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Vice President and Mrs. Cheney on Presidents Madison…and Obama

A fascinating two hour conversation Monday with former Vice President Dick Cheney and Lynne Cheney, mostly about her wonderful new book, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, a conversation which also covered many other subjects. For your listening pleasure:

Audio:

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Transcript:

HH: Special show today. In studio with me, Lynne Cheney, the author of James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, and her husband, the former vice president of the United States, the Honorable Dick Cheney. Welcome to the Cheneys, it’s great to have you both here. And congratulations, Mrs. Cheney, this is a remarkable book.

LC: Well, I appreciate that, Hugh.

HH: I don’t have to say that, even though I worked for you long ago and far away. And Mr. Vice President, you’ll forgive me if I begin with a couple of questions for Mrs. Cheney about the book.

DC: I wouldn’t have it any other way.

HH: All right, you began as a member of the Bicentennial Commission, which served, I think, from 1983-1991. And I think this may be the most lasting legacy of that commission, because not a lot came out of it, right? Not a lot is remembered, but here in one volume is this remarkable man. And so I gather you fell in love with him during that time?

LC: Well, I began to understand how significant his achievements were, how magnificent they were, really, and to juxtapose that with how seldom or how often, rather, he was left off the list of the founders. Maybe he’d get added on at the end, but he was under-appreciated for the many things that he accomplished, shaped the country we know.

HH: And Mr. Vice President, during these many years she’s been writing James Madison, did you grow to love him more or hate him after listening to this all the time?

DC: The truth is, Hugh, she never let me look at it until it was finished.

HH: Oh, she didn’t talk about Madison the whole time?

DC: Well, she did, but in terms of my being able to review anything, that was verboten. I got to read it when it was done.

HH: Could you tell when she was thinking about the book by asking you a question, perhaps, about how a member of the House might become a member of the Executive?

DC: Well, interesting story. Here’s a good…we wrote a book together called Kings Of The Hill, and I was a junior member of the House, and Lynne was the accomplished author, and she did the research on the book at the Library of Congress. And we’d come home at night, and she’d show me what she’d written. And I would say but I was there, and that’s not how they do it. It didn’t work out all that well. Eventually, we got the book done, but we agreed we’d never do one together again.

HH: Oh, and so as you were going through the writing, when you a question that had to do with the particular expertise of Madison, either as a cabinet member or member of the House, or in the Executive, would you just bring it up with him on the sly?

LC: No, I tended to ask Dick questions more about either the history of the Congress, for example, how many speakers have become president, or I would amuse him with the stories of how we got a vice president, which was not ever a thought to be a very necessary office.

HH: Right, the Page 188, this really brings home Madison’s role. He ghosted President Washington’s inaugural address. He ghosted the House’s reply to it. He wrote Washington’s reply to the House’s reply, and then he wrote Washington’s reply to the Senate’s reply. So four out of five, that is kind of remarkable.

LC: Well, it really is. I think it’s symbolic of how his voice echoed throughout those early days when the new government under the Constitution was getting underway. You know, it was bouncing, his voice was there bouncing off every wall.

HH: Mr. Vice President, you’ve had some fine writers. Did you ever ghost write like Madison

DC: No. If I had, we wouldn’t have gotten in as much trouble as we did. No, he was a remarkable man, and I am tremendously impressed with what Lynne’s done, and I love the book.

HH: I want to start a little bit at the beginning of his life, Mrs. Cheney. On very…Page 5, you write, “Madison’s time of extraordinary accomplishment came after years of intense focus, deep concentration, and nearly obsessive effort, behaviors that describe most lives of genius from Sir Isaac Newton’s to Mozart’s to Einstein. I mean, he worked and worked and worked. It’s not a very encouraging thing for a biographer to begin with, because you have such a pile of work to go through.

