Just because her husband is helping to run the country doesn’t mean Lynne Cheney should give up her day job, does it? The other half of the consummate Washington power couple talks to Elinor Burkett about how she’s rethinking the role of Second Lady and redefining feminism
August 2001
Photo Editor Christine Bobbish

236A-020-007 Girl Power: Cheney with daughters Mary (left) and Liz

When Lynne Cheney strides into the office of the Second lady from her real office, the one where no one cares that her husband is the Chief Operating Officer of the Free World, she is besieged by an all-female staff that spends most of its time saying no-no to public appearances, to fundraisers, to interviews with the press.

"I have to be very careful about my schedule because I need to write," says Cheney, sixty, who has just raced over from the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank where she's a senior fellow specializing in education policy. She's the first spouse of a president or vice president to keep her day job, ever, so the attendant kinks have yet to be ironed out of a centuries-old system in which First and Second Ladies were expected to labor as charming hosts, charming guests, and smiling admirers of their men.

Cheney parses out her time meticulously. She spends her mornings closeted in the AEI office, working on a new book about the failure of education reform. Then she carves out a few hours in the afternoon to help fete a new ambassador, to accompany First Lady Laura Bush to the Grandma Moses Museum, to talk with a reporter.

The natives -the donors, associations, and political clubs accustomed to ceremonial appearances by a White House wife- are restless. In mid-May,
Cheney turned down invites from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Hoover Institution, at least three Republican women's groups, the Wyoming Early Childhood Development Council, and the Economic Club of Indianapolis. Faced with up to eighty pleas for the Second Lady's presence each week, Cheney's scheduler is tearing her hair out.

"I've always worked, and I can't turn into a pumpkin and stop just because Dick was elected Vice President," says Cheney, who has been a college professor, an editor at Washingtonian magazine, a writer, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a television pundit on Crossfire, where she signed off "This is Lynne Cheney, from the right, and right on every issue." She's one of the nation's most prominent conservative women -whose record as a biting critic of liberal orthodoxies and an education and culture advisor to the last three Republican presidents puts her in the same league as Elizabeth Dole and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Her husband's election marks Cheney’s return to Washington from Texas, where she was a member of then-governor George W. Bush's education-reform team. "No one would expect Dick to stop working if I'd been elected Vice President," she quips.

Cheney's declaration of independence is a bit jarring, though it probably shouldn't be. While we know highpowered conservative women must be deeply invested in their careers -otherwise, they wouldn't be highpowered- we're always surprised when they don't couch their ambitions with platitudes about the priority of home and family.

Cheney's commitment to her work may not set her apart from other women on the right, but she has never been as predictable as her friends -or enemies- would like. While she's undoubtedly a true-blue conservative -anti-choice, anti-gun control, anti-affirmative action, et cetera- she has a stubborn independent streak. During the 1989 controversy over an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, she broke ranks with the conservative chorus demanding the removal of the work. "I'm opposed to censorship," she said bluntly. Last year, she again defended freedom of speech -against liberals, like Senator Joe Lieberman, who have proposed legislation to limit Hollywood's targeting of sex and violence toward children.

While at NEH, Cheney delighted conservatives by leading the jihad against political correctness. Then she turned around and used her formidable influence to block their attempts to kill the agency, and even managed to increase its budget by a third.

She is known for her acerbic sound bites, but in person, she's warm and engaging, known to recite Yeats to underline a point. And she is so petite -not quite five feet four- that she has to lean forward toward her desk to avoid being engulfed by her leather chair.

In the midst of a discussion of the dangers of relativism -about how The Tempest is now taught as a text detailing the impact of European imperialism on indigenous societies rather than simply as great literature- she veers off in a reverie about her passion for "junk novels," most recently Rennie Airth's River of Darkness. "I read plenty of bad novels; I've even written some," she says, laughing about her three works of fiction, Sisters, The Body Politic, and Executive Privilege. When she donated a slew of hardcover mysteries to a library a few months back, she did so anonymously, lest anyone realize how many she'd consumed.

