This still shot of former Vice President Dick Cheney in a Mustang was taken during a Wyoming PBS/The Content Lab video shoot this past summer outside Casper, Wyoming. (photo by Kyle Nicholoff/Wyoming PBS — click to enlarge)

Political allies Simpson and Cheney differ greatly in public life

By Geoffrey O’Gara
— November 4, 2014

NOT FOR REPUBLICATION BY OTHER MEDIA OUTLETS WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE CONTENT LAB.
A team of videographers and journalists led by Geoff O’Gara is producing three documentaries on Wyoming subjects, partnering with Wyoming PBS and The Content Lab LLC. Each documentary is, in its own way, a search for the state’s character and heart: a biography of Dick Cheney, the historic Green River Drift cattle drive, and a portrait of the entire state using helicopter aerial cameras. O’Gara is keeping an occasional journal of the ups, downs, and sideways slips of these projects. WyoFile is pleased to post the entries here. Check back for more in the weeks to come. — Ed.

There are obvious parallels between the careers of Al Simpson and Dick Cheney. Both grew up in Wyoming. Both had fairly serious brushes with the law as young men (transgressions such as DUI and firing guns, which perhaps would be considered more serious today than they were then). As lawmakers, both had the intelligence to tackle complex issues, and a relish for doing so. And both of them rose to positions of enormous importance and influence on the national and international stage.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, both Simpson and Cheney had the extraordinary self-confidence to stand among the most powerful people in the world, speak their minds, and take on bruising adversaries. How does that arise in a couple of “goofballs” (one of Simpson’s gentler descriptors for himself) without academic distinction or great wealth, from a backwater like Wyoming?

Sen. Simpson, whose contempt for the media is well documented, has nevertheless been a trusting soul over the years I’ve covered Wyoming politics. A few years ago, he sat for extended interviews – no questions off limits – that resulted in a documentary for Wyoming PBS that was also aired on PBS nationally. Past adversaries like Trent Lott and Nina Totenberg were featured, and Simpson himself took a hard look at his darker moments, including the attacks on Anita Hill and bouts of depression.

Now we’ve embarked on a similar project with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who, similarly, has allowed access without asserting editorial control.

A photo on the wall of former Sen. Alan Simpson’s office captures Simpson and former Vice President Dick Cheney goofing off. (photo by Kyle Nicholoff/Wyoming PBS — click to enlarge)
A photo on the wall of former Sen. Alan Simpson’s office captures Simpson and former Vice President Dick Cheney goofing off. (photo by Kyle Nicholoff/Wyoming PBS — click to enlarge)

 Last week we spent a morning with Simpson as part of that project, talking about his long friendship, and political alliance, with Dick Cheney. Of course, no conversation with Simpson follows a straight and narrow path… tangents ran off into the Wright Brothers, a good rib joint in Las Vegas, and grooming tips for the follicly challenged.

 Simpson’s story-telling and humor is well-known. Cheney’s is less so, except among his friends. But Simpson pointed to a picture on the wall of the two of them at a public appearance, in suits and ties and big smiles, with Cheney holding a pie aloft – “he was going to throw it at this lady who just wouldn’t stop” – before the more polite instincts of wives and handlers prevailed. “With Dick and me and Malcolm, I’ll tell you, it was the Gong Show.”

It was also a time of immense influence for the Wyoming delegation. Simpson and Cheney had risen in a short congressional time span to near the  top of Republican leadership in the Senate and House, respectively. Simpson was working on Three Mile Island and immigration and other gnarly issues; Cheney tackled colleagues’ ethics transgressions and sensitive security secrets on the House Intelligence Committee. Simpson was the most trusted friend of President George H. W. Bush; Cheney became Bush’s much-lauded Secretary of Defense.

This was not the Gong Show – this was serious stuff, and Wyoming had a pair of comets flying high together.

And yet…these men are so different.

You get Simpson warts and all, without caution or censorship. He is always trying to win you, of course, with his humor and his genuine camaraderie – but he hides very little, even from a journalist.

Dick Cheney, on the other hand, is not going to spill his guts, certainly not to a journalist. Scribes shouldn’t take it personally – top government officials such as Paul Wolfowitz describe how even when he was the boss of the Defense Department, at brainstorming sessions Cheney would sit for hours without speaking – “he’d ask intelligent questions, but mostly listening.”

Clearly, Cheney is most comfortable mulling over issues of national security, deliberating on how the world works, not anguishing publicly over private matters. With Simpson, by contrast, more personal reflections infuse even his public life – he can’t hide his anguish over the rift created last year when Cheney’s daughter challenged Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, and Simpson stood by the incumbent, another old ally. (Liz Cheney eventually withdrew from the primary race, citing family reasons.) 

