Cheney Roast

I kind of feel bad for Vice President Dick Cheney. First of all, the two things he is best known for are shooting an old man in the face and telling a senator “go f*** yourself” during an exchange on the senate floor. That’s Cheney’s legacy: almost killing a senior citizen, and hurling the F-bomb at a congressman.

The sad part is, most of us actually agree that more old people need to be put to death, and that more senators need to be verbally abused. If Clinton had done either of these things, people would be saying, “Good for him! I’m glad he’s sticking up for himself!” But since it’s Cheney, everyone jumps all over his case.

Another reason I feel bad for Cheney is that some people are talking about trying to impeach him and his supervisor, George W. Bush. That has got to be annoying, to have the people you work for wanting you fired. Not that there’s much chance of it happening, of course. The pro-impeachment people don’t really have a case, considering Cheney has never lied under oath about his sex life.

But the main reason I think it must suck to be Cheney right now is that he’s speaking at Brigham Young University’s graduation ceremony this Thursday, and many students and professors are protesting his appearance. Now, BYU (motto: “Keep Those Ankles Covered, Ladies!”) is in the heart of Utah, the most Republican-voting state in the country. Bush took 67 percent of the vote there in 2000, and 71 percent in 2004 — higher percentages than in any other state. Utah is overwhelmingly Mormon, and Mormons are overwhelmingly conservative and Republican. The Republican Party could put up a jar of angry bees as its presidential candidate and Utahns would still vote for it. If the Lord Himself came down from heaven and ran as a Democrat, He would not win in Utah. “What’s with all this ‘love thy neighbor’ business?” Utahns would say. “How are we going to win the War on Terror with that attitude?!”

So Cheney undoubtedly thought BYU would be a safe, receptive place for him to speak … and then, whoops, people are protesting. Man alive, when Dick Cheney gets the cold shoulder in PROVO, UTAH, that’s a sure sign of trouble. That’s like Gandalf getting booed in Hobbiton.

The protesters are in the minority, mind you. BYU is still quite conservative and quite Republican. The campus paper still publishes at least one letter per semester from a male student urging the females to dress more modestly so as not to tempt him. (I’m not making that up, either: “Be modest,” April 9.) But I was surprised, and I suspect Cheney was surprised, that the minority has been so vocal and adamant about not wanting him to speak at BYU. The reasons the dissenters give are as follows:

– Cheney is a politician, and graduation should not be a political affair.

– Cheney said the F-word once, and is therefore not a moral person.

– Cheney is evil, and therefore violates BYU’s anti-evil policies.

The LDS Church, which owns and operates BYU, has said that inviting Cheney should not be construed as an endorsement of his political views. “The invitation is seen by the university’s board of trustees as one extended to someone holding the high office of vice president of the United States rather than to a partisan political figure,” says a statement on the church’s Web site. In other words: Dude, it’s the VICE PRESIDENT! Who wouldn’t want someone that powerful and famous to speak at their graduation? So what if he supports torture and illegal wiretapping, and so what if he has the general demeanor of Burgess Meredith as the Penguin? He’s the VICE PRESIDENT!! Getting him is a coup!

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Vice President Dick Cheney.

You might wonder, with a minority of BYU students against Cheney’s appearance, how the majority are responding to their protests. As always, no matter how complex or multi-faceted an issue may be, you can count on BYU students to boil it down to a matter of “we’re right and you’re wrong.” The letters that have appeared this month in BYU’s campus paper, The Daily Universe, have been full of statements like this:

“I understand people may oppose Dick Cheney politically; they have spoken and have made their point. Isn’t it time to unite with the rest of the university and focus on the reason for commencement? Commencement is about the students. It was never a political statement until you made it one.” (“Why alternative?,” April 13.)

“What a great honor for such a position to come to the university. His address to graduates is not about politics. It’s about graduation and having an impact on the world. Surely this graduation is one instance in which we can look past bipartisan politics.” (“Misplaced concerns,” April 3)

“To me, the only thing that seems to be against ‘LDS beliefs’ is organizing angry protests to silence anyone with a different viewpoint than your own.” (“VP visit an honor,” March 26)

Keeping this in mind, let us imagine an alternate scenario. Let’s imagine BYU invited former president Bill Clinton to speak at graduation. I feel confident in saying that this would result in the greatest number of apoplectic, foaming-at-the-mouth, sputtering tirades that the world has ever seen. BYU students would be out of their minds with righteous indignation. Their heads would explode. The number of people boycotting the graduation ceremonies would be in the thousands, not the hundreds that Cheney has prompted. People wouldn’t talk about how the time for protest has passed, and now we need to be united, or how we need to look past “bipartisan politics.” They wouldn’t say that organizing angry protests is against LDS beliefs. They would stage protests every single day. And since it’s BYU, each protest would start 5 minutes late and with a prayer.