When the Cheneys' meals aren't being prepared by the VP's official chef, it's Dick who does the cooking -Lynne doesn't even pretend to bake cookies. She's a former homecoming queen -her campaign for the title was managed by Dick, his first foray into politics- who admits to being impatient with social niceties. "One of my prevailing characteristics is hitting the bottom line too fast," she says. "Its a conscious effort for me, when I pick up the telephone, to do the 'How are you today?' thing."

Finally, she's a serious academic-the author of a doctoral dissertation on the impact of philosopher Immanuel Kant on nineteenth-century British poet Matthew Arnold-whose novels range from a campy thriller in which the vice president dies an untimely death in the arms of a television reporter to a steamy tale of the Old West, where the men are brutal and the women downtrodden.

"People think that she's a jangle of contradictions because they accept all the stupid stereotypes about women, especially conservative women," says Barbara Ledeen, a friend of Cheney's who works for the Senate Republican Conference. "But those stereotypes make women onedimensional. Interesting people are never all one thing."

There were times during the 2000 presidential campaign when you would have thought the first name of the Republican candidate for vice president was Lynne. Although the guy who was running, her famously low-key, laconic husband, managed to stay out of the spotlight, Lynne was transmogrified into the conservative Cruella De Vil. Democrats spread rumors that she was demanding the top job at the Department of Education or insisting on an office in the West Wing of the White House. "Lynne Cheney is, for all practical purposes, on the ticket," warned Jon Wiener in the liberal weekly The Nation. "If Bush goes to the White House, Lynne Cheney may well lead a revival of those '80s culture wars." Things got so hot that Time directly asked, "Lynne Cheney: Asset or Liability?" The message was dear: Lynne Cheney is scary.

It made no difference that she spent none of her time on the campaign trail pontificating about policy. Beating up on her was too delicious a prospect for Democrats hungering for payback for every snide comment ever made about Hillary's vanishing Rodham. Laura Bush was too quiet and self-protective to make much of a target, but, on paper at least, Cheney was perfect, as if she'd been scripted by the writers of The West Wing to play the fur-defending harridan with whom Bush's opponents could mock the candidate's alleged centrism.

But even when Cheney stayed in a supporting role in Dick's drama -introducing him, joking about his prowess as a fisherman and juggler- she took it on the chin. Journalists -perhaps dreading the tedium of the meticulously scripted campaign, or four long years without a prominent woman they could treat like a political Lady Macbeth- reported ominously that she'd "been instructed to muzzle herself," as one put it. Newsday editorialized that she was behaving like a "woman with a sock in her mouth."

Cheney is hardly the first woman to become a pawn in her husband's political chess match. Andrew Jackson's foes clubbed him with his wife Rachel's alleged adultery. Mary Todd Lincoln, a Southerner, was accused of everything from treason to unpatriotic extravagance. And by the 1920 election, Florence Harding had achieved such notoriety as the brains of the family that one newspaper wrote, "If Warren G. Harding is elected there will be two p--well, personalities in the White House."

Think of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband’s enemies charged her with being a meddling Bolshevik and a power-hungry lesbian. Or Nancy Reagan, who was blamed for her husband's firing of hard-fine conservatives.

As the spouses of politicians become powerful in their own right, public discomfort with the thought that they are whispering sweet somethings about tax cuts and oil leases into their husbands' ears will likely continue to grow. As long as White House wives seemed uninterested in any affair of state that didn't revolve around a twelve-course meal, we could ignore the fact that presidential couples do precisely what every other couple does-spend dinner talking about what happened at the office. But we can't pretend anymore. Increasingly, the female professionals who live in the presidential and vice presidential mansions will have written contentious books like Lynne Cheney, made questionable investments like Hillary Clinton, or, in the years to come, argued controversial cases, closed corporations and thrown thousands out of work -and who knows what else. During Bill Clinton's early months in office, Hillary tried one strategy to win support for this new reality: Americans would get two for the price of one. The country, of course, didn't seem ready for job-sharing in the White House-at least not the blatantly nepotistic, wife-as-health-czar variety.

