Lynne Cheney speaks out, softly

Second lady: Known as an often-combative conservative, she now sticks to safe, traditional political-wife territory.

September 18, 2002|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Earlier this year, when Lynne Cheney was shopping for shoes at a suburban Virginia mall, the saleswoman helping her looked around and remarked to the vice president's wife: "Do you notice all the security? I think Mrs. Powell or Mrs. Cheney must be here."

Few who had followed her career would have guessed that this outspoken, at times combative, conservative would assume such a low profile in the Bush administration that she could try on pumps unrecognized.

Given her credentials as one of the premier forces in the incendiary "culture wars" of the past quarter-century, analysts predicted that Cheney would emerge as a highly vocal and visible second lady, a political spouse who'd be "hard to muzzle," as one colleague said at the time, an influential presence in the mold of Hillary "Buy-one-get-one-free" Clinton.

But as part of a White House that frowns on public wave-making, Cheney, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a conservative spear-thrower on CNN's Crossfire, has stayed conspicuously out of the fray.

Now, Cheney, 61, is beginning to take a more active role in administration activities, campaigning for Republican candidates and acting as host for educational events such as yesterday's Constitution Day program at the vice president's residence and a future forum for scholars on the importance of American history instruction, her signature issue. Yesterday, she book-ended her second lady activities with brief TV interviews.

But instead of railing against political correctness, as she did as NEH chief, or arguing the conservative view on such issues as gun locks or minimum wage, as she did on TV, Cheney now generally remains on safe, traditional political-wife territory.

She has written a best-selling children's book on patriotism and, putting aside a policy book she started before her husband became vice president, is deep into a second children's book on heroic American women.

In an interview at the vice president's Queen Anne-style mansion, which she has redecorated in light, muted tones with contemporary paintings on loan from museums, Cheney says Crossfire-style debating is not something she would enjoy doing at this point in her life.

"There's a lot of dramatic Sturm und Drang with Crossfire," she says. "What I'm doing now seems more rewarding. One of the real privileges of being married to the vice president is that I can go to places [such as schools] where things are going right and hold [them] up and say: `Look what's happening. Here's a model.' And that's a great thing to be able to do."

Even as Cheney campaigns for Republican congressional candidates, headlining lunches and private fund-raisers such as one she attended last month for Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, she praises the current administration but leaves the stinging partisan jabs to others.

"She's more of a diplomat in this role," says Judith Richards Hope, a longtime friend and a Washington lawyer who worked in the Ford and Reagan administrations.

"She is very aware she is the second lady, not the television star. Her views, in my opinion, haven't changed, but I think they're presented with a little more sugar."

The only second lady ever to hold a job outside the administration, Cheney is still a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where she has worked since 1993.

An author of both fiction and nonfiction works, Cheney says that when she first contemplated life in the White House, she thought: "I don't want to change very much. I'd kind of like to keep on doing what I'm doing."

But, in fact, she put aside the book on education she had been working on to write America, A Patriotic Primer and her current project, A is for Abigail Adams, both for children.

One person close to Cheney said she sidelined her book on education for fear people might confuse her views with administration policy. "She didn't want to put the administration in the position of having to defend her book," this person said.

Marshall Wittmann, a conservative political analyst, says Cheney's more restrained public persona these days is not surprising, given the tone of this White House.

"It's the nature of this administration not to want anyone with sharp elbows" to engage in the polarizing debates over cultural and social issues, he says.

Still, the themes Lynne Cheney sounded during the 1980s and 1990s, when she infuriated liberals with her emphasis on Western cultural traditions over multicultural studies and attacks on political correctness, echo in her speeches today.

She still argues, as she did as NEH chief, that public school educators place too much emphasis in their curriculums on what's wrong with America as opposed to what's right.

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