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.
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.
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?”
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— 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).
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