James Mann's well researched Rise of the Vulcans traces the careers of the key figures in George W. Bush's war cabinet. He has this to say about how Dick Cheney rose to preeminence....
From Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), pp. 58-61:
The month after Ford was sworn in [i.e. Sept. 1974], he brought Rumsfeld back from NATO as the White House chief of staff, replacing Alexander Haig. Rumsfeld quickly installed Cheney as his deputy, the same aide-de-camp role that Cheney had played under Rumsfeld in the Nixon administration. The two men held these positions for more than a year, until Fort appointed Rumsfeld his secretary of defense and named Cheney to be Rumsfeld's successor as White House chief of staff. Throughout the entire Ford administration the Rumsfeld-Cheney duo worked closely together, establishing mastery over the internal workings of government. There was never any doubt that Rumsfeld was the senior figure. Cheney was only thirty-three years old when he joined the Ford administration, and as one colleague put it at the time, "Cheney's adult life had been devoted to the study of political science and the service of Donald Rumsfeld." [Note 5: Robert T. Hartmann, Palace Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980), p. 283.]
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According to Robert Ellsworth, who served in Congress alongside Rumsfeld in the 1960s and then worked with him in the Nixon and Ford administrations, there is an old bit of folk wisdom that has been quietly passed around among Republicans for decades: The saying is short and simple: "Donald Rumsfeld does not lose." [Note 6: Interview with Robert Ellsworth, December 13, 2001.]
That is, to be sure, a slight overstatement. Over his long career Rumsfeld has occasionally lost out on a few things, big and small -- not least his desire to become president of the United States. Yet Ellsworth's slogan is largely true as a description of Rumsfeld's record when it comes to bureaucratic skirmishes; rarely has anyone bested Rumsfeld in a power struggle or a test of wills inside the government. Ellsworth's slogan was regularly borne out in the Ford administration, when Rumsfeld overcame one rival after another inside the Ford White House and within the foreign policy apparatus.
First, during late 1974 and early 1975 Rumsfeld and Cheney established their dominance over the White House staff and domestic policy, pushing to the side the president's staff aides from his days as House minority leader and vice president. Next, in 1975 they began to undercut the power of Kissinger and of Kissinger's ally and friend Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Finally, in late 1975 and 1976 Rumsfeld posed a frontal challenge to Kissinger's policies of dÈtente and arms control with the Soviet Union. Each time the consequences were larger, the battles more intense. In these intra-administration battles, Rumsfeld never lost, and Cheney was regularly at his side.
The early struggles were for primacy within the Ford entourage. Rumsfeld's principal rival was Robert Hartmann, Ford's former congressional aide and vice presidential chief of staff, who had come up with the memorable words the new president had uttered on the day of Nixon's resignation: "Our long national nightmare is over." [Note 7: "Gerald Ford's Remarks on Taking the Oath of Office as President," Gerald R. Ford Library.] Ford had appointed Hartmann to be White House counselor. In that role, Hartmann repeatedly urged Ford to put his own stamp on the presidency and to install his own team of loyal assistants; he viewed Rumsfeld as a Nixon holdover and as a front for the perpetuation of the Nixon administration. Hartmann moved into the only office in the West Wing directly connected to the Oval Office, enabling him to wander in and talk to the president whenever he wanted. Rumsfeld dealt with Hartmann through a housekeeping maneuver: He argued successfully that Hartmann's office should be turned into a private presidential study. Hartmann moved out, lost his proximity to Ford and was gradually marginalized. [Note 8: Ron Nessen, It Sure Looks Different from the Inside (Chicago: Playboy Paperbacks, 1978), p. 150.]
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During the Ford years the Secret Service gave Richard Cheney perhaps the most apt code name it had ever devised, Backseat. [Note 9: Michael Medved, The Shadow Presidents (New York: Times Books, 1979), p. 36.] That was a perfect description of Cheney's role as an anonymous White House functionary.
Cheney's ascent in the Ford White House served as an illustration of how an individual can rise to the top by virtue of his willingness to take care of the mundane chores that persons with larger egos avoid, thereby establishing reliability and learning all the inner workings of an organization. Cheney was akin to the clerk who becomes chief executive, the copy editor who rises to become editor in chief, the accountant who takes over the film studio.
The archives of the period show how Cheney, as deputy chief of staff, started out in the Ford administration by supervising such lowly matters as plumbing and toilets:
Memorandum for: Dick Cheney
From: Jerry Jones
Oct. 12, 1974
We will be unable in the short term to fix the drainage problem in the sink in the first floor bathroom. The White House plumbing is very old, and we have had GSA [the General Services Administration] working for some time to figure out how to improve this problem. Hopefully, [sic] it will be done soon. . . . [Note 10: Files of Jerry H. Jones, 1974-77, box 10, Richard Cheney, Gerald R. Ford Library.]
It was Cheney who oversaw the sending out of White House Christmas cards and gifts. When Betty Ford was uncomfortable on a White House helicopter, it fell to Cheney to try to get a headrest installed at her seat. Cheney even took care of the White House table settings.
Memorandum for: Jerry Jones
From: Dick Cheney
Feb. 19, 1975
It seems that there are salt shakers in the Residence which are used for the Congressional meals (little dishes of salt with funny little spoons). Is there some reason that regular salt shakers are not used for small breakfasts and small stag dinners? [Note 11: Ibid.]
Others soon discovered, as Rumsfeld already knew, that when you gave something to Cheney, it got done -- not flashily but competently. He was the perfect staff man. He worked longer hours than almost anyone else. "The individual who'll join the staff and who'll want to work nine-to-five and maybe see a little cocktail party circuit isn't there when you need him," Cheney told one interviewer. [Note 12: Cheney interview with Stephen Wayne, Hyde and Wayne collection, Gerald R. Ford Library.]
It wasn't long before Cheney was taking over larger, more important assignments, standing in as Rumsfeld's alter ego when the chief of staff was occupied elsewhere. One natural area for Cheney was intelligence: He was trustworthy, faceless and unfailingly discreet. During the Ford years the CIA was trying to fend off an unending series of press and congressional investigations and, with them, efforts by the Justice Department to establish new rules and guidelines to govern intelligence collection. In May 1975 the New York Times published a story by Seymour Hersh describing the U.S. intelligence community's secret effort to lift a sunken Soviet submarine off the seabed in the Pacific Ocean. Cheney was in charge of the meetings aimed at trying to figure out if the Ford administration should take legal action against the newspaper. Cheney's handwritten notes show that he actively considered a number of countermeasures, such as seeking an indictment of Hersh and the Times or even obtaining a warrant to search Hersh's apartment. The aim, Cheney wrote, was "to discourage the NYT and other publications from similar action." In the end Cheney and the White House decided to back off after the intelligence community decided its work had not been significantly damaged. [Note 13: Handwritten notes from Richard Cheney, May 29, 1975, in Richard Cheney Files, box 6, folder "Intelligence -- New York Times Articles by Seymour Hersh (1)," Gerald R. Ford Library.]