In the Octagon: Dick Cheney vs. Bob Dylan, American Smackdown
Comparing a politician to a poet would be dicey under any conditions. Except for an obscure coincidence in their lives, it would never have occured to me to stand most-powerful-vice-president-in-history Dick Cheney next to world-class-poet-and-mystic Bob Dylan to see how the two stack up in terms of their lifetime achievements as well as their overall contributions to country and humanity.
The obscure coincidence: Both men were born in 1941.
I mentioned that fact in an earlier post, using the Cheney-Dylan deal as a throwaway example of how issues of aging and generational politics are far more complex these days than what you see portrayed in typical media coverage of politics. People such as Cheney tend to be treated as “patriots” and “traditional Americans” — who simply by virtue of their age, physical appearance and life experience automatically are assumed to have some sort of direct-dial access to what the Founding Fathers always intended our country to be. People like Dylan really serve only to muddy up that simplistic storyline — at least as far as the television cameras are concerned. We’d rather just think of them as forever young, even as they grow old. So how could such people possibly fit into any conversation about the greatness of our nation as envisioned at its founding so long ago by Men Wearing Knickerbockers?
Sure, it may just be a quick illustration of the extremes in sensibility that can be present within just a single generation. But I thought it would be fun to go ahead and push the dichotomy forward. So let’s compare Cheney and Dylan in the 13 key categories that professional historians and everyone else universally agree are important in order to determine which man really is the greater American. As our source material, we’ll use the unassailably reliable Wikipedia biographies of each man supplemented by random snatches from my own memory of the lots of stuff I’ve read over the years about both. (You want real research? Buy a newspaper.) And then we’ll throw the answer right back at the cameras and dare them to film it instead of another town-hall meeting on health-care reform.
Seniority: Cheney has been a living, breathing, sentient human being four months longer than Dylan. THE EDGE: Cheney
Humble beginnings: Cheney was born in Nebraska, raised by working-class parents in Wyoming, flunked out at Yale before getting busted for a DWI at age 21 and applied for and received five draft deferrments to avoid military service during the 1960s. Dylan was raised in Hibbing, Minnesota by parents who were both children of Jewish immigrants and he dropped out of the University of Minnesota after his freshman year to move to New York, play the guitar and shag groupies. THE EDGE: Tossup
Overall Life Trajectory: Dylan had already achieved worldwide fame and immortality as a folk singer and songwriter by the early 1960s — when he was still in his 20s. He subsequently went through several career transformations — from electric, to born-again, to all sorts of other weirdness, including traveling with the Wilburys and doing voice over for lingerie commercials as well as time more recently as a radio DJ. But enthusiasm for his work has never really diminished. Movies and documentaries are still being made about his life and work. Cheney toiled in relative obscurity as a draft-dodging, snot-nosed intern and low-level Washington bureaucrat until his mid-30s, when around 1975 he succeeded Donald Rumsfeld as President Gerald R. Ford’s White House Chief of Staff. [That same year, Dylan released his critically acclaimed Blood on the Tracks album and could have retired right then, done nothing else for the rest of his life and still been more revered than any of his contemporaries]. Starting in 1979, Cheney served five terms as a Wyoming congressman before becoming Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush after the Senate rejected womanizing drunk John Tower for the job. After spending the Clinton years out of power, he returned to the scene in 2000 when he led George W. Bush’s vice-presidential search team to the conclusion that he, Dick Cheney, was the best man for the job. He then went on to be arguably the most powerful man in America — at least during Bush’s first term. He was running the government and calling most of the shots on the fateful, tragic day of Sept. 11, 2001 and he and his aides shaped the framework for the immediate U.S. response in the so-called “War On Terror” that followed. Today Cheney is seen as the cantankerous, vocal standard-bearer for out-of-power Republicans who can’t stand where the country is going. He might even hate America now. Who knows? THE FINAL ANALYSIS: While Dylan has been famous far longer and has made a contribution likely to be far more enduring, Cheney did succeed fabulously in achieving what he spent a lifetime training for — becoming a world-famous, angry, old man with lots of secrets to protect. THE EDGE: Tossup
Vision: Dylan is a modern mystic with an unyielding poetic vision and the musical gifts to express it. At around age 24, he wrote the song “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, which contained the following lines: While preachers preach of evil fates/Teachers teach that knowledge waits/Can lead to hundred-dollar plates/Goodness hides behind its gates/But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked. Cheney has been an incredibly gifted bureaucrat, competent manager and Washington political infighter who never really developed the vision to be a national leader in his own right. During Gulf War I, there was probably no one better qualified than Cheney to be Secretary of Defense. I personally remember being thrilled to have him calling the shots at the Pentagon back then. Yet at the pinnacle of his career, which came with the 9/11 attacks, Cheney had a failure of vision. On an entirely human level, this failure makes him almost a tragic figure. His reaction was to be afraid and to lead GW Bush and the rest of us down the path of fear. For the sake of vast simplicity, let’s just say there were 10 paths the country could have gone down after that day. Nine of those paths were wrong, so maybe we should cut Cheney and Bush some slack for being only human when they picked one of the nine bad ones. After all, there was only one right path, and we still aren’t sure which one it was. But a great leader would have stepped back from the immediate fear, imagined the world we wanted to be in 10 years hence, recognized the right path to get there and chosen it at the beginning. We elect our national leaders because they are supposed to have more than competence and knowledge and power — we expect them to have vision to lead the country. Think about how Roosevelt positioned the United States to face the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, or how Churchill led his nation during the relentless, sustained air attacks (not just four in one day) of the Battle of Britain. THE EDGE: Dylan.
