'Hard to Muzzle' : The Return of Lynne Cheney
by Jon Wiener (*)
Lynne Cheney recently told reporters that she doesn't like being called "strident" or "combative." The former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, appointed by Reagan in 1986, showed her moderate side at the Republican National Convention, where she introduced her husband, Dick, the Vice Presidential nominee. She dutifully followed a script that had her praising him as a "fabulous father" and successful fly fisherman. But somehow she wasn't very convincing.
A few days later Newsday called her "the woman with the sock in her mouth," and the Chicago Sun-Times named her speech the "worst performance" of the convention, because she "felt compelled to portray herself so, well, lamely."
What was missing from the portrayal was the right-wing warrior who used her post at the NEH to fight the Republican culture wars of the eighties; the ideologue who, after continuing to serve as head of the NEH through the Bush years, resigned following Clinton's election and moved to the American Enterprise Institute to write Op-Ed hit pieces, and later co-hosted the now-defunct CNN show Crossfire Sunday --she was the one "on the right." In her heyday Lynne Cheney was not just a conservative gadfly; after she targeted the National History Standards in 1994, the Senate voted 99 to 1 in support of her call to defund the project. Very few opinion writers ever experience that kind of triumph.
All this is history, but it's history that has suddenly become relevant, because Cheney's friends in high places--the New York Post editorial page, for example--have already endorsed her for Secretary of Education in a George W. Bush administration. Now she's hard at work campaigning for the ticket--to be sure, in her new noncontroversial mode. On the campaign trail in California recently, she played the Laura Bush role and did the wifely thing, visiting an elementary-school classroom for a photo-op with little kids and ironing her husband's shirts.
William Bennett, another conservative cultural warrior and a personal friend of hers from the old days, doesn't think this will last. He told the Washington Post, "She'll be hard to muzzle."
Bennett's point is indisputable: If Bush goes to the White House, Lynne Cheney may well lead a revival of those eighties culture wars. Even if she doesn't get a Cabinet post, it's hard to imagine that with her skill and commitment, she would not play a major role as wife of the Vice President.
It's true that George W.'s "compassionate" theme represents a renunciation of Gingrich's brand of zealotry, that much of the old Reagan crowd is gone and that the culture wars are mostly history. Still, Lynne Cheney is, for all practical purposes, on the ticket. Everything she's done up to now shows her to be an ideological pugilist, eager to play the role of hit man; at the same time, she has been a master at getting herself into the limelight. Making war on liberals is her forte.
She started as chairwoman of the NEH in 1986 with slender qualifications--a PhD in literature from the University of Wisconsin and a three-year stint as an editor of Washingtonian magazine. Her main qualification seems to have been as wife of a leading Congressional conservative and former Ford Administration Chief of Staff. At the NEH, Cheney, now 59, perfected a method of attack that depends more on hyperbole than accuracy. One of her first campaigns was aimed at a PBS series, The Africans, that she called "propaganda" because it described Africa's historic problems as a consequence of European exploitation. She insisted on removing the NEH's name from the credits and refused to approve endowment publicity funding for the series--actions she termed "a defense of free speech." The controversy enabled her to seize the limelight for her own brand of political correctness.
At the NEH she also criticized colleges for shifting away from traditional Western Civilization courses toward global history and culture. The American experience, she argued, was the high point of world history: "I find it hard to imagine that there's a story more wonderful than being driven by the desire to worship freely, to set off across that ocean, to make a home out of this wild and inhospitable land."
Cheney's initiatives at the NEH aroused cries of dismay from much of academia, but she stumbled only once, in her effort to pack the advisory panel of the NEH with right-wingers, who lacked the requisite qualifications --especially Carol Iannone. Iannone had gained fame for a Commentary article in which she said that giving National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes to African-American women writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker sacrificed "the demands of excellence to the democratic dictatorship of mediocrity." Despite a major lobbying effort by Cheney, her 1991 nomination of Ianonne was killed by the Senate.
When Cheney moved to the American Enterprise Institute in 1993, she became a director of the defense contractor Lockheed Martin and did a lot of writing that reveals how far she stands from this year's "compassionate" Republican theme. For starters, she called for the abolition of the agency she had headed (an argument she has now abandoned as part of her new "compassionate" mode). Her Op-Ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard and once in a while the New York Times all made the same argument: She would start with an outrageous incident or two--e.g., a freshman composition course at the University of Wisconsin in which, the claim went, the students were force-fed feminist theory. Then she would argue that this outrage exemplified what was typical in today's schools as a result of the domination of left-wing cultural relativists. Whether she was going after multiculturalism in high schools, "political correctness" in universities or vocational education for women, her point was the same: She was the brave and lonely defender of truth in a world dominated by leftists--leftists who don't believe there is any truth.
Her biggest campaign--the one that got the 99-to-1 vote in the Senate--was her 1994 battle against the National History Standards, which were published that year with NEH funding. She's still talking about it: As recently as July 30 she told Cokie Roberts on ABC's This Week that the standards were "a disaster." Cheney launched her campaign against the standards in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece, in which she argued that they included too much about women and minorities and not enough about white men. She said Harriet Tubman, the African-American who led escaping slaves to freedom before the Civil War, was "mentioned six times," while George Washington "makes only a fleeting appearance" and Thomas Edison gets no mention at all.
With impressive speed, the right-wing network had the story all over the media. Rush Limbaugh yelled that the standards should be "flushed down the sewer of multiculturalism." Charles Krauthammer repeated Cheney's charges in the Washington Post, as did John Leo in U.S. News & World Report. The headlines of both columns referred to the "hijacking" of American history. Time and Newsweek then picked up the "controversy."