Having played Beltway politics for decades, the Cheneys say they aren't making the same mistake. "I'm not involved in policy matters in this administration," Lynne says flatly. The question is: Should anyone believe her?

Lynne Vincent Cheney seems an unlikely daughter of Casper, Wyoming, in the mythic 1950s -the era of malt shops and poodle skirts, in which teen social life revolved around the drive between the A&W root-beer stands on opposite ends of town. But she was the "driven older daughter," as Lynne puts it, the eldest of three, in the first state where women gained the vote, the first to elect a female governor. Her grandmother raised five children in a tent in the oil fields for several years and helped put food on the table by working as a postmistress. Lynne's mother was the town's deputy sheriff, her father an engineer.

Lynne managed to become both the homecoming queen and a member of the National Honor Society, to win the state baton-twirling championship, and to read the classics, in alphabetical order, from the public library. She began dating Dick just after his seventeenth birthday, but when he was "distracted momentarily by a very good-looking cheerleader," she says, she refused to give up without a fight: Lynne started dating Dick's best friend, Joe Meyer, now the Secretary of State of Wyoming. "Joe was not only a pretty good-looking young man, but he also had a 1959 Pontiac convertible, the kind that had tail fins. That got to Dick right away."

After graduation, she enrolled at Colorado College intent on becoming a "professional," but had not a clue as to what that really meant. "I didn't know lawyers or doctors, except to get something fixed," she says. She couldn't just float along. "I'm kind of the worrier of the universe. That's my standard mode. You plan ahead, 'cause if you don't, disaster could intrude." So, she says, she examined the lives of the only professionals available to her, her instructors, and decided to emulate them.

Her goal firmly fixed, Lynne sailed through the master's program in English at the University of Colorado. But her personal life was a bit rocky. There she was, heading for a career in academia, and Dick -who'd lost a Yale scholarship to partying- was stringing electric lines for $2 an hour. Lynne wasn't about to marry a common laborer. Although, by all accounts, Lynne didn't explicitly tell Dick it was her way or the highway, he got the message, buckled down, and went back to school.

The Cheneys both planned to get their PhDs -she in English, he in political science- and settle into a comfortable academic life. Then Lynne started looking for a job. "I went to one interview where the chairman of the English department asked if l was married or really interested in the job," she says. She realized that she and her female colleagues were utterly unprepared for the job market. "One of the great discoveries I made was that the men who'd done as well as I had in graduate school had men who were mentoring them. There were women professors, but they also mentored men. We didn't understand the politics of how you move up."

The experience excited Cheney's intellectual curiosity, but not her activist sensibilities. She'd seen lefty politics up dose while a grad student at the University of Wisconsin and wasn't impressed. 'You'd make your way through tear gas and guerrilla theater-people running around with animal entrails over their head to protest the bombing in Vietnam-and go into class and there would be all these fresh faces from Menomonie, Wisconsin, who actually wanted to learn to write an essay... There were two universities." There was no doubt to which Lynne Cheney belonged.

Nonetheless, as she juggled two young children, part-time teaching -which was all she could find- and her first forays into writing, Cheney mined feminist scholarship heavily. The results are evident in her fiction. In Sisters, Sophie, her heroine, meets up with a lesbian, part of a community cartying the banner of female superiority in nineteenth-century Wyoming. Hearing the woman's tales of abuse and prostitution, Sophie can't help but empathize. "For a moment, just a moment," Cheney wrote, "she ... saw that the way the other woman felt was not perverse, but a right response to her life. It had to do with wanting control; it was a different path to a goal Sophie herself was always seeking."

Lynne imbued both her daughters with what might be called boot-strappers' feminism. The first book thirty-five-year-old Liz recalls being given by her mother was a biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the nation's first female physician. And when eight-year-old Mary integrated a Little League baseball team and was heckled by the boys, her mother instructed her, "If you want to do this, ignore them."

"I learned self-confidence from my mom," says Mary, now a thirty-two-year-old MBA candidate. "If you set your mind to it and work hard, gender will never be a barrier to your success."

