Cheney moved back west to be what he later called a "lineman for the county," building power lines on construction crews in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. Eventually he returned to college, at the University of Wyoming; married Lynne Vincent; and went off with her to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where he became a doctoral candidate in political science and she became a doctoral candidate in English. He was eligible for the draft during the Vietnam War but obtained deferments, first as a student and then as a parent, after his and Lynne's first daughter, Elizabeth, was born, in 1966. (More than two decades later, when he was questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee about those draft deferments, Cheney offered a memorable reply: "I had other priorities in the sixties than military service." He said he would have been happy to serve if he had been called, and that he felt the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a noble cause.)
Cheney went to Washington in 1968, on a fellowship from the American Political Science Association that enabled him to work for a member of Congress. One of the congressmen with whom he interviewed for a job was Rumsfeld—but the future Vice President failed to impress the future Defense Secretary. The applicant was neither particularly eloquent nor dynamic. "It was one of the more unpleasant experiences of my life," Cheney recalled in a 1986 speech. "The truth is, I flunked the interview. After half an hour it was clear to both of us that there was no possibility that I could work for him."
Cheney landed in the office of William Steiger, of Wisconsin. He was working there in the spring of 1969 when he noticed a note on Steiger's desk from Rumsfeld, looking for advice and help in his new OEO job. Cheney spotted an opportunity. Over a weekend he wrote an unsolicited memo for Steiger on how to staff and run a federal agency. The following week Steiger passed the memo on to Rumsfeld. A few weeks after reading it Rumsfeld called Cheney and offered him a position as his special assistant.
It was the beginning of Cheney's long apprenticeship with Rumsfeld. Over most of the next seven years in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, Cheney served as Rumsfeld's doorkeeper and top administrator in Washington. He proved to be quiet, discreet, and efficient. Those working for Rumsfeld soon discovered that the way to get things done was to go to Cheney. Rumsfeld's style was to run day-to-day operations by remote control, issuing edicts and obtaining information through his special assistant. As that assistant, Cheney gradually took on an importance of his own. "When you gave something to Dick," one OEO veteran recalls, "it happened. It got done."
They were a complementary pair, each offering traits the other didn't have. Rumsfeld was full of energy; Cheney was low-key. Rumsfeld overflowed with words and ideas; Cheney, the laconic westerner, never used a word beyond what the situation required. Rumsfeld always seemed to want more: more turf, expanded missions, a bigger job. Cheney appeared to the world as unfailingly modest and patient. Rumsfeld challenged people head on, and in the process made many others nervous or resentful. The self-effacing Cheney, in contrast, usually managed to leave adversaries thinking that whatever had happened to them was merely the business of government and nothing personal. Rumsfeld loved to shake up the established order; Cheney conveyed an air of reassurance and stability.
Yet despite their contrasting styles, the two men tended to think alike. They would work together, on and off, over more than three decades without any strong differences of opinion emerging between them.
Cheney was merely one of several future leaders working at the OEO in those years, at a time when the eradication of poverty was given much higher priority than it would be later on. Rumsfeld also recruited Frank Carlucci, his friend and wrestling teammate from Princeton, to serve as one of his top aides. Thus, curiously enough, during the Nixon Administration three of America's future Secretaries of Defense—Rumsfeld, Carlucci, and Cheney—were working alongside one another in an agency dedicated to social change. The OEO's employees in the late 1960s and early 1970s also included Bill Bradley, the future senator and presidential candidate; Christine Todd Whitman, the future governor of New Jersey and EPA administrator; Mickey Kantor, the future U.S. trade representative; Jim Leach, the future congressman; and Terry Lenzner, the future investigator and staff member for the Senate Watergate Committee. John D. Rockefeller IV was one of the earliest recruits of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the OEO program that served as a domestic version of the Peace Corps; VISTA assigned Rockefeller to West Virginia, where he later settled down and was elected first governor and then U.S. senator.
Many of these people had been attracted by the idealism of the agency's mission. When Lyndon Johnson established the OEO, in 1964, he told Congress, "For the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty." In addition to vista the agency had in its early years started up the Job Corps, for disadvantaged youth; legal services for the poor; and Head Start, the education program for preschool children.