Just look at what happened in 2004, up the road at Utah Valley State College, when Michael Moore was invited to speak. Now, Moore isn’t an elected official, and it wasn’t a graduation — UVSC doesn’t have “graduations,” per se; it simply presents its students with a Chili’s gift certificate and a balloon — but I think the situation is similar enough to warrant examination. Moore’s invitation to speak at UVSC set off a firestorm of controversy. To use a clinical term, the locals freaked right the hell out. They protested; they marched; they withdrew their financial contributions to UVSC; they expressed shock and outrage that the college would stab them in the back by inviting such a non-conservative person to speak. The streets were filled with people screaming and sobbing, rending their clothes in anguish, praying for cleansing fire to fall from the sky and prevent the wicked man from entering their precincts. I doubt even Adolf Hitler would have created such a stir. “Well, let’s give him a chance,” Utahns would have said, had the Fuhrer been invited to speak. “He was duly elected by his country, and we ought to respect the office, if not the man himself.”

That philosophy has been expressed a lot lately at BYU: You may not agree with Cheney’s politics, but he does hold a high office, and that office deserves respect. That is what people say when they agree with a person’s politics and want people who disagree to shut up. When someone they don’t like holds a high office, they stop saying it.

I’ve been wondering what I would do if I were still a student at BYU. What if I were graduating this year, instead of back in 1999? Well, first of all, there would be a lot of questions, like why I needed an additional eight years just to get a bachelor’s degree, and why I had failed Biology 100 a total of eight times. (Answer: Because it’s boring, and I never went to class.) But what would I do about Cheney? I don’t like him much as a vice president, and he hasn’t given me much reason to like him as a person — not exactly the warm, grandfatherly type, ol’ Dick — but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get involved in the protests. Why? Too much work. I’m not interested in activism. I mean, the word “active” is right there in the name. Even if it’s something I have a strong opinion about, it’s too much hassle to do anything more than write about it, and even that usually requires a lot of pizza. Whenever people get pushy and say, “Be glad that others have fought so that you could have the freedoms you have!,” I always think: I AM glad! Better them than me! YIKES! Do you know how few freedoms we would have now if I’d been in charge of fighting for them? All we’d have is the right to not fight for stuff.

The fact is, no matter how many protests were held, BYU was never going to change its mind about Cheney’s appearance at graduation. The school wouldn’t change its mind in the hypothetical Bill Clinton scenario, either, even if 90 percent of the students were upset about it. BYU, like most large institutions, doesn’t change its mind very often about anything, and certainly not just because its constituents want it to (which I guess is something BYU and Dick Cheney have in common). Does that mean that, in the words of one student, “When all is said and done, [BYU College Democrats] fail to make any real difference”? (“Common Sense 101 Exam,” April 6) Maybe so, but since when does being in the minority mean you should just shut up and go along with what everyone else is doing? I seem to recall that BYU students are very big on Making Your Voice Heard, and Speaking Up for What You Believe In, and Taking a Stand Against the Things You Feel Are Wrong, regardless of whether your views are popular or not.

And how does Cheney feel about the whole thing? I’m sure he’s gotten used to the low approval ratings he and Bush have had for the last couple years, so I doubt he’s losing any sleep over dissenters in Utah. Who knows, maybe on graduation day he’ll tell the protesters what they should go do to themselves.

The title, "Cheney Roast," only works (as a play on "weenie roast") if you pronounce the veep's name "Chee-ney" rather than "Chay-ney." And in fact, "Chee-ney" is what the man himself prefers, according to a Chicago Sun-Times article from 2000.

BYU actually did invite Bill Clinton to speak, back in the summer of 1992, when he was a presidential candidate, though not for graduation. Then-president George H.W. Bush was invited, too, and he accepted, which Clinton did not.

A slight change was made in the opening paragraph 12 hours or so after the column was first posted. I originally said (and the podcast version says) that Cheney's retort to the senator was during "a debate." My friend Mike the Liberal Lawyer pointed out that it wasn't a "debate" in the sense of occurring during a hearing or some other on-the-record congressional business, but was rather an exchange between the two men that occurred on the senate floor. So I corrected the sentence to reflect that.

(Mike also wondered if "congressman" was the right way to refer to a senator, and while he's right that the word usually refers to a member of the House of Representatives, it does technically refer to U.S. Senators, too, since they're all part of the U.S. Congress.)

The speech occurred without incident (the protesters elsewhere in Provo didn't cause any major trouble), and it was a pleasant ceremony. I wrote a blog entry about it afterward.