LC: Well, that’s interesting. He does have thousands of pages of paper. 30 volumes of his papers are published and online, which makes research much easier than it would be otherwise, but there is a ton of it. That’s for sure. Some people have questioned whether Madison qualifies as a genius, you know, and I think it’s because we don’t understand, we haven’t got a clear definition of what a genius is. The one I accepted is that a genius is someone who changes the domain in which he works. You know, that’s what Mozart did. He changed music forever. That’s what Einstein did. He changed physics forever. And Madison changed government forever. So that’s why I call him a genius. And he also exhibits that trait of genius that I think we don’t often recognize, which is, as you mentioned, really hard work. We tend to think of genius as kind of a spark from Heaven or something that is innate and that you’re born with. And sure, you have to be smart. But genius comes after decades of hard work in almost every care.

HH: Now tonight, you’re going to be at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, tomorrow night at the Reagan Library, and on Wednesday at the Hoover Institute up north. Tonight’s program is at 7pm, tomorrow’s program is at 6pm at the Reagan Library. And I’m going to replay this broadcast, I’m pretty sure, on August 24th, which will be the bicentennial of the burning of Washington.

LC: Very good.

HH: And I, I think probably, I want to put this as the start, I could easily talk to you for three hours. You spent a very moving chapter on that, and there are some parallels in this book which are eerie, because you’re writing about the destruction of Washington, and of course, you were both in Washington when Washington was attacked. And there is this subtext here. There are some remarkable parallels in this book.

LC: No, both Dick and I thought about the War of 1812 and the burning of Washington in the summer of 1814 as we took off from the South Lawn of the White House on the night of September 11th by helicopter, because you could see the smoke from the Pentagon. How do you remember it?

DC: Oh, I do. We hadn’t even commented on the fact that the last time Washington had burned, in effect, was in the War of 1812. And you couldn’t help but be impressed as obviously that night of 9/11 as we lifted off, we’d lost 3,000 people that day and all of the trauma and turmoil of 9/11, to be able to fly over the Pentagon and see where it had been hit. And they were moving us to a remote location for safety so the President and I wouldn’t be in the same location.

HH: One of the things that came through, Madison wanted to return to Washington as soon as possible. You detail this, and I’ll come back to this a little bit later. You counseled President Bush against doing that, did you not?

DC: I did, and he wanted to come back in the worst way, but I wasn’t the only one. The Secret Service also felt that. We, at the moment that it came up the New York Trade Center had been hit, and then I was evacuated from my office because there was a plane headed for the White House. It turned out to be the flight that hit the Pentagon. But all of a sudden, we knew Washington was under attack as well as New York. The President wanted to come back to Washington, and I strongly recommended that until we found out how big the attack was, how long it was going to last, what else was out there, I thought it was important for the two of us not to be in the same location. He was on Air Force One, he was safe, he could relocate anyplace in the country, and eventually went to Offutt Air Force base out in Omaha, but it was very important for the two of us to stay separated, so that one strike wouldn’t take out the both of us.

HH: Lynne Cheney, as a historian, you’ve got a unique perspective on that period of time in 1814 when the White House is burned and Washington is under attack, because he rides to the front lines. And of course, they would never let a president or a vice president, or any member of the cabinet get near that, although both of you went to war zones, and President Bush and Mrs. Bush went to the war zones, and Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Gates, obviously, but they just ride their horses. And he almost rides right into the British, something of which I was wholly unaware until I read James Madison: A Life Reconsidered.

LC: You know, Jefferson had his reputation somewhat besmirched by having ridden out of Monticello as the British were coming up from Charlottesville, and people, you know, assumed, or how shall I say, cast aspersions on his character because he hadn’t somehow stayed all by himself and fought the British. It was a ridiculous charge, but I’ve wondered if Madison might not have had it in mind when he rode out to Bladensburg where the battle was. In some ways, it was foolhardy. You know, Lincoln did the same thing. I was reading a Lincoln biography the other day, and it said that Lincoln was the first president to expose himself to enemy fire. It’s not the case. Madison certainly did. It was a brave thing to do, though, you know, considering how important the president is, maybe foolhardy.

HH: Is there anything underway that is planned to commemorate the 200th anniversary, do you know?

