By Geoffrey O’Gara
We sat outdoors in Washington, D.C., at Johnny’s Half Shell one evening last week with the monsoon rains cooling off the summer-baked Capitol just south of us. Our three-person crew was in the nation’s capital on a shoot for a Wyoming PBS documentary about Vice President Dick Cheney, and we were joined by a D.C. journalist I’ve known for over 30 years. I left Washington in 1979 (I must have been about 5 years old, eh?), but my colleague at Capitol Hill News Service, Mike Isikoff, stayed on, and eventually broke some big stories for the Washington Post, Newsweek, and NBC.
Isikoff is not a favorite of the former Vice-President, in part because he wrote a best-selling book “Hubris”, that was not kind to the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney administration. We interview him, nevertheless, because you have to hear all sides when you’re telling a complex and controversial story. Dick Cheney may not like this, but he seems to understand it – he has not tried to control whom we talk to, and he has agreed to exercise no editorial control. In fact, he has helped us gain access to some significant figures who have previously shied away from public comment.
One of those camera-shy history-makers is Paul Wolfowitz, who has played major roles in military and foreign policy since the days of President Richard Nixon, and who was at the Defense Department shaping policy both under Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (1989-93) and Vice-President Dick Cheney (2001-2008). Wolfowitz is often credited with supplying a “vision” of how U.S. intervention in the Middle East could transform the region into a more democratic realm less threatening to American interests.
Wolfowitz downplayed the “vision” thing in our interview, and kept the focus on Dick Cheney, telling how his appetite for information led to freewheeling Saturday morning “seminars” during his tenure at Defense. Like Cheney, Wolfowitz has a comprehensive memory, dredging up forgotten events like the evacuation of the Beirut embassy in 1989, and providing new details of the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11.
Later on the same day we interviewed Isikoff, and got a wholly different perspective on the White House and Pentagon after 9/11: he described a secretive administration eager to go after Saddam Hussein and relying on questionable evidence of Al Queda-Iraq connections and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
As different as those interviews were, they both offered something often missing from reports today – a lifetime of experience and perspective. Wolfowitz can recall the debates among young policymakers almost half a century ago that shaped the ideas of the neo-conservatives who would eventually ascend to power (though “neo-cons” is not a term he likes); Isikoff, in turn, has been watching the wheels of government turn for a quarter century, and knows the human fallibility of governance at the highest level, whether it’s Monica Lewinsky (a story he broke) or the Iraqi defector “Curveball.”
Isikoff remembers my long-ago wedding, too, but that’s another story, and I confess I don’t remember him there, or half the people who attended. You can be pretty sure Wolfowitz wasn’t among them…but I don’t have the memory Dick Cheney does for events decades ago, and, anyway, who remembers his own wedding?