Political Hay

Goodbye, Crooked Grin?

If Dick Cheney goes, stoicism will go with him.

By 7.15.04

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Opinions in the Dump Cheney matter have been given a thorough airing, certainly on this website. There's no point in giving mine, especially since I see merit in both arguments. I'll leave the wisdom to the Administration, trusting that they will follow Al Davis's credo: Just win, baby.

Many have commented on how indispensable Cheney is to Bush, but he is, in at least one way, indispensable to the rest of us, too. He is the only man among the four national candidates who has no truck with the therapeutic culture. Cheney rarely even pretends to negotiate the labyrinth of sensitivity and emotional pandering that now defines our political campaigns, and that will surely descend to new lows in the 2004 presidential race. He is completely illiterate to the political language whose joint authors might be identified as Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. No matter what the occasion, Cheney's emotions keep their counsel, like Cheney himself.

Watching him eulogize Ronald Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda last month was a case in point. In a week of impassioned mourning and emotion-charged speeches, Cheney delivered an eloquent farewell without quivering on a single word. In this culture, where candidates hug instead of shaking hands and ballplayers embrace and point to the heavens after crossing home plate in the first inning, Cheney seems bloodless and cold. Of course, there is a more dignified term for him. In a word, the man is a Stoic.

His stoicism is one reason, I think, that some want him off the ticket. He's controversial, but worse, he's unlovable. If only he could tear up in an interview, or throw a football around with President Bush and play-act at being young again -- but he's not young. He's 63 and acts older. Mortality hangs over him in the presence of a serious coronary condition that has already resulted in four heart attacks. Why should he waste his energy? Why should he make a fool of himself trying to act like a kid?

Stoics aren't much on wasting words or gestures. There is nothing wrong with genuine emotion, of course, though in our political life its appearance is compromised by the presence of so much of the other kind.

THE MOST EMOTION Cheney ever shows is a wry joke, and his greatest demonstration came in the 2000 Vice Presidential debate. Spontaneous wit is always a wonderful thing, even more so when it comes from a Stoic, who the modern man assumes is humorless. There was Joe Lieberman, still glowing in his selection as running mate by Al Gore, and enjoying what seemed to be a bulletproof veil of cloying cuteness that would protect him from anything.

But then Lieberman overstepped, or I should say, he overstepped too far. He teased Cheney about the millions he had made at Halliburton, and this exchange resulted:

Lieberman: I'm looking out at my wife in the audience, and she's telling me I should go back into the private sector.

Cheney: Well, Joe, I'm going to try to help you do that.

The quip is on the short list of greatest one-liners in presidential or vice presidential debates, all the more so since it so obviously was off the cuff. Even Ronald Reagan's legendary "youth and inexperience" rejoinder to Walter Mondale, one suspects, had to have been prepped in advance, as the age question was expected to arise during that debate.

In delivering the line, Cheney flashed his noted crooked grin. Then, as the laughter and applause slowly died down, he assumed the somewhat sheepish look of the shy jokester whose joke has made the whole room look at him for a moment. He'd made his point, it seemed, and now he wanted to get back to the business at hand. It was an utterly winning moment on television, and it said a lot of about the kind of man Cheney is. By and large, his temperament belongs to an earlier time. Whatever his emotional life is like, he keeps it to himself and his family, and that is the way most Americans once preferred it.

CHENEY'S DISLIKE OF campaigning is not surprising, given what campaigning entails. Recently, the New York Times made much of his frustrated comment while giving a speech that was continually interrupted by applause: "Do you want to hear this speech or don't you?" The audience must have been astonished; they quickly quieted down, and there was some irony in that, since Cheney's unscripted line was genuinely worthy of applause. Haven't we all had enough of the numbing tendency of political crowds to cheer after nearly every sentence?

Only once during his vice presidency has Cheney let the emotional veil slip -- very recently, when he fired the F-word at Pat Leahy on the Senate floor. Whatever one's view of the incident, Cheney's outburst was certainly not the response of the Stoic. Have the pressure, and the recriminations, and the accusations of criminality, and the aspersions on his character, finally gotten to him? Maybe. Only time will tell if that moment will become a footnote or the symbolic warning of Cheney's departure.

If he does depart, though, none of us should expect a teary press conference -- unless the tears come from the president himself. Cheney? He'll enter the room with his wife, though I doubt they'll be holding hands. He'll give a dignified speech in that gray and always slightly forbidding monotone; he'll turn around to shake hands with the president and others, only to be greeted with hugs, another thing he never got used to; and then he'll walk out, dry-eyed, with that slightly crooked grin. And in the shape of the grin both his detractors and supporters will see an index to his character, though both, of course, will have seen different things.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.