By Todd Wilkinson
“One of the key problems today is that politics is such a disgrace, good people don’t go into government.”
—President Donald Trump
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney has a home in the Jackson Hole hamlet of Wilson, a delightful community where I once lived and which is known for its eclectic mix of smart, talented, engaged and opinionated people. She isn’t the only federal elected official to claim Greater Yellowstone as her permanent residence.
In Montana, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte have homes in Bozeman. Among the retired ranks of federal legislators, there’s former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson in Cody, former Vice President and U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney in Jackson Hole and former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus in Bozeman, plus a wider array of noted politicians who own vacation places in the region.
But back, now, to Ms. Cheney. When one is an elected public official, a traditional part of the unspoken job description is listening to constituents—not walling oneself off in an echo chamber of praise and affirmation; rather, hearing the concerns of citizens you represent and that includes looking them in the eye.
Whether Congressman Cheney was a Democrat or Republican doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.
American-style retail politics is the art of elected officials mixing it up with real people who go to the polls, and for those holding higher office, defending one’s positions by having them subjected to scrutiny from citizens and the media. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
A Jedi master in the art of rhetorical pugilism, Al Simpson has his own inventive language for dealing with the media, particularly when we pose irritating questions. But Simpson has never shied away from confrontation. In fact, he’ll tell you over and over again that politics ain’t bean bag. If you’re willing to run for—and hold—an elected office, he says, then you owe it to citizens to field their tough questions that may make you uncomfortable or possibly even reconsider your point of view.
In recent years, Republicans in the red state West have resorted to a new method of interacting with citizens. Town hall forums, held infrequently, are often conducted remotely via digital call-in on lap tops, cell phones and iPads. They are based on the premise that a politician in a rural state can reach more people, yet critics say they’ve become instruments for deflection, evading inquiries and they allow politicians to not have to deal with a discerning, non-meek media.
Issuing press releases do not suffice. In earlier days of journalism, no reporter worth her or his salt would accept a written statement—that easily could have been crafted by a PR person—and call that adequate.
In Congressman Cheney’s case, asking her to explain why she claims the evidence of human-caused climate change is based upon “junk science” is a reasonable question. Specifically, what does she know that most of the most distinguished scientific professionals associated with the National Academies of Sciences allegedly do not?
For that matter, this inquiry could be posed to all members of the Congressional Delegations in the three states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. What special proof do they possess that effectively refutes the National Academy’s increasingly resolute position is worth knowing since those legislators are making important policy decisions based upon their rejection of science.
It’s simply not enough for an elected official to, hypothetically, state that if they disagree with science because its conclusions undercut their thinking that they can, therefore, declare them invalid. How convenient, too, to attack media and use it as a ruse to duck the answering of such questions.
In the old days before the advent of cell phones when I was a young journalist in Jackson Hole, evasion was not a tactic employed by Congressman Cheney’s father, Dick Cheney, who held the same seat she currently occupies.
On several occasions, Mr. Cheney’s press secretary Pete Williams, (today a legal expert who covers the Supreme Court for the national network NBC) would invite the media to meet with Cheney and it happened with every member of Wyoming’s Congressional Delegation who passed through town.
I interviewed Mr. Cheney, former U.S. senators Simpson and the late Malcolm Wallop that way; similar kinds of engagement happened with governors Mike Sullivan, Jim Geringer and Dave Freudenthal. And, in Montana, they occurred with Senator Baucus, the late Senator Conrad Burns and Congressmen Pat Williams (Democrat), Ron Marlenee, Denny Rehberg and Rick Hill as well as governors Schweitzer and Bullock (Democrats) and Republicans Marc Racicot and Judy Martz (both Republicans).
All of the above were not afraid to hold regular press conferences, converse with reporters one on one and, most importantly, appear live before their constituents, even before crowds that might not treat their appearance as a political pep rally.
What changed? Besides listening to political advisors telling them to evade press scrutiny (and, relatedly, by not getting relentlessly called out on it by the media), Ms. Cheney’s attitude appears to be that her pronouncements are beyond scrutiny.
It isn’t just U.S. Rep. Cheney refusing to hold a real no-holds barred local press conference in Jackson Hole where she says she holds permanent residence and whose youthful staffers treat media questions with aversion or hide behind written statements.
Up north, in Montana, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte (both Republicans who worked together at a tech company in Bozeman and became multi-millionaires when the company sold) have adopted the same strategy of evasion.
Yes, if you remember, Congressman Gianforte attracted national attention—and he even received plaudits from the current President of the United States—for body slamming a journalist from The Guardian who asked him questions he didn’t like about health care.
Daines and Gianforte have touted their close friendships with the President and he considers them among his most loyal political defenders.
One question I would pose to them, as men who identify as staunch Christians, is imagine if a Democrat were to behave as President Trump has, insulting rivals (including fellow members of his own party and respected military generals) with childish name-calling, declaring Americans he doesn’t like to be enemies, making thousands of claims that do not pass fact-checking muster, conducting foreign policy the impetuous way he has, evading release of his taxes, dismissing the gravity of Russian interference in our elections and exhibiting unprecedented unstatesmanlike conduct using this thumbs, not his brain, on Twitter.
Does a politically–driven loathing of Hillary Clinton justify the condoning of the President’s crass behavior? If so, then what does it mean for the future of our country and democracy? This is an important question and their answers would reveal much about their character? What message does such action send to young people?
Lots of people talk about the ill-effects of tribal divisiveness in our society, the need for more civility in our daily lives and comity expressed between politicians in state capitals and on Capitol Hill. At the University of Wyoming, the Haub School of Natural Resources and the Ruckelshaus Institute have held a series of events focused on the problem of incivility and the need for more respectful behavior.
The essence of community, however, is not only about being supportive of neighbors and citizens in times of need, it is seeing people different from us as more than a party affiliation, religious denomination, occupation, gender, race, or background. Just as democracy must be fiercely guarded against undemocratic actions, so too civility from degrading acts of incivility that presently are condoned to play out unchallenged.
We are past the point where the latter can be remedied by politely requesting that elected officials please refrain from demonization, be it their political opponents, the media or even members of other religions. Part of the blame stems from retired politicians who apparently do not have the courage to call out their own publicly even as they complain about it under the breath.
The community we want, need, and deserve must be built upon insisting that elected officials be held to account for their words and actions.
There are a lot of questions that I, along with my media colleagues in Jackson Hole and Bozeman, would like to pose to U.S. Reps. Cheney and Gianforte and U.S. Sens. Daines, Barrasso and Enzi.
Not only are the first three especially dodgy when it comes to evading media, but they won’t even answer requests for interviews nor stand before constituents who disagree with them.
What good is a politician who can’t stand the heat? How can there be community, based on the principles of representative democracy if the very human exponents of it are not devoted to total transparency? What does it say about the soundness of their convictions if they cannot defend their own statements which, in turn, raise many important questions that demand answers their constituents deserve to know?
Another question: what good is any media outlet that doesn’t hold elected officials to account?
Certainly, if Barack Obama had the guts to be grilled by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, then one would think the fiery Liz Cheney, Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte possess the chops to tangle with a few bumpkin reporters in the boondocks of the West. Or maybe all they can handle is bean bag?
About The Author
The New West, Todd Wilkinson
Todd Wilkinson has been an award-winning journalist for more than three decades and is best known for his coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He also is author of several critically-acclaimed books. His column, The New West, was not long ago named best column for small-town newspapers in America. He is founder of the non-profit, online journalism site, Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) devoted to probing the intersection between people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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