How Not to Return to Public Life: Lessons From Dick Cheney and George W. Bush

The Cheney family feud over same-sex marriage is not a good look for the former vice president.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is interviewed by SiriusXM Patriot host David Webb at SiriusXM studios on October 25, 2011 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Nov. 18, 2013, 4:33 a.m.

Let this be a rule for politi­cians look­ing to come back to pub­lic Amer­ic­an life after a tu­mul­tu­ous near-dec­ade run: Try to act more like George W. Bush and less like Dick Cheney.

Since leav­ing the White House, Cheney hasn’t stayed quiet. Any­one who even oc­ca­sion­ally watches Sunday news shows knows this. But what’s hap­pen­ing now is par­tic­u­larly dra­mat­ic. The former vice pres­id­ent, who was known for be­ing close with very few people out­side his nuc­le­ar fam­ily, is now see­ing his fam­ily go pub­licly nuc­le­ar.

On Sunday, Cheney’s two daugh­ters — Liz, who is run­ning an ail­ing bid for the Sen­ate in Wyom­ing, and Mary, who is gay — took a fam­ily fight pub­lic. Liz, on Fox News Sunday, re­spon­ded to a ques­tion about how her sis­ter thinks her dis­ap­prov­al of gay mar­riage is “dead wrong,” say­ing, “I love Mary very much. I love our fam­ily very much. This is just an is­sue on which we dis­agree.”

Mary Cheney’s wife, Heath­er Poe, was not pleased. So she took to Face­book:

I was watch­ing my sis­ter-in-law on Fox News Sunday (yes, Liz, in 15 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia you are my sis­ter-in-law) and was very dis­ap­poin­ted to hear her say, “I do be­lieve in the tra­di­tion­al defin­i­tion of mar­riage.”

Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared hol­i­days with our chil­dren, and when Mary and I got mar­ried in 2012 - she didn’t hes­it­ate to tell us how happy she was for us.

To have her now say she doesn’t sup­port our right to marry is of­fens­ive to say the least

I can’t help but won­der how Liz would feel if as she moved from state to state, she dis­covered that her fam­ily was pro­tec­ted in one but not the oth­er.

I al­ways thought free­dom meant free­dom for EVERY­ONE.

Mary Cheney fol­lowed this post up on her own Face­book page, say­ing that she “couldn’t have said it bet­ter” her­self and telling her sis­ter that “this isn’t just an is­sue on which we dis­agree — you’re just wrong — and on the wrong side of his­tory.” Cheney took this a bit fur­ther with The New York Times, say­ing, “What amazes me is that [Liz] says she’s run­ning to be a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­er. I’m not sure how stick­ing to the po­s­i­tions of the last 20 or 30 years is the best way to do that.”

The fam­ily drama puts the former vice pres­id­ent in a tough spot. Dick Cheney, who has pre­vi­ously said that he sees noth­ing wrong with gay mar­riage, is slated to ap­pear with Liz this week at a fun­draiser in Den­ver. It ob­vi­ously wasn’t Dick Cheney’s fault that all of this fam­ily ten­sion spilled out in­to the open, but his ad­vocacy for his daugh­ter’s cam­paign chal­len­ging Sen. Mike En­zi from the right has helped make this deeply per­son­al is­sue pub­lic. “My par­ents are stuck in an aw­ful po­s­i­tion,” Mary told The Times.

For con­trast, see George W. Bush. Be­cause up un­til this week, he’s been a bit hard to see.

Sure, there have been the leaked paint­ings and last week’s cringey and cri­ti­cized sched­uled ap­pear­ance at the Mes­si­an­ic Jew­ish Bible In­sti­tute. But for the most part, by do­ing his best to stick out of polit­ics, Bush has avoided any big, post-pres­id­en­tial hic­cups. 

And it’s not like the former pres­id­ent is just try­ing to com­pletely fade away. He wrote a mem­oir. He’s been giv­ing speeches, such as one in Pitt­s­burgh last week where he ad­mit­ted he’ll “try to be as vague as pos­sible” about the cur­rent pres­id­ent and the cur­rent polit­ics to avoid mak­ing news. But the speech wasn’t purely apolit­ic­al: He did slam con­gres­sion­al in­ac­tion, ad­voc­ate for im­mig­ra­tion re­form, push for Key­stone, and de­fend NSA op­er­a­tions as “ne­ces­sary to pro­tect the coun­try.”

Bush will soon get an­oth­er, more na­tion­al shot to speak up. On Tues­day, he’ll be a guest on The To­night Show with Jay Leno.

Cheney’s post-White House strategy of cri­ti­ciz­ing the pres­id­ent and in­ject­ing him­self and his fam­ily in­to the polit­ic­al land­scape has helped turn this week in­to a messy fam­ily crisis. Bush’s tac­tic, stay­ing as clear of the spot­light as pos­sible, has helped to re­deem his pub­lic im­age — as evid­enced by his first pos­it­ive ap­prov­al rat­ing this sum­mer since 2005.

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