I have voted for Dick Cheney four times. The first was in 1978 in Laramie, Wyo., where I was born. It was my first opportunity to vote, and, coincidentally, it was Cheney's first election.
He had risen from the Western plains as a young man to become President Ford's chief of staff. I was reminded of that fact by my father before walking to the grade school I had attended as a boy to cast that first vote.
I remember feeling the substance of the man, and I took pride in it, as people do for those few in the sparsely populated West who rise to political prominence -- the likes of Arizona's Morris Udall, Idaho's Frank Church, Montana's Mike Mansfield or Wyoming's Alan K. Simpson, the senator I also voted for in his first national race in 1978.
Their names never leave the land they represented, and their support rarely flags, as my father's support for Cheney remains strong to this day. "You stick to your guns," my father says about our man in Washington.
Today, with Cheney's former prominence now widely seen as villainous, my Wyoming votes have become a curiosity I pass on to friends as a joke. But to my father, a contemporary of Cheney's and a fourth-generation Wyomingite, those votes are no joke. "It should have been seven times," he tells me. "Five here and the last two as vice president." And in some ways my little joke cuts me close to the bone, too, but for different reasons.
My dad is a lot like Dick Cheney. Maybe I'm a lot like Dick Cheney. Maybe a lot of us are a lot like Dick Cheney, both in and out of Wyoming. But we haven't yet acknowledged how or understood the implications. I wonder what principles I might bend or manipulate for an end I care about. Stem cell research? Wilderness protection? Civil rights?
Before I graduated from the University of Wyoming, my political views shifted toward a concern for the natural environment, shaped largely by the damage that had been done to public lands near Laramie. Then, after several years of traveling and working around the world, I gained a new empathy for the world's poor and moved from Wyoming in search of a life's work outside the oil, gas or coal industries.
As I look now from Oregon with a sense of personal shame at Wyoming's native son, I cannot help but recognize a thread of his personal style in me. That common thread is sewn from time spent in the landscape of Wyoming, where practicality and persistence prevail over debate and delay. The legend of the rugged individualist is strong in Wyoming, a mythology of self-reliance, even though the state is economically dependent on the exportation of its natural resources.
People don't lightly shake such an attitude. It remains in me, but with a different set of concerns and values. The beautiful austerity of Wyoming produces a personal resolve and creativity in people that looks like entrepreneurship, which is, for Cheney, a popular word for the manifestation of his destructive government actions. You get it done in Wyoming because you have to. And Vice President Dick Cheney gets it done. An old friend from a ranch near Gillette used to say, "You don't call a plumber in Wyoming; you are the plumber."
Had Cheney's central thesis for the necessity of invading Iraq proved true, would that vindicate his obfuscation and manipulation of the democratic process -- of which we are only now learning and may never fully know? Or should an energy policy choreographed with still-undisclosed people to support extractive industries be acceptable if it proves economically viable in the short term? Of course not.
Had another vice president wielded backroom arm-twisting and rationalized deceit for causes I care for, would I judge him differently? I hope not.
I hope not because Dick Cheney has taught me that we all need a renewed vigilance for the democratic process. He has awakened something complacent in me that had assumed that a democracy, our democracy, will right itself, that it will work on its own. That's not the legacy Cheney may have anticipated for himself, but it's an important legacy nevertheless.
And for that, I have come to concede that Dick Cheney is possibly the most influential politician of our time. For all the wrong reasons.
His political rise and fall seem inevitable -- from his Western roots to Vietnam draft deferments to his diligence as a bright young public policy soldier to his election as a Wyoming congressman to his precision as defense secretary to an unusually experienced and calculating maverick of a vice president who knows how to maneuver outside of the margins to pursue his vision. A fall was bound to have happened somehow.
Perhaps we can learn from the actions and mistakes of our man in Washington how to build a more secure democracy and a better path for national and global engagement. Maybe we can learn humility and personal restraint when we rise from places that produce proud and stubborn people.
I believe we will because we must. But I am resigned that our learning will take the rest of my lifetime.