WASHINGTON—Busy dealing with important paperwork and other vice presidential duties in recent weeks, Dick Cheney was forced to put off until the last minute a cherished annual tradition: gift-shopping for his favorite holiday, 9/11.
"I looked at the calendar yesterday, and I couldn't believe my eyes—9/11 is almost here!" a rosy-cheeked Cheney said upon returning to the White House Sunday with two giant bags overflowing with gift-wrapped boxes and big red bows. "It's the most wonderful time of the year."
While Cheney is known by many to be cold and taciturn for the other 11 months of the year, those close to the vice president say there is something about the 9/11 season that puts a smile on his face and a spring in his step. Each Sept. 11 morning since 2001, Cheney has come to work donning a fireman costume and handed out small, thoughtful gifts to all White House staffers. In addition, at his home on 9/11 Eve, Cheney lays out large piles of presents for his children and grandchildren underneath the colorfully lit, six-foot-tall 9/11 towers that he sets up by the fireplace.
"I think I've outdone myself this year—I bought the president a box of cigars and a brand-new fountain pen, I got Condoleezza [Rice] a beautiful blue blazer, and for my wife [Lynne] I bought a diamond necklace, a new winter coat, and this neat little motorized airplane ornament to hang on the 9/11 towers," Cheney told reporters while perusing the windows of New York's famed Park Avenue shops. "And for [grandson] Samuel I bought about a million toys and games and 9/11 nutcrackers. I probably went a little bit overboard, but it's his first 9/11, and I want it to be as special as my first 9/11."
The vice president then reiterated how fortunate he was to have received his big 9/11 bonus early this year.
Although Cheney himself has never received any Sept. 11 gifts, with the exception of a pair of silk pajamas from his wife and a second term in office, he insisted that he gets more joy from giving than receiving. According to Cheney, Sept. 11 is a time to reflect and give thanks for all the benefits and blessings 9/11 has given him in the past.
Cheney, however, lamented the fact that he has seen a recent decline in the nation's 9/11 spirit.
"I don't know what's happened," Cheney said. "Less than seven years ago, 9/11 seemed like a huge event for every American. Back then, on Sept. 11 morning, everyone would dart downstairs at 8:46 a.m. sharp, shouting and screaming, and the ground outside would be blanketed in the most beautiful gray as far as the eye could see. I especially loved the streets of New York during this season—the lights, the sounds, people rushing every which way, the sidewalks so crowded you could barely move, the wide-eyed looks on the people's faces. The whole New York skyline was lit up like a Christmas tree."
Cheney then sighed happily, adding, "I wish every day were 9/11."
While he's disappointed that so many seem to have forgotten the lessons of his beloved holiday, the vice president said he simply could not stay sad with 9/11 just around the corner. Lynne Cheney told reporters she expects her husband will once again go overboard in his celebrations this year, buying a larger 9/11 front-yard display and making himself sick eating too many broken Pentagon cookies.
"He really gets into it," she said as her husband cheerfully decorated the Blue Room of the White House with pieces of smoldering cinder and charred flesh to recreate the setting of Ground Zero. "I try to tell him that it's just a silly holiday, that he's making a fool out of himself when he goes around shouting 'Happy Sept. 11!' to people while ringing a large bell, but he never listens. He just loves 9/11."
But amid all the decorating and gift-giving, Vice President Cheney is careful not to let all the 9/11 festivities distract him from the deeper significance the day holds.
"Sometimes, in all the hustle and bustle of the season, it's easy to forget the true meaning of Sept. 11," Cheney said. "Sept. 11 is not about fancy 9/11 parades, or big 9/11 office parties. In fact, it's not even just about two buildings crumbling to the ground and leaving thousands of innocent people dead."
"No," Cheney continued. "No, 9/11 is about the warm feeling you get when you help an elderly woman cross the street and then whisper to her that the terrorists can strike at any moment. 9/11 is about the satisfaction of telling people to do things and then them doing it—not because they want to, but because they are afraid to do otherwise. 9/11 is about removing Saddam Hussein from power. But most of all, 9/11 is about love."
Cheney said he plans to spend a quiet Sept. 11 at home this year, during which he will exchange gifts with loved ones and watch his taped VHS footage of the old 9/11 TV specials while he smiles and laughs.
"I have a feeling this is going to be the best Sept. 11 ever," Cheney said with a grin. "I just dread the day I have to tell my kids that 9/11 isn't real."