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Live From Studio 1A: Inside Dick Cheney's Mind

This morning, Matt tackled one of the most enigmatic and polarizing figures in American public life -- Vice President Dick Cheney -- with Stephen Hayes, a senior writer for The Weekly Standard. WATCH VIDEOHayes is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President, which hits bookstores on Tuesday.In preparation for the interview, I spoke with Hay

This morning, Matt tackled one of the most enigmatic and polarizing figures in American public life -- Vice President Dick Cheney -- with Stephen Hayes, a senior writer for The Weekly Standard. WATCH VIDEO

Hayes is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President, which hits bookstores on Tuesday.

In preparation for the interview, I spoke with Hayes at some length last Friday. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Q: What are the top 2-3 things that people will get from this book that they didn't previously know about Dick Cheney?

Stephen Hayes:One of the things I found fascinating was the extent to which he didn't have political views until his mid-30s. I've had strong thoughts on politics since I was in high school -- and maybe that's weird too.

When he was asked to serve during the Nixon administration on the Wage and Price Control Board -- essentially as the operations guy -- he was in charge of IRS guys enforcing top-down government policy. This group was literally controlling the price of hamburger in Omaha. He had no objection to working on the Wage and Price Control Board, which sort of blows me away. But that experience helped him develop the much stronger views on free market economics that he has today.

Another example is that he was doing a Congressional fellowship, working for a Republican Wisconsin congressman named Bill Steiger -- whom Cheney still views as being very influential in his life. The program had you working part of your time for a Republican, part for a Democrat, part for a senator, part for a congressman. So when it was time to switch to a Senate Democrat, Cheney was assigned to work for Ted Kennedy. Not just work for Ted Kennedy, but to do press work for him, which is not Cheney's interest at all. So Cheney switched the paperwork with a fellow working for Kennedy, and they stayed in their positions. But he did work one day for Kennedy.

And it's instructive of what Cheney is about. At the time, Kennedy was ascendant -- and the Kennedys were still the political family in America. Cheney had the opportunity to work for him in a role that would have been prestigious. Instead, he decides to do drudge work for a no-name representative from Wisconsin. Cheney seems to always opt not for the spotlight -- he's happier when he's doing grunt work/wonk work.

Q: Where does his penchant for secrecy -- or discretion, depending on your point of view -- come from?

SH: Cheney's family has always been relatively quiet. Several people who knew his father, brother and sister told me that young Dick was the talkative one -- which is hard for us to imagine.

Members of his congressional staff have said that they would drive for hours with him across Wyoming without exchanging a word with him -- which was obviously disconcerting to them.

But after a while, it became a comfortable silence, and they learned to understand it.

He learned from his father that it's best to speak very little and have people really listen when you do speak.

President Bush told me that the one thing about Cheney is that when he does speak, people listen. And that was one of the main reasons he chose him as a running mate.

Q: With his reputation for secrecy, why did he talk to you?

SH: Harassment, for one. I pestered them. I was working on another book at the time with HarperCollins, and they ended up not being interested in it and asked me to redirect my efforts. So I went to the Cheney people - I said, "There's no biography out there, so what do you say?"

It didn't happen right away. He didn't jump at the opportunity. His staff continues to be surprised that he spent as much time as he did with me. I came to the book sympathetic to him, so I'm sure he thought he was more likely to get a fair shake from me than perhaps from others.

Q: Let's talk about his relationship with President Bush? Has there ever been a President-VP relationship like this one?

SH: No. This is totally unique. It has everything to do with Cheney saying early on that he would not run for president.

President Bush told me that the fact that Cheney would not run for president made it clear that he had one agenda -- Bush's agenda. He said he never has to worry about Dick talking to reporters and having a different view. He's not worried about what people in Iowa will think about what he does and says.

Bush suggested that this was different from his own father, who had to operate at the end of the Reagan administration, trying to be of Reagan but not beholden to Reagan. There is none of that with Cheney, since he won't be running for president.

Some would argue that that's a negative -- no Republicans out there are vigorously defending the Bush administration.

Q: Scooter Libby...

SH: The whole time I did the book, he was basically gagged, so we didn't discuss it. I tried, but he couldn't go there.

Q: Do you think he ever looks at his approval numbers, which are extremely low, and says that the president and the party might be better off if he were to resign?

SH: No. He takes the long view on just about everything.

He finds what we cover and the way that we cover things to be interesting, and he certainly follows the daily news far more closely than the president does. But I don't think he thinks about his poll numbers -- though some would argue that he should, that his low ratings have rendered him perhaps less effective.

One of the things I do throughout the book is say that one of the reasons he has the reputation for secrecy that he has is that he doesn't get out or put himself out.

