It’s difficult to describe my relationship with Dick Cheney—even now, after all this time. We share a birthday, Jan. 30, and I was born 30 years after he was. Both the eldest of three children, we were talkative kids and avid readers. We rode in the back seats of our parents’ cars on long, low-budget road trips. He was raised by Democrat parents and turned, as I turned against my Republican parents. Our trips to elite private colleges led to panic and homesickness. We have each struggled with codependence—the feeling of our identities being subsumed into another person—but have dealt with our anxiety issues in opposite ways. I’ve tried to get over mine. Dick has made his a way of life.
I will not assume you share my feelings toward Dick Cheney, but I will assume there is a person on the globe who raises your hackles, whose misuse of power troubles your heart. Please believe me: This is not directly about politics. It is about that fearsome wave of hate. The only strangers here are those who would deny having such feelings.
I am a Midwesterner with a Middle Eastern shadow. I belong to the generation bookended and contained by the conflict in the Middle East. My childhood carries the echo of the word shah, the hostage crisis and all the others, then the Gulf War in college, the 576,000 dead Iraqi children in the economic embargo, then another war. In the dark, I cast my mind across the oceans to Iraq, to Persia, to Babylon. Heat rises in the pink of my eyelids and my esophagus. My mom was born in Germany after World War II and says she owes her life to the Marshall Plan, which funded the reconstruction, so I have a bias in favor of rebuilding after bombing and ousting dictators. I Google “rebuild Iraq” but don’t know whom to donate to. Iraq has probably had just about enough of people like me wanting to help.
Cheney shares my fixation: “We’re always going to have to be involved [in the Middle East]. Maybe it’s part of our national character: You know, we like to have these problems nice and neatly wrapped up, put a ribbon around it. … [I]t doesn’t work that way in the Middle East. It never has and isn’t likely to in my lifetime.”
I got pregnant about a month after President George W. Bush uttered the fateful “16 Words” in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Cheney pushed the connection between 9/11 and Iraq, and personally brought evidence to the CIA. I spent the couch-days of morning sickness watching the war unfold, watching this man who duck-talked through a mouth slotted like a crooked piggy bank.
I made chocolate cake for my son’s first birthday in 2004. He’s had six war birthdays since then, and now he doesn’t like chocolate. In the grocery aisle, I stop in front of the icings and cake mixes. I reach for a box of Duncan Hines and wonder if maybe this year he will turn back to chocolate.
I can’t make myself buy yellow cake. In the shadows of my mind, the sunshine substance is linked to yellowcake uranium. Cheney claimed Saddam Hussein had purchased yellowcake to enrich and use in weapons. One time, my son insisted on yellow, and the lumpy, toxic look of it in the bowl made me sick. I usually buy white cake mix with multi-colored confetti sprinkles.
Overwhelmed with bitterness, I visited a Buddhist temple in Columbus, Ohio, for the first time in the spring of 2004. I had read about a meditation practice to cultivate bodhichitta, the love for all beings. Another practice, tonglen, asks you to imagine another person and then breathe in all pain while breathing out peace and happiness for them.
I imagined a map of the country and the world, but with burn marks like cigarette scars to fit neatly around certain people. All beings: This is the part that makes you crazy. If you haven’t tried it, feeling love for Cheney creates heartburn and a headache. Your brain has to grow four-wheel drive to handle the terrain, and even then, this is all you notice: neurons busting out of their tracks.
I clutch my Cheney-hatred like a teddy bear. I worry that if I don’t hate him, somehow someone will forget what he’s done. In dropping Cheney-hatred for one minute, I free-fall. I don’t know who I am without hating Cheney. He is the star I navigate against. But I have to learn to trust the world. It’s all written down; we bear it together.
Cheney had his first of five heart attacks in 1978. With every new mention of Cheney’s heart difficulties, I pause. Driven by my rage at a wasteful war waged as a business, I imagine being able to reach into Cheney’s chest and jostle that heart. Others share the horrifying, delicious thought. Readers of a Wonkette blog post, “Waiting for Dick Cheney to Die? Get a Chair,” expressed their own murderous thoughts and even wondered—in both prose and poetry—whether the proper resting place for Cheney’s body might be “in the dumpsters behind the Hague prison” or transfigured into urinal cakes. I want to lift off my sternum to examine my hate, pick it out and force myself to understand it. This murder thought is the dream of terrorists, assassins and children. My Cheney problem is a child’s story. Dehumanization is the quickest way to turn bodies into fuel. Maybe we know we will have to use these simple ideas to keep us warm when the oil runs out.
Heat any substance to around 525 degrees Celsius, and it will start to glow. This is known as incandescence: Light and heat are released, along with gases that combine with the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The heat keeps the fuel hot, which releases more gases and makes more fire. The word incandescent also means “wound up to a sustained white heat of anger.” My Cheney problem is an incandescent light bulb of hatred.