In analyzing her fiction, Elaine Showalter, a Princeton professor and one of the founders of contemporary feminist literary criticism, called Cheney a "feminist intellectual." Cheney has said she doesn't shrink from that characterization, "as long as I get a chance to define what mean by feminism.... If it means being convinced that women should have equal opportunities to achieve in their lives, if it believing firmly that women should be able to make choices about family and career, if that is what it means, then I was happy to be called a feminist.

"If, on the other hand, it means the whole menu of orthodoxies that have become attached to the feminist movement -i.e., you can't be pro-life, you can't like Clarence Thomas, you can't be a Republican- then it is an inaccurate description."

For a Type A overachiever, the Vice Presidency is the worst kind of career move. Under the Constitution the only thing the job calls for is waiting: waiting for the President to die or be impeached, waiting for the Senate to windup in a tie vote so the Vice President can break it.
That all the Vice Presidency is about -waiting. Everything else is make-work.

At least that's what Cheney wrote when she co-authored The Body Politic, about a vice president who dies of a heart attack and is replaced by his wife. But the office is turning out to be something completely different for Dick. He's considered the most powerful VP perhaps ever, and Lynne isn't insensible to the boost that gives her. She has a "bigger megaphone" than she's had for years, she says, at least since she left Crossfire. At the same time, she adds, "you really do fly under the radar a little bit."

Better yet, since Dick isn't maneuvering for the presidency, she doesn't have to open her home to the fifteen most important New Hampshire Republicans. She is free to use the vice presidential mansion at the U.S. Naval Observatory to promote not her husband's future but the causes she has championed for three decades: back-to-basics education, core values, and traditional culture.

On one of those spring afternoons that remind you Washington used to be a swamp, Cheney, with Alma Powell at her side, greets fifty of the Republican pundits and policymakers who are gleefully dismantling eight years of Bill Clinton's social-policy initiatives, among them Bill Bennett and his wife, Elayne. Sipping wine and iced tea, Lynne is hosting a party to celebrate the Best Friends Foundation, a national abstinence program for adolescent girls, the kind of initiative that social conservatives hail as a potent weapon against AIDS, abortion, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy.

Dick wasn't home, of course, not at 4:00 P.M. on a Thursday, nor did he need to be. The Cheneys have divided America's business along clear lines: He defends the nation from external threats; she handles dangers closer to home. Still, the Cheneys are a team -and these days, Dick is doing plenty of stomping on Lynne's ground: Since he's reportedly involved in nearly every decision Bush makes, domestic policy inevitably has become a larger part of his portfolio. "[The Cheneys'] relationship works because there's no lesser partner," says Joe Meyer, who has remained a close friend. "When Dick suffered a heart attack during his first congressional campaign, Lynne filled in for him on the road. And when her life is crazed with work, Dick returns the favor."

"I remember once we'd been holed up in their house in Wyoming working on footnotes for Telling the Truth when Dick showed up," recalls Lynne Munson, Lynne Cheney's former researcher, referring to her most important book, a polemic on the moral and intellectual crisis posed by relativism. "He saw that we were lacking the most basic necessities. Without saying anything, he got into the jeep and went to the grocery store. The next thing I knew, there was toilet paper in the bathrooms, and he was calling us down to lunch."

The partnership is more than the sum of its respective parts, or at least that's what Liz, an attorney, suspects. "I've always wondered whether their finding each other wasn't a big part of what made them so successful," she says, musing on the synergy of energy, ideas, and ambition that has catapulted the couple to the top ranks of American politics. "They're more than best friends. They work in tandem." She punctuates her observation with a favorite story. "Several years ago, my mother ordered my kids a Barbie car. When it arrived, she was too impatient to assemble it, so she asked my dad to do it." Dick begged off, saying he was too busy writing a commencement address, but Lynne was not deterred. "I'll make you a deal," she told her husband. "I have a really good graduation speech you can use if you put the car together for me." Dick took her up on it.

