What a Dick. Sure, it’s both easy and crude to call him that, but Vice President Cheney probably won’t mind a little scatological jab; after all, he’s the guy who recently brought the words “go fuck yourself” to the Senate floor.

While playing the bad cop to President Bush’s good cop, Cheney has garnered comparisons to Darth Vader and The Simpson‘s Monty Burns. But all joking aside, rarely has a vice president loomed so large in American politics as has Cheney. Many Americans consider him to be the shadow president–the White House’s Wizard of Oz, sheltered in an undisclosed location and running things from behind a curtain. What does he do back there?

Despite Cheney’s many years in public service, it’s a question that has produced only limited answers from mainstream media, which have kept their microphones and camera lenses focused on Bush for the past four years. As the election looms, John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, at last puts Cheney’s role under the microscope.

Throughout Dick, Nichols hammers home the point that the man who is technically a heartbeat away from the presidency has for all practical purposes skipped that beat. Sure, Bush was born and bred in a powerful, politically connected family, but Cheney’s a much more committed and professional power-monger.

By now, it’s a well-worn thesis, and it will come as no surprise to many that Cheney’s really running things. But Nichols’ “highly unauthorized biography” is nonetheless instructive, offering a blow-by-blow brief on Cheney’s rise to power: his mediocre academic years (facilitated by a remarkable stretch of Vietnam-era draft deferments), his stint as a White House aide for Presidents Nixon and Ford, his years as a hawkish and pro-apartheid congressman, and his tenures as top executive for both the Defense Department and Halliburton, the now-notorious defense contractor.

“Cheney did not rise on the basis of his competence, as the official spin would have it,” Nichols argues. “His career has been characterized by dashed hopes, damaging missteps, and dubious achievements. No, it was not his competence; rather, Cheney has climbed the ladder of success because of his willingness, proven again and again, to sacrifice principle and the public good in the service of his own ambition and of those who might advance it.”

But rise he did, and a good half of the book addresses Cheney’s machinations at his current post in the White House. There, Nichols notes, the vice president is sometimes so clearly the top dog that the president’s handlers feel compelled to reassert Bush’s authority before the public.

Of course, there are also times when the veep’s odd prominence can come in handy for the administration, as was recently evidenced by the Cheney clan’s faux outrage over John Kerry’s mention of Dick’s daughter Mary Cheney’s sexual preference. Nichols must have seen this one coming: His book includes a biting review of Sisters, Lynne Cheney’s long-forgotten 1981 novel of lesbian lust in the Old West. The novel’s nearly impossible to find nowadays, since Mrs. Cheney has declined offers to reprint it (at this writing, there’s a single used copy for sale on Amazon.com, for a mere $500). Somewhere in that steamy text, perhaps, there lies an answer to the Cheney family’s contortions over how to handle homosexuality in the family–and in the Republican Party, for that matter. –Jon Elliston The Wimp Factor: Gender gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity
By Stephen J. Ducat
Beacon Press, 291 pp., $25.00 Someone should alert the Department of Homeland Security: Femiphobic men are running the country, and they’re heavily armed and bent on proving their manhood. Phallic symbols have come a long way, baby, and while Freud may have been right when he said that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” in this day and age it’s all too clear how a cruise missile can serve as a phallus of mass destruction.

Masculinity in politics is a topic that’s been explored before, but never with the level of detail and, um, penetrating analysis that Ducat, a psychology professor at New College of California, provides.

Ducat explains that fear of the “wimp factor”–a term first applied in presidential politics in 1988–remains pervasive and truly bipartisan. A flight-suited George W. Bush doll graces the cover of the book, and Ducat diagnoses Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt on the aircraft carrier as both “a masculine drag performance” and “a massive denial of reality.” He also points out that the Democratic candidate has labored, in a similarly calculated fashion, to demonstrate his manliness. As far back as November 2003, John Kerry was inviting reporters out to watch him shoot pheasants with a 12-gauge. “Apparently,” Ducat writes, “Mr. Kerry wanted to reassure the male electorate that even though he supports a ban on assault weapon sales, he still likes to kill things.” –Jon Elliston