Do I have a right to be angry? I am an American, and it takes so much oil to fuel my anger. I hear the heater roaring in the background. I have a load of clothes in the washing machine. I will take a hot-water shower. I type on a glowing monitor. The Internet blazes with the secondary incandescence of trapped energy.
Whenever I see electricity in motion, I think of Iraq. What is the byproduct? What work is being done in the light of this fire? What is the size of Dick Cheney’s carbon footprint?
Iraq leaked into my writing classes in rural southeast Georgia. I told my hunting, camo-wearing, mostly Baptist country students this wasn’t about politics. It was about the Middle East in our heads, about the arguments at the bars and frat parties. Nobody complained; no irate parents called. I handed out a blank hand-drawn map of the Middle East. “Name the countries,” I said. The students failed, mouths agape. “This isn’t going to count toward our grades, is it?” I told them no; I had taken the quiz and failed, too. We learned that Middle Eastern cities had downtowns and McDonald’s, that kids there wore jeans and wanted to dance. We aimed for humanization, so I had to look back at my brain.
Advanced Buddhist monks sometimes hang out in graveyards or stare at dead bodies or think of themselves decaying, all to confront the brain with its own lack of control.
I found a new meditation teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, at the end of 2009 and began a year of preparation to become his formal student. He assigned four basic scenarios, expressions of Buddhist visualizations that have been used for millennia to generate compassion and love for all beings. The point isn’t to walk around feeling special like a mini-monk—“Oh I’m so nice; I’m a Buddhist.” The point is to see our hate and attachment, how we use and consume each other.
I listened to a recorded talk of a guided meditation and followed the instructions: I am to imagine myself with my own parents. We are all being threatened by a dangerous enemy. The enemy should be someone I fear or have great difficulty with, someone who arouses fear and hatred. I have used bosses and exes in the role of the dangerous enemy, but Cheney? My brain made excuses: Haven’t I had a crappy enough year? Hasn’t he done enough?
Then, feeling curious or bold, I chose him for a day’s meditation project. I saw the cloud of his cool, collected calculation threatening to seep in, to poison the world and dissolve us.
After the scenario became a vivid bubble in my mind, my teacher’s voice told me to change my mental picture. I was now to imagine breastfeeding a newborn and also trying to eat bits of fish for lunch. A dog nags for scraps of the fish. I feed it, but then become impatient and kick it away. This moment, too, became a bubble vivid with senses and details.
“Snap,” said my teacher: Imagine a moment of awakening. I was suddenly to overlay the image with a deeper truth, to realize that the dangerous enemy has been reincarnated as my infant. My father has been reincarnated as the fish—my lunch. My mother has returned as the dog I kicked. I’m sorry, Mom. Thank you, Dad. And Cheney, my child. … We Buddhists struggle with that one.
As it turns out, many Buddhists use versions of the enemy-as-child meditation, and the question of how to generate compassion for Cheney-as-enemy is not uncommon in Buddhist circles. Buddhist advice blogger Auntie Suvana provides a specific visualization:
Firstly, firmly establish in your mind the image of Richard sound asleep in giraffe pajamas. Richard is the name you gave him. You also gave him the pajamas. Notice the device inside his chest, poised to deliver a shock to restore the beat of his worn out, sad and violent heart. … [E]ven though he has made many terrible mistakes, you can’t help but love him. … [Y]ou are always honest with him and encouraging him to do the right thing.
Cheney in giraffe jammies was too much. I kept seeing his old, bald head on a baby body, so I stuck with an anonymous baby. Alone with the glow of candles, the image of Cheney’s lips approaching my breast brought the visceral chill of the parent’s worst nightmare.
Try it: your baby Cheney. You have given birth to Herculean levels of world damage. Nothing in your life matters more than raising this child to be a good person. The point is to love him. Love: Dip your heart in lava. Do you think you are too good for this baby? But then I fall out of it, wheeling backward, feeling dirty and haunted and empty.
I started looking for Cheney’s childhood to get beyond the images of Damien or Rosemary’s baby. Google found his football photo: He wore number 16 for Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyoming. He’s long-nosed and striking, yet approachable, with a shaggy crew cut and a shy half-smile pulled up at the left-hand side of his innocent face. His left hand is taped up loosely, and his helmet rests in his lap. In his gangliness, he reminds me of my own son, who looks frozen in photos because his natural state is motion. Cheney enjoys fishing and still does, like my own son.