LC: Well, you know, in McLean, where we sometimes are in Virginia, they’re having community celebrations. I don’t think there’s a big national effort underway, but it’s odd. And you know, my interest in Madison has gone back a long way, but Dick and I now live, well, within a stone’s throw of Dolly Madison Blvd., And right across the street, right across Dolly Madison Blvd. is a house, an old house that’s been very well preserved and taken care of called Salona, where Madison is supposed to have spent the first night after the British burned Washington. Down the road a little way is a farm called Rokeby, where we know Dolly Madison spent the first night.

HH: But I’m getting ahead of my story a little bit, your story, but I spent last Labor Day Weekend in Ohio at the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie at the request of Governor Kasich.

LC: Wonderful.

HH: And one man put together that, a guy named Dave Zavagno of Universal Medical System, just willed it into being. And they had 11 tall ships. But it really wasn’t, and four thousand boats came out. They intended to recreate the Battle of Lake Erie, and they threw Dunkirk in. But it was an amazing thing. But no one’s paying much attention to the bicentennial. And when we come back from break, we’ll talk a little bit about maybe that’s because Madison hasn’t had his due paid to him, that so much is paid to him in James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. It is posted at Hughhewitt.com.

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HH: I’m going to be in trouble. I’m going to tell that story, actually. During the break, Mrs. Cheney turned to Vice President Cheney, who is in my studio, and said I knew Hugh Hewitt when he was totally blonde. And the Vice President I knew you when you were totally blonde. And so that was really, that was pretty good. I actually must, full disclosure, I worked for Mrs. Cheney at the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1985 and ’86 when she began her tenure there, and never met the then-Congressman, now Vice President Cheney. He was around a lot, but you were working on the Hill on something called Iran-Contra.

DC: Among other things.

HH: Among other things at the time.

DC: And that was a big one.

HH: It was a busy time. Back to this new book, James Madison, A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney, is in bookstores everywhere, a bestseller. Both of the Cheneys will be at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda tonight at 7pm, at the Reagan Library tomorrow night, Tuesday night at 6pm, and at the Hoover Institute up north if you’re anywhere in the Bay Area on Wednesday night. And it’s an extraordinary book, and I have spent the last five days with it and couldn’t put it down. Let’s go back to a couple of things. We were talking about his capacity for work. And he did so much study, Lynne Cheney, and you chart that even before he went to Princeton, he was steeped in the classics, and he had this amazing Scots tutor. And then Princeton was from 5 in the morning until 9 at night. And we don’t get many public servants anymore who are that prepared for office based upon their classical education, do we?

LC: You know, I think he was inspired by the times in which he lives, partly. I mean, you’re right. We don’t. Education has not yet recovered from the 60s, I think.

HH: Well put.

LC: And I worry that it may never. But I also think that the enormous effort that men like James Madison put into the founding was partly inspired by the fact that they knew they were about to be involved in a world-altering event. You know, you just would be inspired to read and study as much as you possibly could.

HH: I’ll quote your book. “It’s hard to imagine a more thrilling time to come of age than in the years leading up to the American Revolution.”

LC: Exactly.

HH: It would call for this great genius. But these deep habits of study are still, I just keep coming back to that. Mr. Vice President, you spent 35 years beginning in the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1970 through the vice presidency and still active in public life after the vice presidency. How many men have you met that have this kind of, and women, this kind of attention to the work and fun of them, or work ethic when it comes to public work?

DC: Well, I’d like to say a lot, Hugh. I’m reluctant to compare anybody in effect. Madison was such a singular figure. It’s like how do you compare somebody to Abraham Lincoln. And it’s almost, if you see a portrayal of Lincoln, you know, when they did their recent movie on Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis, great actor, but still, it’s such a, we all have such a well-developed sense of Abraham Lincoln because we’ve heard so much about him, it’s difficult to portray him in any sense. And I look at Madison, and the wide variety of things he was involved in as the first president to fight a war under the Constitution, the author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, secretary of state, there is no end to what he did. And it’s hard to come up with anybody else who could match that.

HH: Eight years as secretary of state before he became president, is that good preparation to be president, being secretary of state?