Dealing with criticism: Both Dylan and Cheney have been undaunted in the face of withering criticism. Dylan was castigated by the old-line folkies when he plugged in an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and he has been castigated at every turn in his career ever since. But he hasn’t cared. He hasn’t really answered many questions about it and hasn’t been defensive. He’s just gone on doing what he wants to do, for decades. Cheney, too, has been unapologetic in the face of criticism both during and after the Bush Administration about things like war, torture and domestic spying. But he has been a bit too showy as he plows through all this adversity — seeking out speaking engagements in front of friendly audiences and TV appearances to mount his defense over and over again while attacking his successors in office. Dare I say he’s been a bit too defensive? A bit of a martyr? Maybe even a big baby? THE EDGE: Dylan
Overall excellence within their chosen field: Let’s go to the history books for some perspective here. If this were 19th Century America and we were looking for examples of great poets and great political leaders who were rough contemporaries, we’d have to look no further than Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln. History’s verdict is that both easily make the cut as great Americans. Dylan, I think, will be spoken about in the same exalted terms as Whitman in terms of artistry and cultural impact after he’s long gone. But Cheney and Lincoln? In the same conversation? THE EDGE: Dylan.
Accidents, having them: — Dylan crashed a Triumph street bike in 1969, supposedly breaking several vertebrae, nearly killing himself and taking himself out of the public eye for nearly eight years. He explained the accident by saying he’d been up for days without sleep, and that he had taken his bike out for an early morning ride and was topping a hill facing into the sunrise when, “I went blind for a second and I kind of panicked or something. I stomped down on the brake and the rear wheel locked up on me and I went flyin’.” Here’s my theory: Dylan was a sissy who didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle. I’ve seen pictures of him on his Triumph, and he looks like he has no idea what he’s doing. His feet aren’t even on the footpegs, and his grip on the handlebars makes it seem as if he’s holding a high-voltage power line. In short, he looks like the president of the chess club who has been forced by the guys on the wrestling team to try to ride a motorcycle. No wonder he crashed. Now onto Cheney’s accident: He shotgunned his buddy in the face while out pounding beers and bird hunting in the middle of a big Texas ranch. Then he went back and had a big roast beef dinner. Now THAT’s manly. THE EDGE: Cheney.
Accidents, dealing with them: As can be seen from the quote above, Dylan almost literally was able to turn his accident into song lyrics (See: “I went flyin'”). And the rebellious nature of being out on a motorcycle coupled with his disappearance from public view only heightened the overall mystique of his legend. Cheney, on the other hand, shotgunned his buddy in the face while out pounding beers and bird hunting in the middle of a big Texas ranch. Then he went back and had a big roast beef dinner. Now THAT’s dumb. THE EDGE: Dylan.
Hard power: This one is simple. It’s just a matter of adding up albums sold and gate receipts and comparing those figures to wars started, nations subjugated, weapons systems funded and lives committed to battle. Look up the numbers yourself. THE EDGE: Cheney.
Soft power: When Dylan dies, the world will mourn the passing of a great poet and cultural icon who will probably then be elevated to “prophet” status. Great intellectuals will be called to hold forth on “what Dylan meant.” It will make what we just went through with the recent death of Michael Jackson look like a global cotton-candy binge. People such as Cheney — no matter how much hard power they amassed during their lifetimes — are ultimately only functionaries on history’s stage. When such people die, the world usually just burps and asks what’s for dessert. THE EDGE: Dylan.
Who’d win a physical fight: We’re talking about a couple of 68-year-old dudes suiting up in wrestling tights here, so this isn’t going to be pretty no matter how it turns out. But it would all pretty much come down to how much Dylan’s medical history of cigarette smoking, substance abuse, weight fluctuation and those broken vertebrae will handicap him even against a Heart-Attack-A-Year man like Cheney. I don’t have height and current weight stats for either man. But I think I’ll go with Cheney in this category, if for no other reason than he must have learned a lot of cool secret death grips from the CIA and Blackwater over the course of his Washington career. THE EDGE: Cheney.
Best dinner companion: I’d rather be seen having dinner with Dylan. But, in reality, I’d be way too scared to actually have dinner with either Cheney or Dylan, for entirely different reasons. So I’m saying neither. THE EDGE: Tossup.
Greater apparent ‘patriot’ (whatever that means): In the photos I posted up top, Cheney is bald, has an angry look on his face and is wearing an American-flag lapel pin. Dylan has unusual facial hair, an enigmatic look on his face and is wearing a cowboy hat and some sort of sissyfied shirt. THE EDGE: Cheney.
PRELIMINARY TALLY: Dylan–5; Cheney–5; Tossup–3.
TIEBREAKER 1: Love for America. Bob Dylan has railed about America’s hypocrisy in the past and seems non-commital at best about our country’s place in the world today. But as mentioned above, I think right now Cheney may actually hate what America really is. So I’ll say they’re still tied.
TIEBREAKER 2: Whose face would I rather have on my T-Shirt as I drove across America? Or as I traveled around the world? Bob Dylan, no contest.
FINAL SCORE: Bob Dylan is a greater American.