Cheney and his girlfriend Lynne Vincent met when they were 14; she was a cardigan-wearing blonde with a large, ruthless forehead and ice-blue eyes. She worked during the summers for Thomas Stroock, an oilman with deep connections to Yale University, where he became close friends with classmate George H.W. Bush. She impressed Stroock. Cheney was in—though, of course, he didn’t know it yet.
I had no Tom Stroock to help with private school, but cash came together. If I had been sent to Yale under the watchful eye of a benefactor, I believe I, too, would have imploded. At Carleton College in Minnesota, someone told me I had markers of the working class; the way I talked with my hand in front of my mouth and hid behind my hair. “I’m not! I’m here!” I protested weakly. But that was the culture I came from. I graduated convinced I was stupid. After college, I blundered on the East Coast, working low-paying jobs, to get away from the Midwest, which I identified as the problem inside me.
Cheney has a chip on his shoulder, too, or maybe the large chip has a small dangling Cheney. Maybe his ax to grind against the liberal elite was born at Yale. Cheney missed home, drank and partied, and lost his scholarship in 1960. He left for home and climbed light poles as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He later got an internship with a Republican representative almost by accident.
Then came the DUIs in 1962 and ’63. I wonder if he and Lynne fought over his drinking, or if it scared her. One theory posits that Lynne calls the shots and gives him structure, as often happens in codependent relationships.
A posed photo from his junior year at the University of Wyoming—1964, the year he married Lynne—shows no hint of a smile. The left eye looks gentle. The right one stares out coldly. I want to write that I see anger and a desire for revenge. Yet, on second look, I see only a young man, filled out from his lanky high school days, staring. His lips are full; you would have to describe this man as good-looking.
After college, we began to mystify our parents. My Republican father tried to connect with his anarchist daughter, and I sprawled on my mom’s bed as she patiently listened to me describe anarcho-syndicalism. Before Gulf War protests, the planning committee asked volunteers to get arrested. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I couldn’t ask my parents to pay bail when they didn’t agree with me.
In 1991, The Washington Post profiled Cheney’s parents. Cheney’s father reported “mixed feelings” about the invasion of Kuwait, but they saw time collapse: “‘Be sure to put in there that he was senior class president,’ added his mother. ‘And that he played football,’ said her husband.” They cast back to what they knew, their boy.
I like looking at some Cheney photos. The earlier ones show the polyester-blends, longish haircuts and boxy eyeglasses that marked my childhood in the 1970s and ’80s. Cheney served as President Gerald Ford’s assistant, and my mom always loved Gerald Ford because he fell down so much. As a 3-year-old, I fell down a lot, too, so we were half-bald kindred spirits. I half-think that what my mom really loved was Chevy Chase’s impression of Gerald Ford falling down. She was a Republican because my father was. In the 1980s, you could even say my father and Cheney looked alike, with their suits and aquiline noses. But my dad ran a small business in Illinois while Cheney reached for the reins of the country.
I linger on the photos that show Cheney forgetting his posture, the photos in which none of his limbs are suffused with cruelty. He is a man doing his job. He isn’t yet hunched, and his hair isn’t white. Hunching and white hair don’t equal meanness; something else will change.
In a 1980 photo, Cheney and his wife chase his kids in the family yard in McLean, Va. He was a U.S. representative from Wyoming. His daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, were 11 and 13; I was 9. In the photo, the sides of his mouth turn up in happy symmetry, but he holds his torso and arms tightly, which makes the photo seem somewhat posed. He’s no longer a man you would describe as attractive. He’s rounded and balding, with a rim of hair around the back of his head.
Cheney’s heart betrays him, and my bones hatch rheumatoid arthritis. Meditation helps with the pain, so I light candles and close my eyes. I dive into the fish scenario: eating lunch, breastfeeding, feeding then kicking the dog. Yes, the baby is Cheney with his lips wet with milk.
One of my favorite photos of my son shows him sitting in his high chair, head half-covered with pureed sweet potato, even in his wisps of blond hair. I’d sculpted his hair into a Mohawk. He leans with one arm reaching over the tray as if he’s James Dean leaning out of a dragster. And he’s got that smile, the same one, cocked up at the left. The smile of a charmer.
Breastfeeding, for me, was never a mystical, sleepy union. My wiry son was like a crazed ferret, and I had to lock him under my arm in what the lactation consultant called the “football hold,” which must explain his passion for the NFL. His face slammed at me, desperate for milk, but his arms and legs flailed, and I could barely hold onto him. I was covered in sweat at the end of each wrestling match. I imagine this is how it would be with Dick. There would be taking and giving, but no merging.
I weaned my son very quickly after he tried his new teeth on my nipple one day. I pulled out to break the wet suction and yelled, “Owww!” I checked for blood and clenched my jaw. He grinned cheekily, overjoyed at my reaction, as if to say, “I got you. This is me, separate, myself.”
