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I Confronted Dick Cheney About His Racist Joke

Dick Cheney and I both started college with the Yale class of 1963; we both lived in Berkeley College, one of Yale’s residential colleges. I graduated in 1964, after taking a year off. I read that Cheney flunked out twice and finished college at the University of Wyoming. I don’t find a big irony in his flunking out of Yale; a lot of very smart people have done so. I didn’t know him well, probably never talked to him, didn’t notice when he was there and when he wasn’t; the kind of guy you nod to but don’t make conversation with. Probably the same him with me.

I saw him once at a House Interior Subcommittee hearing when he was a Member of Congress from Wyoming. I went up to him after the hearing and introduced myself, and he seemed to remember who I was. Other than the mutual howdy, we didn’t make conversation. I never know what to say to those guys.

My impression of him over the years is as one of those professional #2 guys, ever since he worked for Rumsfeld at OEO, later for Ford at the White House —the guys who like to cultivate a hatchetman image, who would be thrilled if the boss said about them, “He may be an SOB, but he’s my SOB." I think they are influenced a lot by movies and novels. Substance doesn’t seem to matter much to them—or even occur to them—but the appearance of power does.


Former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman (Yale ’64) is another story. I had occasion to interact with Joe when we were in school and from time to time since, mostly with me teasing him mercilessly first about his ambition and then his exalted political status. Basically I respected him until he seemed to give up his independence and start seeking the company and the approval of politicians who I thought were unworthy of him. If he is still pursuing principles, I guess I have trouble discerning what they are.

You could say I borderline knew Dick Cheney, and knew and liked Joe Lieberman.

I read an ICTMN story about a roast for Cheney, held in New York and attended by, among others, Joe Lieberman. Cheney reportedly told a story about a “one-shot antelope hunting contest in Wyoming, in which the loser has to dance with an Indian squaw…” It reportedly also included some other tasteless jokes about waterboarding. If it were a movie about a banquet of arrogant Nazis boasting about their depredations, there would be ominous soundtrack accompaniment, foreboding future disaster. Reading the story and thinking about what it says about the country’s “elite” made me sick, and a bit frightened.

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A few weeks later, my wife and I attended a dinner in Colorado that was also attended by Dick Cheney and his wife. He was standing somewhat apart from the crowd, visiting with various people who approached him. I waited until he was free and approached, introducing myself again; he again seemed to remember me. I told him I had read the story about the roast, and he got an “I know what is coming” look in his eye. I said, “Dick, I don’t know if you remember, but I am an Indian; you don’t know my wife, but she is an Indian. Do you know what an awful word ‘squaw’ has become? Do you really mean to say that our women are so low on the human scale that having to dance with an Indian woman is punishment, a form of humiliation?”

Immediately he said, “Well, you have to understand, that is the system in Lander [Wyoming]. That is the way things are done up there.” I said, “What system? There is a system in Lander that requires you to talk like that?” “You need to understand the system,” he kept saying. “What is the power in Lander that made you tell that story in New York? What the hell are you talking about?” He proceeded to make his escape, apparently having given up any hope that I was capable of understanding the system in Lander. I had the satisfaction of saying a bad word as he walked away, a bad word invariably, including this time, followed by the word you. But it wasn’t satisfaction enough. The guy who laid waste to Iraq in order to change its system cowers before the racist imperatives of Lander, Wyoming?

I wrote to a good friend of mine, a white man of great principle from Wyoming, who has done very good things on behalf of the country and of Indian people in his career – and he happens to know Dick Cheney. I asked him about the “Lander system,” and he told me there is an annual Governor’s One-Shot Hunt in Lander, featuring one shot at some critter and a lot of drinking and carousing by people who for the most part should have more dignity than that. I know a number of people in and from Wyoming, and for the most part they represent the same spectrum of belief and ability that one finds in other American communities. My guess is that in Lander, as in other parts of the country, it is possible to seek out and find pockets of racism, but nasty, dehumanizing racism is no longer a requirement for white people to be socially acceptable. I think Dick Cheney does a disservice to his state and to that little town.


Dick, if there is such a system in Lander, you can change it by saying, “We shouldn’t dehumanize people, even among ourselves.” What are you risking?

And as for Joe Lieberman: What does it take for you to walk out of a banquet, Joe? At what point do you find it necessary to disassociate yourself from bad language and attitude? Are you afraid of people rolling their eyes and talking about political correctness? The real political correctness we should condemn is when people are deterred from standing up for principle for fear of calling attention to themselves or making people uncomfortable—people who should be uncomfortable. Does this kind of situation take you back to high school, threaten your position as one of the “cool kids"? (You’re just not one of the “cool kids”, Joe).

These men are pond scum, and I’m ashamed to have gone to school with them. More to the point, their parents are pond scum, for not having raised them with some sense of humanity. They are men who dare to invade countries and wreak havoc, but blame the rednecks of Lander, Wyoming, and hide behind the fat cats of New York to disguise their lack of moral courage.

Philip S. Deloria is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and is an Indian policy analyst.