DC: It might have been then (laughing)

HH: (laughing) Any comment on that, Mrs. Cheney?

LC: (laughing) No, interestingly enough, when Madison was running for president in 1808, Jefferson released all of, well, not all, but 100,000 words of correspondence from the State Department to show how hard Madison had worked, and how well he had defended America’s cause. I don’t think now that you know, if you released 100,000 words from the State Department, people would just fall over in boredom. I think that the qualifications then were recognized by those who are voting in a different way than they would be now.

HH: One of the fascinating parallels between that time and ours is that in the aftermath of the burning of Washington, there was a Congressional inquiry. It lasted three months, as you detail in James Madison, A Life Reconsidered. They exonerated Madison completely, because he had warned of what was coming, and John Armstrong, his secretary of War, had failed to execute. But they moved with rapidity in three months, and they issued their report. Not much like the post-9/11 Commission, was it, Mr. Vice President?

DC: No, it really wasn’t. It was such a totally different era. I think about the 9/11 situation, we had a problem in terms of looking at 9/11, partly because we had the ongoing war on terror. And the more we focused on criticizing what had just happened with respect to 9/11, and forced the agents into a position where they ‘d spent all their time 24 hours a day, trying to defend themselves against that earlier miss, the less time and resource we had devoted to the next attack, and preventing the next attacks. So you had to strike a fine balance.

HH: And do you expect now that the Benghazi investigation will yield anything of use?

DC: I certainly think it will. I think we don’t have a full accounting, yet. I think there’s no question but what they were not prepared for it, and they should have been. Everybody expected to be hit on 9/11. We did after 9/11. That was a date that al Qaeda would try to point out or emphasize. And they’d done absolutely nothing to prepare for it. When it came, it was very badly handled, and I felt, frankly, they totally misled the country about what had happened, because it didn’t track with the narrative they were peddling at the time for political reasons in the run up to the election, that they got bin Laden, terrorist problem solved.

HH: I’ll come back to that in a moment, but I want to go back to James Madison for a moment. I am dumbfounded. I did not know that he had epilepsy. And I have taught the Constitution for 19 years at Chapman Law School, I’ve read pretty much every biography of all the founders. I did not know James Madison had epilepsy. How often do you encounter that, Mrs. Cheney, in talking about the book?

LC: Well, it’s almost universally the case. David Mattern, who’s at the Madison Papers at the University of Virginia, cited that as one of the really important scholarly contributions that the book makes. People have known before that there was this letter at Princeton in which Madison writes himself a draft autobiography. He said I had a constitutional liability to sudden attacks somewhat representing epilepsy and suspending the intellectual functions. But it’s either been dismissed, or Madison has been called a hypochondriac, because he talked about these sudden attacks. But mostly, I think, scholars have looked it and said that’s just too difficult, I’m not going to get into that. But I was fascinated.

HH: And you tracked down Dr. Orrin Devinsky at NYU’s, it’s it Langone Medical Center?

LC: Um-hmm.

HH: And he helped you through this. And then you chart how these attacks would come on. For example, in the middle of the Ratification Convention…

LC: Exactly.

HH: …he falls prey to them. And I’m fascinated by, I know some people with epilepsy, and it can sometimes leave you debilitated for a day or so. He was back on his feet in two days contending with Patrick Henry again. So it’s remarkable. You understand him much more fully.

LC: Exactly. Well, he’s often portrayed as sickly, and again, as a hypochondriac. In fact, he had these episodes. He had these sudden attacks. But between them, he was remarkably fit and ambitious. And he worked arduously. I sometimes laughed to myself thinking of the trips he took, you know, a thousand miles with Lafayette on horseback and in carriage, a thousand miles with Jefferson, and then the regular trips back and forth between where the capital was at that moment, Philadelphia or New York or Washington, to Montpelier, and how difficult that was. I wondered if the people who call him sickly could make the trips.

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    Hugh Hewitt
  • Hugh Hewitt is a lawyer, law professor, and broadcast journalist. A proficient blogger, Hugh Hewitt has one of the most visited political blogs in the U.S.

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