three minutes after finishing his speech. "He likes fewer, longer conversations," explains Matalin. "He's not a Georgetown, look-over-your-shoulder, cocktail-party kind of guy."
That posed a challenge when Cheney ran for Wyoming's lone House seat in 1978. On the stump he gave seminars instead of speeches and seemed almost embarrassed asking for votes. But Wyoming was kind to him. "He wouldn't have people screaming and yelling, that's for sure," say Gribbin. "But he was serious and respectful, and people would say, 'Well, he's a solid guy.' In Wyoming that comes across as smart and honest."
A presidential campaign is something else. After Bush I lost to Bill Clinton, Cheney spent a year exploring a presidential bid of his own. He raised more than $1 million, hired a staff and traveled to some 40 states to gauge support. Conservatives loved him, and G.O.P. establishment types were ecstatic, but Cheney's heart, literally and figuratively, was not in it. He had had three heart attacks in the previous 18 years, plus quadruple-bypass surgery; some doubted that Americans would put someone with that history in the Oval Office. Besides, Cheney was not sure he wanted to subject his family to the requisite media scrutiny. He was worried in particular, say friends, about the impact on his younger daughter Mary, who is openly gay.
In the end, he decided he did not want the presidency badly enough. When Houston-based Halliburton, the oil-services giant, offered him its vacant CEO position, he took it, earning some $2 million a year. And when Bush II came along with the offer of Vice President, Cheney hesitated to return to politics but not for long. He loathes only the retail kind of politics, the gripping-and-grinning, baby-kissing, self-aggrandizing, self-abnegating politics. Cheney loves and flourishes in a different political arena. It is the one that few outsiders see, the one in which, particularly in this Administration, all decisions are made. It is the politics of governance at the highest level, in the White House, where the art of guiding the decision-making process is practiced by some of the most skilled inside-the-room players in Washington. And it is the politics at which Cheney is unrivaled. With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr., John F. Dickerson, Michael Duffy, Eric Roston, Mark Thompson, Karen Tumulty and Douglas Waller / Washington and Sally B. Donnelly / Casper