At first glance, the choice of Bob Woodward to speak to the Wyoming Business Alliance annual fall gathering last month seemed pretty edgy. The Business Alliance is a latter day version of The Cheyenne Club, a mostly older, mostly male gang of mostly Republicans beknighted by fossil fuel wealth rather than the cattle empires of the original social club. Woodward, by contrast, is a legendary investigative journalist whose Watergate stories helped oust Richard Nixon, a great friend of old Republican money.
But Woodward was never a left-wing radical. He went to Yale a few years ahead of George W. Bush, and served in the Navy while many contemporaries were protesting the Vietnam War in the streets of Chicago in 1968. When we talked recently in Cheyenne, he took a fairly benign view of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, insisting their justification for invading Iraq in 2003 – to quash an enemy with weapons of mass destruction – was understandable, if erroneous. And even there, he wiggled a bit: “A New York Times reporter has found now that there were some weapons of mass destruction – not the big kind of nukes and so forth, things that people were worried about, but it’s always been hazy.”
Still, he seemed an odd fit for the annual WBA “Wyoming Forum.” Mostly, these gatherings are about making money and holding back government regulation and building business-friendly infrastructure and – did I already say this? – making money. There are interesting panels on health care and tourism and local government – still mostly about the economy and making money – but the meat of the meetings is mineralized: developing rare earth elements, value-adding to our raw resources with a “heartland” industrial complex, arguing against fossil fuel’s role in climate change.
I love every Little America minute of it. Give me a press pass, and I’ll be there in a black ice flash.
These are the people who hold most of Wyoming’s assets, tell our politicians what to do, and dream up the next Eldorado. It’s a plush club, sure, but the air is spiced with restless wealth and speculation and entrepreneurial adventure. WBA President Bill Schilling brings in some unexpectedly interesting voices, including Woodward and, also this year, Russian chess-master and Putin-baiter Gary Kasparov.
Still, while the Alliance will venture far out on the periodic table to look at the potential bonanza in rare earth minerals, it’s not going to bring in anyone who is too far out there on the climate change spectrum. The money in the room comes mostly from coal and oil and natural gas. Wealth naturally defends the status quo that generated it in the first place, and these players, when the team gets together, enjoy a little cheerleading – which they got at this meeting from a bombastic Fox News meteorologist, Joe Bastardi.
Bastardi congratulated them on being “freedom-loving, carbon-emitting capitalists” and then emitted a lot of gas himself, defying most of the world’s scientists to blame climate change on oceans’ faulty thermostats. He was followed by Karen Harbert, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute of the 21st Century, who was less in denial and more in the meeting’s wheelhouse when she pointed out all the money to be made in the current shale-driven “energy renaissance.” She offered solid statistics on the world’s hunger for fossil fuel comforts, suggesting that whatever the environmental consequences, “I don’t think people are prepared to give that up.”
Finally came Bob Inglis, who quieted things down significantly by talking about how a right-wing Republican and climate change-denier from a “reddest of red” district in South Carolina (himself) read the science on glacial ice cores and dying coral reefs and industries subsidized to dump carbon into the air, and realized something had to be done. His conservative approach to fixing things involves a simple revision of the Rube Goldberg tax system based on the theories of Arthur Laffer (of the Reagan-era Laffer Curve): “You don’t tax income, which you want more of; you tax emissions, which you want less of.”
Inglis, by the way, was soundly thumped in his last South Carolina primary, getting 30 percent of the vote to his Tea Party opponent’s 70 percent. He didn’t draw many votes in Cheyenne either – there were empty chairs at his table, if anyone had a craving for another bite of his carbon tax proposal.
Inglis is far from radical on climate change, but he’s probably as radical as you can get with the Alliance crowd. It’s the same old same old. Mostly the same men, every year. And mostly old.
Even the young people there seemed old. One of them brushed past me on his way out during Inglis’ talk, stage-muttering, “I can’t listen to this.”
Of course you can. Unless you’re firmly roped to the old ways of making and holding onto wealth in Wyoming.
The WBA is offering incentives to draw a fresh new crowd of technology entrepreneurs to these meetings, and Schilling argues that I just wasn’t seeing the many new faces. (This may be true – my eyes and memory are dimming with age, so I tend to recognize the white-haired lobbyists who have aged with me during my years covering the legislature … and here we all still are, growing old together!)
In any case, there aren’t enough of the youngsters here, for a program that’s well worth attending. And I’ll bet if they were, they wouldn’t be walking out on the likes of Inglis. They would be listening, and scheming: about new, conservative, and perhaps greener, ways to generate wealth.
Which brings us back to Bob Woodward. Speaking at an Alliance lunch, he told how he and others, including the late leftie Sen. Ted Kennedy, had condemned Gerald Ford for pardoning Richard Nixon, the president who Woodward brought down with Deep Throat’s revelations. A quarter century later, though, the Kennedy family gave Ford an honorary “profile in courage” for saving the country, with that pardon, from the nightmare of impeachment.
“It took Kennedy 25 years to realize he was wrong to attack Ford,” said Woodward. “(The pardon) was good for the country – a profile in courage.” Journalists and others, too, he added, have to reexamine their convictions and realize: “You may have it absolutely wrong.”
Just keep in mind that when you do the research, and admit you were wrong, you pay a price. Bob Inglis sat alone, at least in Cheyenne.
NOTE: Read the Wyoming Business Alliance / Wyoming Heritage Foundation response to this column below, or download PDF of the letter. — Ed.
— Geoff O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming. He works for The Content Lab, LLC. [email protected]. His column, Wolf Point, is named for a remote vantage in Wyoming’s Red Canyon.
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