And, typically, Simpson’s brash openness takes you right to the key mystery about his beloved, and tight-lipped, friend: “That remains the eternal question: Who is Dick Cheney?”

For earlier posts please visit The Content Lab.

To learn more about The Content Lab, please visit this website. 

— Geoffrey O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming. He hosted the Capitol Outlook and Wyoming Chronicle programs on Wyoming PBS. His books include What You See in Clear Water (Vintage), and A Long Road Home (Houghton-Mifflin).

Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

NOTE: Beginning November 6, 2014, WyoFile will no longer accept anonymous comments. To be considered for publication, each comment must be accompanied by the writer’s first name, last name, and city of residence. — Ed

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  1. I was recently revisiting Hannah Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann and the banality of evil and it has helped me to understand Dick Cheney, a man who was capable of listening and who is by all accounts smart enough to have achieved the highest of ambitions in the U.S. (though he didn’t complete a Ph.D. while he was nevertheless using the degree to defer military service). Whereas Arendt found Eichmann to be stupid, it seems clear that Cheney was not stupid, and thus his current rhetorical positions must be coming out of another place than a place of stupidity, though his assessments are so far from the mark of accuracy, that I’ve wondered how he can know what he knows and say what he says at the same time. I think Cheney and his ilk, and I would include H. Leighton Steward in this category of smart, ambitious elders who call Wyoming their home for at least part of the year, have matured to the defense of their heritage such that they can no longer “think” the world in which we all live, but rather engage vigorously in an apologetics of the devastating consequences of their political will which will not allow them to think the world beyond the cliches of Fox News truisms. That Dick Cheney will stage news conferences to compete with President Obama, and that he speaks down to the President, and speaks to the larger American Fox News-watching public of the dangers of Obama, suggests to me that Cheney is desperately shoring up his ideological foundation, in order to die seeing a world in which he is master and warrior for the people. I like Arendt’s assessment that evil is the inability to think of the world in which we live, and as someone living in a state where the Governor assures us that we should be skeptical of science “because now is a good time to be skeptical of science”–a circular logic that belies the Governor’s use of the jet, cell phone, doctor’s office, and power windows of his car–I am complicit in the evil to the extent that I am not thinking and writing and organizing to represent accurately the world in which we live.
    Mary Keller
    Cody, WY

  2. I was recently revisiting Hannah Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann and the banality of evil and it has helped me to understand Dick Cheney, a man who was capable of listening and who is by all accounts smart enough to have achieved the highest of ambitions in the U.S. (though he didn’t complete a Ph.D. while he was nevertheless using the degree to defer military service). Whereas Arendt found Eichmann to be stupid, it seems clear that Cheney was not stupid, and thus his current rhetorical positions must be coming out of another place than a place of stupidity, though his assessments are so far from the mark of accuracy, that I’ve wondered how he can know what he knows and say what he says at the same time. I think Cheney and his ilk, and I would include H. Leighton Steward in this category of smart, ambitious elders who call Wyoming their home for at least part of the year, have matured to the defense of their heritage such that they can no longer “think” the world in which we all live, but rather engage vigorously in an apologetics of the devastating consequences of their political will which will not allow them to think the world beyond the cliches of Fox News truisms. That Dick Cheney will stage news conferences to compete with President Obama, and that he speaks down to the President, and speaks to the larger American Fox News-watching public of the dangers of Obama, suggests to me that Cheney is desperately shoring up his ideological foundation, in order to die seeing a world in which he is master and warrior for the people. I like Arendt’s assessment that evil is the inability to think of the world in which we live, and as someone living in a state where the Governor assures us that we should be skeptical of science “because now is a good time to be skeptical of science”–a circular logic that belies the Governor’s use of the jet, cell phone, doctor’s office, and power windows of his car–I am complicit in the evil to the extent that I am not thinking and writing and organizing to represent accurately the world in which we live.
    Mary Keller
    Cody, WY

  3. Besides the good luck of having two great characters like Simpson and Cheney, I hope Wyoming appreciates the talent of Geoff O’Gara, whose integrity and wisdom opens the door to our having these important insights.

  4. I applaud your new comment policy. There is no value in people posting anonymous comments, the veracity and civility of which are both compromised. It’s time people take responsibility for what they say and be willing to stand behind it.

  5. Dick Cheney is a bragger with nothing true to brag about. He has become one of the most hateful humans and a shame to our state.

  6. I was always told you do not learn if your mouth is open. Listening is a great talent. Dick Cheney is a smart man capable of telling his own story.