What were these evil standards? They were the product of more than two years of meetings involving 6,000 teachers, administrators, scholars and parents, along with thirty-five organizations, ranging from the American Association of School Librarians to the National Council for the Social Studies. The most cursory look at the published standards suggests that the assault by Cheney & Co. was a fraud. White males can be found on virtually every page of the document. For example, on page 76: For the revolution of 1776, students are asked to "analyze the character and roles of the military, political, and diplomatic leaders who helped forge the American victory." If you don't discuss George Washington, you flunk. Page 138: For the period 1870-1900, "how did inventions change the way people lived and worked? Who were the great inventors of the period?" If you don't discuss Edison, you're in trouble.
Cheney complained about too much favorable attention to the experiences of women and minorities, but it's hard to see why (I criticized her in an article at the time, which Cheney criticized in a published letter). High school students, according to the standards, should be able to explain "the arguments for and against affirmative action" and "for and against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment," and be able to evaluate "the Warren Court's reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education." All thirty-one standards setting forth what students should understand about the American past are like these examples--completely unobjectionable. The New York Times editorial page called the standards "exhilarating" and declared that "teachers will cherish using them." The paper criticized Cheney for "misrepresentation"; you might also call it "dishonesty" or "lying."
Cheney's campaign against the National History Standards peaked during the week before Election Day in 1994--which turned out to be the day the Democrats lost control of the House, opening the way to the Gingrichites. Cheney used the standards to call for the abolition of the NEH, an item on Gingrich's agenda. Many of her other stories of educational outrage, Jonathan Chait suggested in The American Prospect last year, spoke to the fears of the Christian right, a crucial base for the Republican "revolution."
This helps explain some of her more puzzling campaigns. In 1994 Clinton signed a modest bill to help states modernize vocational programs in public high schools. It was called "school to work." Cheney devoted a New York Times Op-Ed article to an attack on the obscure program--because, she wrote, it encouraged young women to consider "nontraditional employment." You might think it slightly hypocritical for the former chairwoman of the NEH and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute to suggest that women should stay in traditional occupations--but the concept of "nontraditional employment" is, of course, threatening to Christian-right activists, who prefer that their girls think about motherhood rather than careers and who worry that "the government" is undermining parental authority.
In 1995 Cheney pulled her complaints together into a book with the modest title Telling the Truth. Tipper Gore had made her name in public policy by targeting dirty rock lyrics; the woman who would succeed her as vice-presidential wife has a loftier target: French philosopher Michel Foucault, who argued that what we call truth is constructed by those who hold power. Telling the Truth declares that Foucault's ideas threaten nothing less than the survival of Western civilization. "If we are to be successful as a culture," Cheney writes, we cannot follow Foucault and "turn away from reason and reality." We must follow the great thinkers of the Enlightenment and "find the will to live in truth.... The answer may very well determine whether we survive." Any grad student in cultural studies would be more than happy to show how her conception of "reason and reality" is not timeless and universal but rather is shaped by culture and experience. For Cheney, Foucault's sinister influence is everywhere. Even Al Gore is a disciple: His book Earth in the Balance, she writes, "is about how the great thinkers of the Enlightenment have led us astray."
If Foucault is one of the big targets of her book, feminism is the other. Attacking "the radical egalitarianism espoused by many feminists," she criticizes "the movement to do away with...competition in the schools"--for example, "in every part of the country, school children are dancing and jumping rope, activities that do not involve competition, instead of playing games like dodgeball, from which a winner emerges." Obviously Lynne Cheney was a girl who liked winning at dodgeball.
Telling the Truth concludes with what Nick Gillespie of the libertarian magazine Reason called "a dizzying whirlwind of innuendo and invective." She argues that the brutal 1994 murder of an ice-cream vendor in Philadelphia exposes the consequences of leftist postmodern theory. As the vendor lay dying in the street, a group of teenage onlookers laughed and danced. Cheney concludes that "people who laugh at a dying man have no sense that a stranger can suffer just as they do." And whose fault is this? "Intellectual elites do no one a favor by sending through society messages that there is no external reality in which we all participate, that there is only the game of the moment, the entertainment of the day." Thus postmodernism may not have killed the ice-cream vendor, but it encouraged the onlookers to laugh at his suffering. Of course, Lynne Cheney doesn't know whether the laughing onlookers had read Foucault; in fact, she knows nothing about them.
The same year she published her book, Cheney became co-host of CNN's Crossfire Sunday. That was shortly after her husband had explored a run for President against Clinton, who at the time--the peak of the Gingrich revolution--seemed vulnerable. On Crossfire she spoke out in favor of school prayer and against handgun controls and raising the minimum wage. She argued that violence in Hollywood movies inspired murder in real life--standard Gingrich stuff.
She left Crossfire Sunday in 1998 and since then has receded from the Op-Ed pages. In 1995 she got seven Op-Eds into print, but according to the Nexis database, she has published only two in 1999 and 2000, one in the Wall Street Journal arguing that schools should tell kids what they need to know instead of allowing them to discover it for themselves, and one in the Dallas Morning News defending phonics as a teaching method.
Her re-emergence at the Republican National Convention this year marked a dramatic return to center stage. For the presidential campaign, she is sticking to the script: While she testified at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in mid-September that she wants to protect children from media violence--thus hinting of her old culture-wars crusades--her testimony was no more of an appeal to the morality crowd than that of Democratic Vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. Still, it's hard to imagine that a person with her ideological zeal, passion for combat and hunger for the spotlight will not unsheath her dagger if the Republicans return to the White House in January. (*)Jon Wiener (JMWiener@uci.edu), a Nation contributing editor, teaches history at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files (California).
Please attach this notice in its entirety when copying or redistributing
material from The Nation. The Nation encourages activists
and friends of the magazine to share our articles with others. However,
it is mandatory that academic institutions, publications and for-profit
institutions seeking to reprint material contact us for permission.