I talked to former congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who is a close friend of Cheney's. Hamilton said that Cheney's a good guy, and he said, "Here's how we worked together -- we trusted each other that we would meet secretly and talk about ways to move legislation by reporting to our caucuses. Then we would go back to our caucuses and suggest ways to move ahead."

Hamilton has a great deal of respect for him. Some respected columnists like David Broder used to talk about Cheney in almost reverential terms from his time as a congressman. Now, things have changed.

So what explains the change? He was regarded as one of the most competent Washington officials to being the devil -- how does that happen? Hamilton said people aren't exposed to Cheney, that just making himself more open would allay those problems. He also won't meet with Democrats, which is a problem.

If you spend time with him, you will respect him, even if you don't agree with him.

He has a very specific view of what his job is -- to give advice to the president, period. And I would ask him, "Doesn't your public standing affect your ability to give advice?" And he said, "No."

But I think it has hurt the administration. Others would tell you -- Mike McConnell (now the Director of National Intelligence) says Cheney is the best spokesman for the administration on issues of intelligence, that it's not helping that they don't put him out more.

Paul Bremer, who is certainly not part of Cheney world, regards Cheney as the most effective spokesman on Iraq.

Q: What about the "insurgency in its last throes" comment?

SH: I thought the war in Iraq was necessary and was generally sympathetic -- but I read that and said, "What is he talking about?" He said that if you look back at the time, reports were that we were getting close to Zarqawi and that he had been weakened -- that's what he meant.

But when I pressed him on it, he said, "It was obviously wrong."

Q: Do you get the sense he has any regrets about how the war has been run?

SH: Cheney was concerned early on about the insurgency and with how the CIA and Pentagon were handling it. He thought it was better if we had dropped in a provisional government of our own choosing but consisting of Iraqis -- we would have had less of an American presence.

But he lost that argument, and I get the sense that he thinks if his advice had been listened to, we might not be in the position that we're in now, potentially.

Q: That was in 2003... what about mistakes since then?

SH: There were not many specifics, no. He thinks the establishment of the CPA was a major mistake.

He's admitted that the war has been harder than he expected.

When you ask him what are the reasons that the U.S. has had so much trouble in Iraq, he says that mistrust left over from the first Gulf War, when the first President Bush encouraged the Shia to rise up against Saddam -- only to see the Shia crushed by Saddam. He admits that he contributed to those decisions and that they did not go well.

The way he put it is, "They were slaughtered for their troubles." The Shia have a long memory of what happened, and he thinks the difficulties today are left over from the last war.

Q: Does he think Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld deserved to go? Does he told Rumsfeld responsible for where we are today?

SH: It's a great question, but it's a hard question to answer.

Where he and Rumsfeld are on specific troop numbers is hard to say, though there are hints that Cheney was in favor of more troops early on.

When I asked Bush about it he said, "Dick was a more-troops man."

Rumsfeld is Cheney's best friend, and he was not happy when Rumsfeld was nudged aside.

Q: What's his relationship like with former Secretary of State Colin Powell? What about current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice? 

SH: I asked him what the scoop is with him and Powell -- how Powell wrote nice things about him in his autobiography in 1996, and now he's saying harsher things.

He said, "We have a strained relationship." I asked, "Did something happen?" He just said, "Look, I'd have to get inside his head to know."

Tensions have continued with Condi at the State Department, but it's not as bitter with her.

But there's no question Cheney is wary of advice that comes from the State Department. We were talking about the first Gulf War -- certain things the State Department did -- and he referred to "State Department-types" and "State Department-type advice" with obvious disdain in his voice.

Q: Does he have an internal monologue about the potential negative political impact he will have when he digs in on an issue or picks a fight with someone in the administration?

SH: He is incredibly attuned to electoral politics in a way that I did not appreciate. He learned this as chief of staff in the Ford White House.

Whether he has an internal governor on things that can bite back -- he doesn't, and he doesn't care. He doesn't spend time thinking about the consequences of what he says may be. In that way, he's the ultimate anti-politician -- sometimes it works out and sometimes it does not.

Maybe because he doesn't think about it, that may also contribute to his unwillingness to make himself available to the media -- I would argue that if he did more, the things he did say would get less attention.

Q: You spent 30 hours interviewing Vice President Cheney... did any of your previous perceptions of him change?

SH: He has an under-appreciated sense of humor that only those close to him get to see. He'll make these quick one-line asides that, if you're not paying attention to, you won't pick up on them.

In his days at Yale, he enjoyed having a good time -- he was a prankster.

I don't think he does as much of that now, but he enjoys a good one-liner.