I weaned him because he was obviously done. He slobbered on my nipple, flubbered at it, irritating the skin. Or he would suck on it weakly but turn his head to look toward interesting noises while pulling my nipple with his clenched mouth. I never mourned the loss of that contact; I want him to find his own sustenance. Separation is ultimately my goal for him. Remembering this helps with the Cheney meditation: I can feed this baby, and feeding is fine. But I don’t have to cross into his soul.
One analysis describes Cheney’s “dependency solution”: He wants “powerful patrons [to] have confidence in him. He writes everyone else off.” Another profile of Cheney says George H.W. Bush sought a guiding force for his son but “found a man who would make his son’s dysfunctions worse.” A third analyst calls George W. Bush the “emotional bully” in the codependent relationship. Bush said, “When you’re talking to Dick Cheney, you’re talking to me. When Dick Cheney’s talking, it’s me talking.”
Cheney’s stint as the Secretary of Defense matches my college years, 1989-1993. At 20, I stood in the cold of a Minneapolis winter, surrounded by protest signs, sniffling. I did not know then that Cheney oversaw the first Gulf War. He and Rumsfeld learned from the Nixon-Vietnam era, and almost none of the demonstrations appeared on the evening news.
In 1989, he was offered a celebratory beer after winning his Pentagon post; he was rumored to have said, “Beer, hell. I’ll have a double Scotch.” Maybe this fascinates me because I have a history with substance abusers. The struggle in their darkened eyes is pain that can look and act like evil. Cheney supposedly carries a marked sense of “inner dread, gloom and fear.”
My first rounds of compassion meditation were spurred by the pain of loving addicts. That was my immediate reason for becoming a Buddhist. My meditation teacher told me not to envision absorbing the addiction. I wished happiness for all beings; for the addicts, I hoped for the clarity to see their own agony.
People with substance abuse issues tend toward control, secrecy and lies. Or maybe it’s that people with control issues sometimes drink. Cheney’s hair turned white, his posture stooped, and his eyes squinted. By the time he got to the White House via the intoxicating wealth, power and lack of oversight at Halliburton, he seemed to equate power with the ability to do whatever he wanted. Cheney stamped his daily correspondence Treated As: Top Secret/SCI, meaning “sensitive compartmented information,” a designation usually used for hugely important government secrets. He had his daily calendars and visitor logs destroyed. His General Counsel argued that the Vice President was not part of any branch of government and was, therefore, bound by no rules.
A 2004 photo of Cheney, taken in his kitchen at home, shows him talking on the phone to his daughter after George W. Bush was declared the winner of the election. He leans on the counter, smiling, though his body and arms are curled together as if protecting something. The phone cord is wrapped around his body and held by his elbow. This is a touching detail: a corded phone in 2004. The kitchen is relatively small and beige, not huge and ostentatious. On the refrigerator door, magnets and maybe a spray of plastic alphabet letters hold family photos and a child’s drawing. On the counter are a roll of paper towels, two bottles of wine and a toaster oven. This is what I would call his evil period. He looks flushed; his mouth is making the slit shape of a smile. His eyes look elsewhere, as if his brain is detached. I realize I cannot know what is in his head.
I am on a short plane ride by myself. Because the rheumatoid arthritis pain is bad again and I don’t have energy to read, I go to Cheney. As I begin with the baby, I realize I have never thought about my potential power over him. In this scenario, I am huge and could crush his small body. It has never tempted me.
I must pull up my shirt and let this creature find sustenance without judgment. But wait, this is a fussy baby—of course. And so I envision patting the back of this cosmically whiny baby, doing the baby dance, singing, “Sshhhh—ssshhhh—shhh—it’s gonna be all right—shhhh,” waiting for the gas to die down, hoping to soothe his jangled nervous system.
We each have a will like the third rail of a subway track, and I feel this baby’s hot anger. I have felt my own son’s acute frustration with limits and the rules of life. We all want dominion. This baby I have borne is going to plug its ego into huge electrified tracks of the train that slammed into Iraq, as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia slammed into us, as we slammed into the USSR, as the USSR slammed into Afghanistan. Even wishing harm on this baby Cheney won’t unplug him from the generations of rage and desire he has dutifully served. I have a right to be horribly angry at him, even if he were my child. I have a right to disagree.
As I imagine holding this wiry ferret baby against my thighs, I realize I can hold his body, but it is not my business—nor am I able—to touch the live third rail of his soul. Putting your hands on someone else’s third rail results in instant death. My baby is on fire with the electricity he sought, on a powerful train that has led to destruction. I know this baby-rage wants to annihilate me, too, but the one peace I see is that I can step back from that rail to see what that surging lust for power has consumed. It has devoured my son for its own heat and power.