Now It's My Turn
A Daughter's Chronicle
of Political Life
by Mary Cheney
Threshold, 239 pp., $25
Mary Cheney was six when her father, Dick Cheney, became chief of staff in the Ford White House. She was eleven when he won Wyoming's lone seat in the House of Representatives. She was in her early twenties when he served as secretary of defense. We read here that Secretary Cheney was Mau-Maued by gay activists demanding an end to the ban on gays in the military. The ultimatum: Lift the ban or we will publicize the fact that your 22-year-old daughter is a lesbian.
Not an honorable way to get someone to change his views. Nor was it effective with the Gulf war leader. But, in 2004, Vice President Cheney and his wife Lynne would split off from the man at the top of the 2004 ticket on the Republicans' proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. Their daughter wasn't for it; neither were they. The Federal Marriage Amendment, Mary Cheney says, "would write discrimination into the Constitution," and she advances the argument used by other amendment opponents, including figures on the right: Marriage, an institution long regulated by the 50 states, should not be taken over by the federal government.
That familial love and loyalty have affected the politics of an intensely political family will come as news to many. In the world beyond Washington, D.C., there floats the assumption that the right-wing old vice president must be about as supportive of his lesbian daughter as he is kind to wild doves and stray hunting companions.
His younger daughter appears to have taken "her turn" primarily to encourage Americans to think better of her father. The Dick Cheney of this account has character and heart. He is very close to Mary who, no less than Lynne or Liz Cheney, Mary's older sister, has taken part in Dick Cheney's public career from the beginning. (Mary describes her longtime partner, Heather Poe, as a reluctant participant.) Now 37, Mary pitched pieces of candy at parade-goers in her youth, was a campaign aide to her father when he first ran for vice president in 2000, and rose to chief of vice presidential operations in his reelection bid four years later.
She loves the nuts and bolts of the American political campaign, which she depicts as a not-unappealing blend of show biz and contest of ideas, puffery and policy. We get details--quite a few too many, actually--on the logistical snafus, the quirks of the photographers, reporters, and swashbuckling campaign advance men, and the finer points of successfully dropping a load of balloons on the convention crowd at the climax of the proceedings. (A parachute should be used to hold the balloons.)
The author senses that an obsessively political view of the world can earn her a laugh or two, as in her anecdote about balking at the dress code for pages at the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans. She insists, with a comic sort of pout, that her reaction came from the staunch anti-communism of a Cheney--the pages' uniforms made them look like the Young Pioneers of the Soviet Union--when I know darn well it was the time-honored Sapphic unwillingness to put on a skirt.
Mary Cheney is lucky to have the family she has, and she quite properly acknowledges as much. Her father is indebted to the president, and she pays sincere homage there, too. She emphasizes the ways in which the person running for vice president is second banana at election time. That fact renders all the more remarkable her disclosure that President Bush, on the day during the 2004 campaign when he endorsed the amendment banning gay marriage, invited Mary, a Bush-Cheney official, to go public with a dissenting view if she so desired. (The invitation suggests that he shares George H.W. Bush's patrician reflex, which Peggy Noonan has noted, of welcoming certain kinds of criticism from the left.)
She did not take the president up on his offer of a chance to speak out. She decided, furthermore, to stay on in the campaign after nearly resigning over the issue. Such choices say something about Mary Cheney as an individual. They also bring to mind the remark of Quentin Crisp: "You can be proud of not being ashamed, but I don't think you can be proud of being gay." Self-acceptance and reticence can coexist. We homosexuals know this, but it is entirely lost on the straight Blue State liberals who brayed that the daughter of a vice president was "fair game" and so what was the big deal about the candidates on the Democratic ticket singling Mary Cheney out for public discussion?
Lynne Cheney enters this memoir only sporadically. She's a firecracker when she does appear, the most aggressively partisan member of a partisan family. The prairie marm-cum-intellectual chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities in two Republican administrations and was a pundit on the now defunct Crossfire show on CNN. She had a truly Crossfire-like reaction to John Kerry when he gratuitously worked Mary into the third presidential debate, in response to a general question that CBS's Bob Schieffer put to the candidates: Is homosexuality a choice or is it innate?
Kerry: "We're all God's children, Bob, and I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian . . ." Mary reports that her mother heard that coming from the television, and said: "He can have all the fake suntans and manicures he wants, but deep down inside, he's rotten." Brought before a microphone, Mrs. Cheney kept the indignation but prudently left out the metrosexual gibe.
The author refuses to acknowledge how much more justifiable had been John Edwards's invocation of her name the week before in the vice presidential debate. Edwards was more on point, but she doesn't let her readers know this. She tells the story without mentioning that the moderator, Gwen Ifill of PBS, had asked Dick Cheney to address the controversy over gay marriage from the point of view of those who have "a family member" who is homosexual.
Edwards exploited that opening. I was touched by his comments at the time; I appreciated their oily sheen only in retrospect. Mary Cheney's retro spection has her tempering the anger she felt with a concession that Edwards "handled the situation skillfully." But the situation itself is not made clear.
Now It's My Turn only cursorily gives us the political lay of the land, which is what we need to make sense of its author's stint as the Democratic party's favorite lesbian. As William Kristol wrote at the time, Kerry and Edwards harped on the vice president's homosexual daughter as a warning to the Republicans not to play up gay marriage to try to gain the upper hand. The Democrats' political base was (and is) way out in front of the American people on the issue; if Republicans wanted to highlight the fringinesss of the Democrats' gay agenda, they could expect to be shown up as bigots and/or hypocrites in return.
Using Mary Cheney to accomplish this--especially Kerry's maladroit try at it--did not benefit the Democrats. A look at the record yields a Washington Post poll that had likely voters saying, by a 2 to 1 margin, that what Kerry did was "inappropriate."
As I say, the author hurries through the background on why the spotlight fell on her amid the intense partisan exchanges of a close election. "Whatever the reason," she writes, "I was furious." I imagine that she downplays the politics in favor of the emotions because, if she were in the Senate, she would have joined Kerry and Edwards in casting a "nay" vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment. Her discomfort at agreeing with them on the very thing about which they tried to make her a Bush-Cheney liability is more proof, if any were needed, that politics makes strange bedfellows.
Most Americans are not keen on homosexuals tying the knot--and they could well be right in wanting to preserve the traditional definition of marriage--but the degree to which they are accustomed to, if not affirming of, homosexuality can be measured by landmarks in this book. The sub rosa attempt in 1991 to subject the father of a lesbian to blackmail giving way by 2004 to openly goading him about her on national television. And all the goaders had to show for it was disapproval heavily laced with apathy. Now I call that progress.
Lauren Weiner is a writer in Washington.