May 15, 2006 12:00 PM

She’s the first openly gay daughter of a U.S. Vice President, but Mary Cheney has no interest in being an activist. “I’m not a ramparts kind of girl,” says Cheney, 37, an executive at AOL in D.C. “My contribution comes from being the best person I can be and being honest about who I am.” Who she is: a George Bush Republican (“He’s the absolute best person to be leading us at this time,” she says); a daughter who loves fishing and hunting with her dad; a devoted partner to Heather Poe, 45, a former UPS manager now working full-time renovating the Virginia home the couple share. “From our perspective, we’re already married,” Cheney says. “She’s the person I want to spend my life with.” But as she reveals in her new memoir Now It’s My Turn: A Daughter’s Chronicle of Political Life, balancing the personal and the political hasn’t always been easy.

Halfway into our flight home from a vacation in South America in the summer of 2000, my dad turned to me and asked, “What do you think about me running for Vice President?” At first I thought he was kidding. We spent the rest of the flight talking about what a run for national office would mean, particularly for me. He was concerned that people would target my sexual orientation. “Personally,” I told him, “I’d rather not be known as the Vice President’s lesbian daughter. But if you’re going to run, I want to do whatever I can to help.”

Over the next few days we had several family discussions. I thought Dad would be an excellent Vice President and that it would be exciting to be part of the national campaign, but there was no doubt that it would change my life—and I was very happy with the way it was: living quietly in the mountains of Colorado and looking forward to starting business school in the fall.

I also had to consider Heather, my partner. She is a smart, warm, funny and incredibly private person. We met in college—I was on the women’s hockey team and Heather played for one of the other teams in the league. In eight years together, we had pretty successfully managed to stay out of the spotlight. Heather was not thrilled with our private life being in the public eye, but she is steady and generous of spirit. “It’s not my first choice,” she said, “but I love you, and we’ll deal with whatever happens next.”

Cheney knew part of what would happen next—she had cut her political teeth years earlier in Wyoming when, at 9, she and her older sister Liz helped out during her dad’s ’78 congressional bid.

My father’s first run for public office was about as far as you could get from a presidential campaign. The whole family piled into a rented Winnebago, with Grandpa driving. We usually ended up listening to my dad’s collection of eight-track tapes, which seemed to include every song ever performed by the Carpenters. As the youngest member of the family, I was assigned odd jobs: throwing candy in a parade and standing outside campaign headquarters wearing a sandwich board that said, “Honk for Cheney.”

She had a far bigger role by 2000, when, after George Bush’s nomination, her father asked her to be his personal aide during the campaign. The personal stakes were higher for her as well.

It wasn’t a secret that I was gay. I’d come out to my parents during my junior year of high school, on a day that is especially memorable because it is also the day that I wrecked the family car. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. I was hurt, confused and frustrated, and I didn’t see the red light until it was too late. After I sorted out the insurance, I headed home. It was time to talk to my parents. I have to admit that I’m not sure when I first knew that I was gay. I always knew that there was something that made me different, and by the time I was in high school I understood what it was. When I got home, I told my mom that I’d had a car accident—and that I was gay. As soon as she figured out that I was not just offering the world’s most creative excuse for a car accident, she hugged me and burst into tears. “Your life will be so hard,” she said, but after I explained that life would be much harder if I had to lie about who I was, she came to understand that society’s reaction was a secondary issue.

When I told my dad, the first words out of his mouth were: “You’re my daughter, and I love you and I just want you to be happy.” While we might not always agree on matters of policy, he has always been a loving and supportive father.

Cheney enjoyed campaigning with her dad, but it was a no-frills life.

Life on the campaign trail is learning to wear a black suit to any occasion (they don’t show wrinkles or dirt); being made happy by small things (like finding out that they will be serving something other than taco salad on the next flight); and training yourself to put a piece of paper next to your bed that lists your name, the date, the city you are in (in case you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t remember). On one of the last flights of the campaign, Jay Parmer, who oversaw all of our travel plans, announced that there was a small problem: The lavatory system was oozing blue goo into one of the cargo holds. The goo turned the contents of several reporters’ suitcases a rather unappetizing shade of blue. After a campaign in which our relations with some of the reporters had grown a little strained, we tried to seem sympathetic, but it was tough not to find a little humor in the situation.

In the ’04 reelection campaign, Cheney elevated his daughter to director of operations. But conflicts arose between some of her beliefs and Bush’s—in particular his championing of the Federal Marriage Amendment, banning same-sex marriage.

I needed to decide if I could continue working for a President who wanted to write discrimination into the Constitution. I spent a long time on the phone talking to Heather, who was just as troubled as I was. My parents and sister told me that they would understand if I felt that I had to quit, but they also made it clear that they didn’t want me to be driven away by a position with which we all disagreed. Dad had said that he thought marriage and legal recognition of relationships was a matter for individual states to decide. He always acknowledged that President Bush sets policy for the Administration, but he also made it clear that he personally did not support the Federal Marriage Amendment.

Cheney stuck with the campaign. But in Bush’s third debate with Democratic nominee John Kerry, her sexuality became a topic on the national stage.

I was pretty sure there would be at least one question about gay issues. But it never occurred to me that the moderator Bob Schieffer might ask if homosexuality was a choice. When he gave his answer, John Kerry was suddenly claiming to know my personal thoughts and beliefs. He said, “We’re all God’s children, Bob, and I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she’s being who she was born as.” I was furious. I turned toward the TV and said, “You son of a bitch.”

On Nov. 3, John Kerry conceded the election. Heather and I hadn’t had a chance to decide whether we would go onstage with the rest of the family for the President’s victory speech. I wanted to celebrate, but not without Heather. She understood how important it was to me, so she smiled and walked out with me, a gesture I greatly appreciated. I have to admit that I had mixed feelings while I was up there waving at the crowd. I was happy and excited that we’d won, but I knew it was the end of Dad’s last campaign, and therefore, the end of my last one too.

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