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The Path of the Culture Warrior

Culture warrior Lynne Cheney, who says she is more conservative than her husband Dick, delights the right -- but her past indicates that she has a knack for fitting herself and her opinions to suit the opportunities of her time.
 
 
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Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Laura Flanders' new book 'Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species' (Verso Books). For more information about the book, visit www.lauraflanders.com.

First Ladies Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney (the wife of the Vice President) are the White House's Maria Shriver. Unelected, supposedly not political, they speak to the "personal" side of their men. Just as Shriver attempted to assure voters that the nasty stories about Arnold were only movie-fun or rumor, so the first wives act as the Bush team's character-witnesses. There's one for each Bush constituency and they're summed up by their attitudes to literature: Laura Bush said famously: "there's nothing political about American literature." In contrast, it's Lynne Cheney's belief that one book, ( I, Pierre, by Michel Foucault) turned American culture "away from reason and reality" and against "Truth" itself. As you might have guessed, Laura speaks to moderates; Lynne delights the right.

It's hard to imagine the Terminator Presidency without the culture wars that came before it, and in those wars, Lynne Cheney was a key warrior. The social change movements of the 1960s and '70s were cultural as well as political: Gay Pride, Earth Day, Ms. Magazine, Black is Beautiful. By the start of the 1980s, white male domination was decidedly uncool (and socially unpopular.) To prepare the ground for Bush's butch-swagger and basket, a backlash had to turn all that around and from her spot as the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986-93, Cheney helped do the turning.

Conservative culture warrior is an odd career outcome for a woman who started life as a baton twirler and once penned a steamy lesbian romance, but Lynne Cheney, throughout her life, has been nothing if not flexible. She has a knack for fitting herself and her opinions to suit the opportunities of her time. Born in 1941, in Casper Wyoming, Lynne (nee Vincent) met Richard Bruce Cheney at Natrona County High School. Both of their fathers worked for the government, both of their moms were liberated Western women: Lynne's was a deputy sheriff -- she had a badge, but no gun; Dick Cheney's was an infielder on the Syracuse (Neb) Bluebirds, a nationally ranked women's softball team in the 1930s.

In the 1950s, Vincent was a bobby-sox girl. A straight-A student, the elected "Mustang Queen," she took up baton twirling, she has said, because it was one of the few competitive sports available to girls, and Lynne was nothing if not competitive. Lynne and Dick graduated in 1959 -- the same year as the Rydell High gang made famous in the movie "Grease." He wasn't quite the John Travolta to her Olivia Newton-John, but Cheney was class president and captain of the football team and Vincent certainly knew how to light up a stage. Dick would stand by her side with a coffee can filled with water while she twirled batons, on fire at both ends. He'd douse them when she was done.

During the 2000 race, Dick Cheney commented to a reporter that he and Lynne might never have met. "You'd be married to someone else now," he said to her. "Right" she piped up. "And he'd be running for vice president of the United States instead of you." She's got a point. After high school, it was Dick, not Lynne (the academic star,) who received a full scholarship to Yale but after two failed attempts to make the grade, he dropped out, returned to Wyoming, picked up two drunk-driving convictions, and took a union job laying power lines for the local company. It was Vincent (who was eager-beavering away at state colleges, earning a BA and an MA in English,) who pestered Cheney to return to school. Only after her graduation would she agree to marry. ("Dick should have finished college" too, she says, but he "hadn't quite.")

The year was 1964 and marriage was the thing to do -- not least because the Vietnam War was on, and marriage secured for Dick Cheney the first of several draft deferments reserved for married men. After the draft expanded to include married men without children, Cheney got another deferment when Lynne gave birth to their first child -- nine months and two days after the expansion-order was announced. (Cheney received a total of five student and marriage deferments in all. He told the Washington Post in '89, "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service.")

By 1970, he was on his way to a career in politics, and Lynne, now the mother of two, was finding out how hard it was to be taken seriously in her own right. Like many women, she didn't have to work, but she wanted to. "I just never didn't work," she says, "When we were married, and through moving and everything else, I have always been teaching or writing." She'd written a very serious dissertation on the effect of Immanuel Kant's philosophy on the poetry of Victorian didact Matthew Arnold. She liked to write; she hated to cook. But finding rewarding employment was not so easy. Her first ambition had been to be a movie star; her second, a college professor. "This was before people were enlightened about women and married women in particular," she told Fox News. A prospective employer asked her point-blank: "Are you interested in the job, Dr. Cheney, or are you married?"

"That was illegal at the time," she comments. (Employers didn't simply become "enlightened" after all; movements mobilized and Congress passed laws.)

Cheney took up a more convenient career for a politician's wife, that of writer. Her first book, a political thriller titled Executive Privilege , came out in 1979.

Her second novel, Sisters (1981) tapped directly into the feminist spirit of the age. This is the novel that today's Mrs. Cheney leaves out of her official biography. Published by Signet, in a gloriously gothic paperback edition, Sisters featured breathy jacket copy promising "a novel of a strong and beautiful woman who broke all the rules of the American frontier." The star of the book is Sophie, a condom-carrying Wyoming woman who runs away from convent school to join the theater, where she comes under the influence of a music-hall celebrity who teaches her how to "enjoy" men, but not get "trapped."

Lynne Cheney, having had her fun with feminism, then signed up to join the anti-feminist backlash. Sexual liberation, unmarried couples, even family planning -- by the middle of the 1980s, Sophie's values read like a catalogue of all that the Reagan GOP was against. A 1986 report authored by Gary Bauer, then Under-Secretary for Education, laid out the state's interest in the male-headed heterosexual, married family: "Attitudes to work are formed in families" declared the report. Families "prepare skilled and energetic workers who are the engine for democratic capitalism." Based on Bauer's report, Executive Order 12606 (signed in 1987), required that "federal agencies must assess [the] impact on [the] family when formulating and implementing policies and regulations." In the name of "family values," (the words were just then gaining resonance), the Reagan revolutionaries were out to reverse every trend that encouraged independent, wage-earning moms, unmarried parenting, divorce, protected sex, and non-nuclear arrangements of every kind. Sisters was definitely off the reading list.

Meanwhile, Dick was a rising star in the Republican House. (He was elected Wyoming's only Congressman in '78 after a race in which Lynne did six weeks' of his campaigning, when he suffered his first heart attack). He voted against busing and the establishment of a federal Department of Education, against reauthorizing the Legal Services Corporation (which offers free legal aid to the poor,) against the Panama Canal Treaty, the Equal Rights Amendment and the imposition of sanctions on apartheid South Africa. Lynne, who now says she is more conservative than her husband, found a niche for herself, too.

The Laura Flanders Show can be heard weekends, 7-10pm on Air America Radio.