The Magazine

The Passion of Dick Cheney

Fishing the Snake River with the vice president.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By MATT LABASH
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I fish because I love to .  .  . because, in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion; because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility and endless patience .  .  . because only in the woods can one find solitude without loneliness; because bourbon out of an old tin cup tastes better out there; because maybe someday I will catch a mermaid; and, finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant--and not nearly so much fun.

--Robert Traver, Anatomy of a Fisherman (1964)

Jackson, Wyoming

At the risk of being publicly ridiculed, quarantined, or stoned, I'll just say it straightaway: I really like Dick Cheney. Don't get me wrong, I feel sick about it.

Not because I've ever held anything against the guy personally. In fact, many of the parts of Cheney's public persona that repel others, I rather enjoy. I've always liked his ruthless non-sentimentality in an age of lip-biters and tear-squirters. I like that you're never apt to hear him invoke "the children" as a reason for peddling some unrelated initiative. ("I'm not a baby kisser," he once said on the campaign trail.) I like that he doesn't seem to care about being liked, which is lucky for him, since his approval rating hovers at 18 percent. But let's just say I haven't cared for many of his signature projects as vice president. It is not for nothing that the wags suggest that Cheney keeps George W. Bush one heartbeat away from the presidency.

But Cheney is also known as a fisherman, and I am a fishing slut with little or no moral center.

Last September, I attended a book party on the roof of the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., which Cheney was to attend. I showed up early and, seeing there were two open bars, availed myself of both. By the time Cheney arrived, I had a bellyful of truth serum.

I made a beeline for him, squared up, looked him in the eye, and said, "I understand you're an avid fly-fisherman."

"Yes," he replied.

"So am I," I responded.

From there, we were off. We might've talked five minutes or we might've talked five hours. It's hard to recall now. Fishing-related happenings tend to occur outside of time. Herbert Hoover, a noted fly-fisherman, was fond of quoting an Assyrian proverb that went, "The gods do not subtract from the allotted span of men's lives the hours spent fishing." I believe the same is true of talking about fishing.

Cheney, a surprisingly attentive listener, asked as much as he answered. He was fascinated by an experiment I'd been conducting for some time: catching catfish on a fly. This isn't typically done, since catfish most often reject artificials. Many fly-fishermen recoil at such an ambition, since telling trout purists you're chasing lowly catfish with a fly rod is tantamount to telling Heidi Klum that what you're really attracted to is bearded women with no teeth. But Cheney evidenced genuine curiosity. Perhaps he sensed a kindred spirit. Remaking the Middle East as a Western democracy vs. chasing catfish on a fly--each of us is addicted to some pet implausibility.

He asked where I fish, and, when I gave generalities, he pressed for specifics. So much so that I was worried I might show up the next day to find the vice president taking largemouth in my favorite spot. So I lied slightly about the locales. You can't be too careful about such things.

As we talked, my wife sidled up to me, elbowing my ribs for an introduction. I told Cheney this was my fishing widow. He said hello to her and that he had one, too. We immediately resumed the fish-talk and ignored her. I was in good standing and hoping for an invite to fish his home river, the majestic Snake in Wyoming--an invitation I was convinced was forthcoming, but which never materialized after Cheney was interrupted and pulled away.

After our conversation, second thoughts started nagging. Maybe Cheney was misunderstood. Maybe he wasn't BeelzeDick or Darth Vader, as his critics would have it. How could someone who spends so much time seeking out beautiful creatures in beautiful places not have the sensitivity of a naturalist and the soul of a poet? (As I said, there were two open bars.)