In the OEO's first three years, under the Democrats, as its personnel began to organize and speak up for the poor, the agency aroused intense opposition from governors, local officials, and the business community. The strongest opposition arose when lawyers for the anti-poverty program in California helped to represent migrant farm workers in disputes against agricultural interests, and Governor Ronald Reagan in response tried to cut off OEO funding for the legal-aid program.
During the 1968 campaign Nixon had promised to bring the OEO to heel. According to Leonard Garment, Nixon's White House counselor and former law partner, Nixon's main objective for the agency was "getting control of all the meshugenehs who were driving governors and other people crazy."
Thus Rumsfeld was stepping into a potentially poisonous situation—taking over an agency that had been created by the Democrats and was filled with enthusiastic young employees but was despised by the President for whom he worked. He quickly moved to curb some of the OEO's excesses.
Nevertheless, within a few months Rumsfeld became a staunch and surprisingly tough advocate for the anti-poverty agency. This was his first job in the executive branch, and from the very start he demonstrated a particular talent for defending his bureaucratic turf. To get what his organization needed he quietly pushed the White House and the budget officers, and he also learned to go outside the Administration, to Congress and the press, to counter resistance from within the Administration. He was trying to do his best for the agency, hoping to make it succeed.
In a speech to the National Press Club seven months after taking charge of the OEO, Rumsfeld even defended the concept of federally funded legal services, saying that "justice for the poor" was part of his agency's mission. By this point he was beginning to be seen as a rare moderate, even progressive, voice within the Administration, and was becoming a target of the conservatives. At the press conference that followed this speech, the very first questioner asked Rumsfeld about reports that he was viewed "with open hostility" in the Nixon White House.
The following year Rumsfeld sponsored a notable initiative that would eventually become a cherished cause of American conservatives: tuition tax credits. It was the first salvo in an education controversy that has persisted for decades. Rumsfeld argued that with tax credits or vouchers, "poor parents would be able to exercise some opportunity to choose, similar to that now enjoyed by wealthier parents, who can move to a 'better' public school district or send their children to private schools."
In a memo to Nixon about the tax-credit idea, Rumsfeld said he thought he could convince Jewish groups that their fears about a violation of the separation of Church and State were "groundless." However, Rumsfeld went on, "the education lobby ... is clearly correct in perceiving the potential threat that these experiments pose to their comfortable world." That memo encapsulated Rumsfeld's brash style, his overconfidence in his persuasive powers, and his eagerness to upset the existing order.
By late 1970 Rumsfeld had decided that it was time to move on. He had managed to keep the OEO from being gutted by the Nixon Administration, but his conservative friends were telling him that he had already stayed in the OEO job too long and that it was becoming a political liability. He also had hopes for a bigger job in the Administration.
Soon after the 1970 congressional elections, in which the Republicans did poorly, Nixon and his team began talking about an Administration shake-up. Rumsfeld figured prominently in the maneuvering. Haldeman wrote in his diary for November 7, 1970, "Decided major personnel changes. [George] Romney out [as secretary of Housing and Urban Development], Rumsfeld to replace him." But Romney refused to leave, and although Nixon and his aides talked about firing him, the President couldn't bring himself to do so. Rumsfeld was moved instead to the White House full-time, as a senior adviser, leaving him on hold for a future Cabinet-level position and postponing the question of exactly what he would do while he waited.
Throughout 1971-1972, while Rumsfeld was serving on the White House staff, he had a series of intermittent private talks with the President about his own future and about American politics, American foreign policy, and the state of the world. Those long, meandering conversations, preserved in Nixon's tape recordings, provide a remarkable insight into the two men.
Rumsfeld continued to speak up for moderate-to-liberal causes that ran against the generally conservative drift of the Administration. His work at the OEO had given him a constituency and, for a time, a sense of purpose. "We need to be able to communicate with the young and the black and the people who are out, even though we don't get their vote," he told Nixon in one private conversation in March of 1971.
Nixon decided that Rumsfeld's liberalism could be put to good use, winning support in places where the Administration was weak. "I think Rumsfeld doing, frankly, two [kinds of] people, suburbia and young, sounds awfully good," he told Haldeman. "Forget the environment, farting around with the old folks, the Negroes, and everything. Right now there has to be organized—I want to get something done on college youth."