The Veep: Why Is Dick Cheney So Gloomy?

Dick Cheney may be a taciturn man, writes author Stephen F. Hayes, but the vice president can become animated discussing doomsday scenarios. In his new biography, "Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President" (578 pages. HarperCollins. $27.95), Hayes tells the story of the Cheney family, sitting around their new big-screen TV in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on a recent Fourth of July, watching the 1997 movie "The Peacemaker." Starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, the film is about a plot to blow up New York with a nuclear bomb. Partway through the movie, Cheney's wife, Lynne, entered the room and asked what was happening. The question was directed at no one in particular, but the vice president launched into "a 10-minute, scene-by-scene synopsis of the action," according to Lynne's brother Mark Vincent. She interrupted to clarify her question: "What's happening now?"

Cheney, writes Hayes, woke up on the morning of September 12, 2001, asking: when is the next attack? A lot of Americans woke up that day asking the same question, but while many have been lulled back into semicomplacency, Cheney has never stopped worrying and wondering and—it must be said—trying to do something about it. The vice president has become a kind of modern-day prophet of doom. He is seen by many Americans as slightly creepy, if not sinister. Of course, he could be right: Al Qaeda may well be, as recent intelligence reports suggest, gearing up for another and possibly more catastrophic attack. But what makes Cheney so dire, so animated by gloom?

You won't find a psychological explanation in Hayes's new book. A writer for the conservative Weekly Standard, Hayes is largely uncritical and essentially buys into the picture of Cheney-as-Stoic, a throwback to an ancient Greek warrior who can see the Fates gathering but grimly and bravely soldiers on. Hayes recounts a scene told to him by David Bohrer, the vice president's official photographer, about Cheney at a Secret Service test-driving track in Beltsville, Md. The Secret Service was teaching Cheney how to drive to evade terrorists by executing a "J-turn." Cheney, who had not driven a car in about two years, jammed the Chevy Camaro into reverse, hit the accelerator until he was going about 40 miles an hour, then slammed on the brakes in order to spin the car a full 180 degrees. Bohrer had mounted a camera on the windshield to record Cheney's face. The veep was expressionless throughout. "It was as if he was taking a Sunday drive," Bohrer told Hayes.

Intelligence officials often talk about the importance of preparing for "worst-case scenarios." Cheney seems to have always been ready for the worst. Maybe he learned not to count on good fortune after he lost his scholarship to Yale. Kicked out a second time, Cheney drifted back to Wyoming and was twice arrested for drunken driving. Hayes reports that Cheney always felt a sense of loyalty to Donald Rumsfeld because Rumsfeld persuaded President Gerald Ford to overlook Cheney's youthful indiscretions when Cheney was under consideration to succeed Rumsfeld as White House chief of staff. It was during the Ford years that Cheney first began worrying about "continuity of government" questions—what happens if the top of the American government is "decapitated." The nuclear threat of the cold war and two unsuccessful assassination attempts on President Ford explain some of Cheney's early preoccupation, but not all of it. At the same time, Cheney first embraced his belief in asserting executive power—the need for a strong president to rescue the country during crisis. Again, troubled times explain some of Cheney's worries—Watergate had undermined the power of the White House. But was there some deeper sense of personal foreboding, perhaps the mortality he felt from suffering his first heart attack at the age of 37?

In 30 hours of interviews, Hayes did not get Cheney to open up much about his thoughts or emotions. (Hayes's previous book on Al Qaeda's "collaboration" with Saddam Hussein must have smoothed access to the notoriously tight-lipped vice president.) He did, however, get Cheney to admit error, almost unheard of by the Bush administration. In hindsight, Cheney tells Hayes, the mechanism for postwar governance in Iraq was a failure. The administration would have been better off letting the Iraqis govern themselves from the outset. "I think the Coalition Provisional Authority was a mistake, wasted valuable time," Cheney said. And from Hayes's other interviews, it is possible to get a glimpse into Cheney's threat-obsessed world, especially post-9/11.

Most Americans have not quite grasped how imminent and overwhelming the danger seemed to be, at least to those reading the incoming intelligence. Under pressure to produce something—anything—about terrorist planning, the CIA and FBI flooded the White House with raw intelligence, much of it dubious or just wrong, but terrifying in its totality. At one point, security officials believed that the home belonging to Elizabeth Cheney, the veep's daughter, had been hit by an anthrax attack. Elizabeth had to call her nanny to get her to take the kids to "the mall," as she put it—so they could be tested for exposure.

In a revealing interview, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (at the time Bush's national-security adviser), told Hayes, "[Cheney] read every intelligence report. I mean every intelligence report no matter how minor. And I was feeling kind of driven crazy by not knowing how to—at that time we didn't really have a good system for sorting what was reliable and what wasn't. I mean, we were just getting raw reporting of everything that was coming in, you know. So I remember thinking that he had an extraordinary memory ... for all of these things."

Cheney is a long-practiced and reputedly sophisticated consumer of intelligence, by most accounts not easily fooled or panicked. So why was he duped by the likes of Curveball, the agent who sold U.S. intelligence the false report that Iraq was running mobile biowarfare labs? Hayes does not say. Perhaps it is impossible to know what goes on in the mind of a man who, on the morning of September 11, ordered U.S. fighters to shoot down multiple civilian airliners (instead, the passengers brought down one of them, United Flight 93). But it is clear that Cheney sees through a glass darkly. He goes fly-fishing as much as he can and says as little as possible. If he spoke out, he might say that he worries so that the rest of us may sleep. It is also possible, however, that by striking out at imagined demons, he is creating real ones.