At the tea, Cheney graciously leads her guests on a tour of her new home, an old Victorian that is a work in progress. The public areas have been decorated in subdued beiges to highlight the art-not the usual oils of Washington crossing the Delaware, but a stunning array of contemporary work Lynne borrowed from museums and galleries. A massive Helen Frankenthaler -Lush Spring, an abstract cacophony of blues and greens- dominates their living room, and the dining room belongs to a quietly beautiful painting by Elaine Kurtz.

As she proceeds through the house, Cheney alternately talks about her new art and her new book, an attack on virtually every modern trend in education: "mushy" curricula, to use the President's word; the antipathy to memorization; the abiding disdain for the basics. Her guests had all heard her rap before. "We've spent billions of dollars, have had tens of thousands of reports and thousands of conferences," she says, "and reading scores haven't improved."

Cheney has been an idol among social conservatives since her days at NEH, when she insisted that the agency logo be removed from the Endowment-funded film The Africans, which she deemed "unbalanced" (because it called Karl Marx the "last of the great Jewish prophets," for example), and refused to fund a series about Columbus's voyage because it pronounced him guilty of genocide. "Lynne believes that all of Western civilization is in danger from the left," her old friend Ken Melman says, "and she has no levity about that."

By the time she hosted Crossfire Sunday and declared gun trigger locks to be "one more effort by liberals to institute controls over honest citizens," lambasted feminists for "establishing the victimhood of women," and lashed out at the former First Lady -'What really drives me crazy is when Hillary acts like the happy wife, walking hand-in-hand off the helicopter together at critical moments"-she had earned a cult following among conservatives.

For years, her comrades-in-arms in the culture wars have urged her to run for the Senate. She considered the possibility, she says, but decided that leaving her family to traipse around Wyoming campaigning for a year "didn't have much appeal." There was also speculation that she might be appointed to run the Department of Education, but that was not to be: Bob Dole killed her chances in 1996 by losing the presidential election. Her husband did the same, by getting tapped for the vice presidency. "Having her in the cabinet would have been too cute by half," says Republican strategist Scott Reed.

While Cheney is a darling of conservatives, more than a few have felt the sting of her tongue. "If you're going to venture a strong opinion, even if she agrees with it, you'd better be prepared to defend it," Reed says. "If you can't, she'll melt you down."

And she is notoriously punctilious. Adelman recalls sending her the draft of an interview he'd conducted with her for his column in Washingtonian. "I'd told her she should feel free to correct her answers, but she corrected my questions, as well," says the former arms-control negotiator, chuckling.

Mary Cheney a1so titters at her mother's reputation for tartness. "She tells you exactly what she thinks, which makes some people think she's an ogre." (Mary has the dubious distinction of being the first candidate's child to become an election issue. During an interview, Lynne was asked whether her daughter was a lesbian. "Mary has never declared any such thing," she said curtly. Cheney says now that she cut off the dialogue only to respect her daughter's wishes -Mary refuses to discuss her sexual orientation with the media.)

The remarkable irony of the Cheneys' tenure thus far is that while Hillary's influence on Bill was the object of much more consternation, Lynne and Dick's relationship seems a truer embodiment of marital power-sharing. Lynne brings her own substantial record of government service and high-profile political action to the table; Hillary, of course, got her first real government job only after her husband's presidency.

Indeed, there's a standing joke in the Cheney family, a bit of teasing banter that emerged when Dick and Lynne presided simultaneously over the Department of Defense and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the mid-1980s. When they were among political friends in Wyoming, Lynne would look out over the audience, catch the eye of Joe Meyer, and chide her husband, "It's a good thing you straightened up and married me, or Joe would be the Secretary of Defense."

The night before the 2001 presidential inauguration, when the Wyoming State Society honored its favorite son at a black-tie ball packed with what seemed like half the state, Dick Cheney stole his wife's best line: "It's a good thing I had the good sense to marry Lynne. If I hadn't, some other guy would be taking the oath of office tomorrow."

The crowd of 1,500 laughed at the self-effacing humor. Everyone knew that the new Vice President was only half-joking.