When people recall their first encounters with Dick Cheney, what they remember probably depends at what time in his life it occurred: whether he was a high school student in Casper, flunking out of Yale, serving as Wyoming’s congressman, running the Pentagon, making millions as an energy baron or reigning as the most powerful vice president in U.S. history.
Me, I’m probably the only American who thinks of candy bars.
I know that association requires some explanation. Here it is:
As a young reporter at the Wyoming State Tribune in Cheyenne in 1978, I was assigned to interview Cheney. He was between jobs at the time. He had just finished his stint as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, and he was running for Congress in his adopted home state of Wyoming.
Yes, not many people realize that Wyoming’s favorite Republican son, who rose to the highest-ranking office anyone from the Cowboy State has ever achieved, was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. I’ll bet you also didn’t know that Cheney is a distant cousin of both Barack Obama and Harry Truman. But I digress.
The newspaper didn’t have a conference room, so I led Cheney to the breakroom, where a small table was flanked on two sides by vending machines that dispensed soft drinks, cigarettes and snacks. If you’ve hung around newsrooms as long as I have, you know that starving journalists trying to make deadline don’t have time for lunch or dinner so they often subsist on Cheetos and Snickers.
Cheney was running against Bill Bagley, a Democratic lawyer from Cheyenne and an affable but laid-back man. Bagley made it clear from the outset that he planned to attack Cheney as a “carpetbagger” who only came back to Wyoming in order to return to the halls of power he knew in Washington, D.C.
The carpetbagger accusation rang true, but voters didn’t seem to care. Cheney attended Natrona County High School and later the University of Wyoming. In between was his aforementioned failure at Yale. Armed with his master’s degree in political science from UW, he made his way to Wisconsin where he interned on the staff of a GOP congressman.
Thanks to his friend, future Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney joined Richard Nixon’s administration where he rose through the ranks until the president’s resignation. He followed Rumsfeld to Gerald Ford’s White House and replaced his friend as chief of staff in 1975.
Wyoming had an open U.S. House seat when Democratic Rep. Teno Roncalio retired in 1978, and Cheney had no problem winning the state’s three-way Republican primary. The fact that Bill Bagley is called “Bill Bailey” on Cheney’s Wikipedia page tells you all you need to know about the general election, which Cheney won, 59-41 percent.
During my break room interview Cheney scoffed at Bagley’s criticism and explained why he would best represent Wyoming in the Beltway: He knew it inside-out. I don’t remember a lot of the details, and I was too inexperienced then to know to get everything on tape.
Which is too bad, because it would have been a splendid addition to my papers and memorabilia — a collection that UW’s American Heritage Center has somehow yet to ask for.
What I do remember is a parade of people traipsing in and out of the room to hit the snack machine. I know it didn’t have anything to do with them wanting to meet Cheney, an unknown entity in Cheyenne back then. I attribute the interrupting change dropping and candy dispensing to one thing: hunger.
But Cheney didn’t seem bothered by the noise at all. He actually seemed pleased to be interviewed despite the less-than-ideal surroundings. I left the session with two impressions. One, he was one of the most intelligent people I had ever met. Two, he was also the most self-assured, cocky and arrogant person I had ever met. And if you had told me that I had just interviewed a future vice president of the United States, I would have laughed in your face.
A veteran Wyoming politician by way of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., holding the second-highest political office in the nation? Yeah, right.
It’s a good thing I interviewed Cheney many times before he became vice president because he spent his eight years as the most powerful VP in history refusing to talk to anyone from my next employer, the Casper Star Tribune. I think he only granted one interview to a Wyoming news outlet during that whole time, a Casper TV station that agreed to give him all the questions in advance.
I’ve taken this trip down memory lane because a new movie about Cheney called “Vice” will be released at Christmas. The first trailer for the film came out last week, and no matter what else happens on the holiday I will buy a ticket. It will be my holiday gift to myself, a guilty pleasure I think I’ve earned.
It will be a rare treat to watch a biopic of someone I’ve both covered as a journalist and intently followed during his long career. And if the trailer is any indication, versatile actor Christian Bale (“Batman Beyond,” “American Psycho”) does an extraordinary, uncanny job capturing Cheney both as a young man and the senior statesman he is today.
Bale looks and sounds so much like Cheney, it’s eerie. But he’s not alone, as Sam Rockwell is a clone of George W. Bush, Steve Carell does a freaky but impressive imitation of Donald Rumsfeld and Amy Adams is spot-on as Lynne Cheney.
I think it will be a smash hit. Much of Cheney’s life is unknown to Americans, from his time in Wyoming to his rise to political power. If the film is even a fraction as funny, engaging and mischievous as the trailer, “Vice” will make a lot of money.
My only misgiving about the film is that probably won’t include my fascinating first interview with Cheney. Then again, I guess you had to be there to realize the historic implications of that meeting.
By the way, Cheney is not the only big celebrity/personality to be interviewed in that old break room in the long-vacated Tribune-Eagle building. I wasn’t the fortunate reporter assigned to the story, but it’s where famed stripper Chesty Morgan also stopped by to answer questions. I think she was promoting a new memoir.
Yes, candy bars were also consumed that fateful day. There was a steady stream of inquisitive male gawkers who wandered into the break room, and I was among them. The experience gave me the answer to that never-asked question, “What do Dick Cheney and Chesty Morgan have in common?”
Now, thanks to reading this column, you know too. You’re welcome.