From An Unlikely Perch, 'Slotus' Takes Control

Lynne Cheney is small, blond and, when necessary, fierce. Her forceful personality was on display last week at the hospital as she quizzed doctors and protected her husband's privacy. "She was a commanding, impenetrable presence," says Mary Matalin, an adviser to the vice president. "My wife is in control of my food supply," the veep joked in a TV interview, but he heeds her as well on politics and policy. Mrs. Cheney dislikes being called the Second Lady. (Her kids teasingly call her SLOTUS, a play on POTUS, the White House acronym for president of the United States.) But she is the first vice president's wife to wield real power--both as her husband's closest adviser and in her own right.

From her perch at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, Mrs. Cheney will be an important ambassador of the Bush administration in the culture wars. She is writing a book on education reform, plunging herself headlong into the debate over phonics, the use of phonetics to teach reading. The president's aides believe that she will be able to rally the Republican base better than little-known Education Secretary Rod Paige. A former host of CNN's "Crossfire," she understands the power of the press better than almost anyone in the tight-lipped Bush administration. She was the one who really lobbied to get fellow "Crossfire" veteran Matalin hired onto the vice president's staff even though President Bush felt she could be too much of a showboat. Mrs. Cheney not only appreciated that the White House needed a pro like Matalin, but that it needed to diversify the white-man lineup it had for the Sunday-morning shows. She also had to persuade Matalin, who was worried about making time for her two young daughters. "Women can and will have balanced lives!" SLOTUS insisted.

Her style is not all warm and fuzzy. It was her pen that scripted one of her husband's sharpest convention-speech lines: "It's time for them to go!" She is more opinionated, combative and blunt than her husband. "Politicians are surrounded by people who tell you what they think you want to hear," explains Dick Cheney, then he adds with a chuckle: "That's never been a problem with Lynne." Not everyone appreciates her manner. She is famous for her assaults on political correctness as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Reagan administration. "Dick has a cool style and I guess I have a hot one," she explains.

Her passion was evident back in 1978, when her husband had his first heart attack amid his initial run for Congress. She was depressed by the news that her husband--her high-school sweetheart--would be bedridden for weeks. But after a couple of days, she hit the road in the RV and started knocking on doors with her two little girls in tow, each with a wicker basket full of Cheney buttons. "Lynne carried on by herself," explains their friend Joe Meyer. "She took control." She still does.