The Passion of Dick Cheney
Fishing the Snake River with the vice president.
Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By MATT LABASH
A year after the book party, with time running out on the Bush administration, I took another crack at Cheney and proposed to his people that I go fishing with him on his preferred home water near his Wyoming residence, which turns out to be the South Fork of the Snake River. Though Cheney grants few interviews, his people were uncharacteristically agreeable. Perhaps it's because after eight years, they were just weary of saying "no." Perhaps it's because of the heartfelt piscatorial nature of the request.
While fishing doesn't occupy Cheney's every waking moment--according to his estimates, he only spends about 10-12 days a year on the water because of his job--it still takes up plenty of space in his consciousness. This I learn from visiting the library at his official residence at the Naval Observatory.
The shelves of his library contain the art books, histories, literature, and presidential and vice presidential material (including the complete works of Dan Quayle) that one would expect. But many of these are shelved high and out-of-reach. Most accessible, on the shelves above the television, is a fly-fishing library within a library, books on every subject from entomology to minor tactics of the chalk stream to practical dry-fly fishing.
All the greats are represented: Lee Wulff, Izaak Walton, G.E.M. Skues, Lefty Kreh, Roderick Haig-Brown, and the not-so-greats as well. There are lush, leather and gilt-edged collectibles with gorgeous frontispieces of men in tweeds casting bamboo rods on placid streams, and dog-eared paperbacks intended not for decoration, but to acquire hardcore fishing knowledge.
When I pull down an old volume of Ernest Schwiebert's classic Trout, I find discarded Hershey's mini-candy-bar wrappers behind where the books sit, perhaps from surreptitious snacking during a less health-conscious time in the now-trim Cheney's life (friends say he's lost around 25 pounds in the last year). In all, there are 37 fishing books on the shelves, and 43 more in stacks. This doesn't include whatever books he has in Wyoming or at his weekend place on Maryland's Eastern Shore. You can say many things about Dick Cheney that have no chance of leaving a mark. But say he fishes thoughtlessly, and one might wound him irreparably.
I learn from current and former aides just how obsessed the man whose Secret Service handle is "Angler" actually is. One directs me to a passage in Bob Woodward's Commanders, which tells how when Cheney was being confirmed for secretary of defense, he told his vetters in the first Bush administration that they should be aware of some "youthful indiscretions." He wasn't just referring to two drunk-driving arrests from over 25 years prior, but also the time he'd been fined for fishing out of season. Not a catch-and-release man back then (he tells me he hasn't killed a fish on purpose in roughly 15 years), "The $25 fine was not the worst part," he said. "They took my f--ing fish."
Another aide tells me that early on, those in the administration wishing to cut through the clutter of Cheney's daily barrage of mail would take to sticking flies in the envelopes knowing his staff would make sure he received them. I am told how he fishes in rain and snow, and how once his mind is set on fishing, he will not be deterred, even by bloodletting.
Former aide Brian McCormack, now special assistant to the president for strategic initiatives and external affairs, says several years ago Cheney took him fishing on a drift boat on the Snake River. Relatively new to the sport at the time, McCormack, trying to adjust his cast on a windy day, ended up hooking the vice president. "The hook did not set," says McCormack. "But it smacked him on the back of the neck. I don't know how exactly one describes a vice presidential yelp. He let out a 'yooooowwww.' The trees came alive with Secret Service. He leaned forward with a grimace, like he got stung by an enormous bee. I'm in the back of the boat saying, 'What the hell did I just do?' He turned around, and looked at me. I said, 'Sir, I am reeeaallly sorry.' He said, 'Don't worry. I've gotten it in the ear before.' And he just went on fishing."
According to those who fish with him, Cheney is also quite competitive on the river. When I ask his daughter Liz about this, she downplays it, speaking of his grandfatherly attributes: his teaching members of the family to fish so they can enjoy "the magnificent beauty of the places you get to do it," showing the grandchildren how to cast, rig their lines and remove their hooks. "I can't imagine a better, more patient guide or teacher."