June 27, 1983 12:00 PM

About a year and a half ago Lynne Cheney was invited on the PBS TV show Inside Washington for a debate with fellow author Myra MacPherson. Their topic: political wives. “Myra wrote The Power Lovers, and she went on the program to say that you couldn’t possibly be sane and be married to a politician,” Lynne recalls. “I went on to say that it wasn’t all that terrible.”

Lynne should know. Her husband, Richard B. Cheney, put in 14 grueling months as White House Chief of Staff during Gerald Ford’s Presidency. Now he is the sole Congressman from sparsely populated Wyoming, a position that makes him a man to be reckoned with in his home state as well as the House. At 42 (a year older than Lynne) and in his third term, Cheney is regarded on Capitol Hill as one of the GOP’s rising stars. House Minority Leader Robert Michel praises his “independent judgment and superb reasoning. He combines the aggressiveness of a junior member with the keen perception gained from varied experience.” His party colleagues have elected and reelected him chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.

Certainly, Lynne concedes, political ambition bears a price. Take Ford’s failed 1976 race against Jimmy Carter. “In the six months before the election,” she remembers, “Dick was home for one whole day—one Sunday—and that was all. I found that hard because our children were young, and I was essentially functioning as a single parent.” Yet she never asked him to consider another line of work. “There’s something about politics that people who haven’t been involved don’t understand,” she says. “Even as someone who is helping her husband, you want to get up in the morning and go at it. Politics provides an overriding sense of doing something important.”

Now there is further proof of the Cheneys’ fascination with politics: Kings of the Hill (Continuum, $14.95), a new book they’ve written profiling eight key men in the House of Representatives’ history. The Cheneys’ treatment of leaders from Whig Henry Clay (“the first really strong Speaker,” says Dick) to Democrat Sam Rayburn (“the dominant Speaker in modern times”) is admirably nonpartisan. And though there were obvious commercial advantages to pitching their book as a House version of John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, the Cheneys nixed suggestions to title it Profiles in Power.

Dick explains that his contributions “were in the research I’d done on Congress, my service there and the feel I have for what it’s like. Lynne brought to it her background as a professional writer.” Lynne agrees that “we do think a lot alike,” though there were inevitable divergences. For example, she never took a shine to one of the eight: foul-mouthed, tobacco-spitting Joe Cannon, the powerful Republican Speaker between 1903 and 1911. “I sort of saw him as a dirty old man,” she says, “but Dick had respect for him as a politician.” In the end, his view kept Cannon in the book’s lineup.

Such compromising has helped the Cheneys maintain a relationship that goes back to their school days in Casper, Wyo. Both had early exposure to government: His dad was a longtime Department of Agriculture staffer, hers worked for the Bureau of Reclamation (and her mom was a deputy sheriff). They started dating as classmates at Casper’s Natrona County High. There he made football co-captain and senior class president. But his first really serious political campaign effort, Lynne recalls with a laugh, “was getting me elected homecoming queen.”

After high school he spent two years at Yale before dropping out (didn’t like the East), and Lynne went to Colorado College. Dick caught up with her again at the University of Wyoming, where she taught English. They were married in 1964 and then, after Dick got a B.A. and an M.A. in political science, went off for Ph.D.s at the University of Wisconsin.

While Lynne stayed on academic course to earn her doctorate in 19th-century English literature four years later, Dick was diverted by politics. Having served political internships in Wisconsin and Washington, Cheney soon became a protégé of Donald Rumsfeld, an aide in Richard Nixon’s White House. When Rumsfeld left in 1973 to become U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Cheney joined a Washington investment firm. The timing was fortuitous. “I did not have any special knowledge that Watergate was about to break,” he says. “For the next 18 months I was on the outside watching the Nixon Administration collapse.”

The Ford Presidency brought both Rumsfeld and Cheney back to the White House. When his mentor moved to head the Defense Department, Dick took over as Ford’s No. 1 staff aide. After Ford left the White House, Cheney dabbled in banking in Casper, but soon the political bug bit again.

He was in his first campaign for Congress in 1978 when a mild heart attack stopped him for six weeks. Still, he won easily, with 59 percent of the vote (last year he got 71 percent). “Since the attack,” says Dick, once a coffee guzzler and three-pack-a-day smoker, “I exercise, jog, play tennis, watch my diet and weight—and I haven’t had a cigarette since they rolled me into that emergency room.”

As a member of the GOP House leadership, Cheney is a Reagan loyalist who strongly backs the Administration’s position on Central America as well as its tough posture on Soviet relations. He gives the President “pretty high marks” for reducing inflation, “relatively high marks” for upping defense spending, but lower grades on programs for women and minorities.

Over at the Cheney house in McLean, Va., Lynne has marked up achievements of her own. Aside from looking after the Cheney daughters, Liz, 16, and Mary, 14, and collaborating with Dick on the new book, she has written two novels: Executive Privilege examined the varied trials of the Presidency, while Sisters told of pioneering women of the West. Both books achieved “modest success,” says Lynne. Next month she begins a column for the monthly Washingtonian magazine on whatever “historical trivia” strike her fancy.

As their careers progress, both find their individual roles expanding in rewarding ways. At the White House, says Dick, even a high aide is “kind of like a hired gun, because you’re at the President’s beck and call. In the House, when I speak out on issues, it’s Dick Cheney speaking.” For herself, Lynne is finding that a must for successful political couples is “giving each other room and freedom.” Presumably, that means that if and when Dick becomes a king of the Hill, Lynne will write his chapter as she sees it.

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