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Jackson Hole's VIP

Jackson Hole's VIP

Features
By Jackson Hogen
posted: 02/27/2003

Dick Cheney is the first sitting U.S. Vice President to live in a ski town, listing Jackson, Wyo., as his official residence. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser, happens to be a lifelong friend of mine, a relationship cemented back when we were freshman roommates at Yale some 35 years ago. This is how I find myself in Cheney's elegantly appointed home in Jackson, sitting across from the second most powerful man in America, if not the world.

I have been granted this unusual access because of my relationship with Scooter, with the tacit understanding that I will stick to the topic-Cheney's connection with skiing-and wrap up the interview in 15 minutes. Cheney emerges right on cue, having only moments earlier concluded a satellite-linked video conference with President Bush, who is at his ranch at Crawford, Texas, and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who is in Miami for the Notre Dame football game. Cheney is nattily attired in a sports coat and cowboy boots, and his air is as casual as his attire. If he is at all put out by this intrusion on his schedule in his home on New Year's Eve morning, he doesn't show it. On the contrary, when my first question is if he is really a ski bum at heart, he laughs easily, resettles into his seat and replies, "Well, I wish I could I say I was."

His voice is soft, almost gentle, as he recalls his skiing roots-a college student in blue jeans with gear rented at a gas station. His first serious connection with the sport came when he served in the Ford administration and the president regularly vacationed in Vail, Colo. An annual conference at Beaver Creek gave Cheney an excuse to revisit the slopes. When he was U.S. Rep. Cheney, Jackson Hole was conveniently in his district and even as Vice President he has on rare occasion skied here.[NEXT ""]Cheney describes himself now as "a fair-weather skier," but daughters Liz and Mary are more intrepid. Both were raised as skiers in Vail and Jackson, though Mary has converted to snowboarding. She is now at the opposite end of the room from us, readying for a cross-country ski outing. While she is in earshot, the Veep lets slip that Mary "is probably the best skier in the family," to which she triumphantly replies, "Make sure we get that on tape!" It's the only slip-up in the Vice President's domestic policy.

As we conclude our chat, Cheney is kind enough to ask me about my relationship with Scooter. When I mention that our paths have diverged since Yale, he interjects that my ability to make a career in skiing would be the envy of many people. I'm left to wonder if he would include himself in that number.

My lingering impression is of a man who has accepted the burden of public office but does not relish it, that he would be happiest floating the South Fork sans the accompanying armada of security, or spending a bluebird afternoon on the slopes with his grandchildren. The satisfaction he draws from being in Jackson is palpable. This is his home. This is where he wants to be.

Scooter and I didn't know each other that well when we agreed to room together our freshman year at Yale. Sure, I already knew Scooter from Andover, but everyone knew Scooter because, as head of the debating society and de facto spokesperson for the senior class, he addressed weekly assemblies of the student body. The mystery is why he tapped me, an unknown, to pair up with him at Yale.

Our interaction at Andover had been limited to the political arena. We both took an active interest in the civil rights movement, until Scooter, recognizing a strong horse had entered the field, hitched his allegiance to Bobby Kennedy. Scooter's feline facility for landing on his feet in the winning camp would serve him well in future careers.

Our political interests continued to flourish at Yale, albeit in different directions. I was enchanted by the goofy idealism of far-right libertarians, whose hilarious gatherings were, enrtainment-wise, a significant cut above the dowdy Democrats and even stiffer Republicans. Scooter's pragmatic streak blossomed as he immersed himself in the realpolitik of the day.

A year after graduation, Scooter took a temporary leave from Columbia Law School and decided to bunk with me in Summit County, Colo. When I picked him up at his brother's house in Maryland, I managed to close the keys to the car in the trunk and then lock the car while leaving it running, a neat trick. Despite this dismal augury, we drove pell-mell across the country in a '65 Buick LeSabre with loose steering, a cracked windshield and a broken trunk lock secured with string. We arrived in the thick of night to find a house still smoldering where the roof caught fire and every bed taken. We didn't care. Shots of tequila were only 50¢ at the Gold Pan, Scooter was teed up to complete work on his first novel, and winter, snow and skiing were just a few months away.

That winter marked the first time Scooter and I hooked up at a ski resort to play, party and ski. In the ensuing years, we would reconvene in Breckenridge, Kirkwood, Vail, Squaw Valley, Beaver Creek and Aspen. Among other memorable moments, it was while staying with Scooter in Aspen that I had the dream that propelled me into quitting my job at Salomon (the ski maker, not the brokerage firm) and becoming a writer. We met in midwinter powder at Beaver Creek for the World Championships in January of '89 and met there again under the spring sun in April of '99-during the annual SKI Magazine ski test-to work on polishing Scooter's bump technique. [NEXT ""]I must confess that I am at least partly responsible for the signature flaw in Scooter's technique. For 30 years he has sought to extract from me the secret to skiing moguls. Somewhere along that path I tried to convey that the hips should be considered part of the upper body, staying square with the shoulders and perpendicular to the fall line. Scooter's kinesthetic interpretation was to toss a little hip check into the end of the turn that is counterproductive mechanically and disturbing aesthetically. It is one of my life's missions to redress this situation and see Scooter ski a zipper line with all body parts in proper alignment.

Last Christmas week, Scooter and I hooked up for another of our ongoing seminars in how to ski a pock-marked trail, but this time the circumstances were eerily different. Three years earlier Scooter had given up counseling well-heeled scalawags-and the seven-fold salary that went with it-for the largely thankless rigors of public service, advising the Vice President on foreign affairs and arranging his other affairs down to the minute.

It would be hard to conjure a more fitting ski town than Jackson for an American vice president of Cheney's particular political stripe. The mountain here is rugged, intimidating and unflinching, rewarding initiative and audacity. Jackson Hole has what is unassailably the best inbounds expert skiing in America, a perfect place to take Scooter's skiing to the next level. Assuming he can come out to play. There are a few obstacles standing in the path of recreation, namely Iraq, North Korea and lord knows what other perfidious plots of which we, the public, know little or nothing. Scooter is up before 5 a.m. every day to conduct staff meetings and sit in on intelligence briefings.

But Scooter is nothing if not game. By the afternoon of my second day in town, he is able to tear himself free. He has just bought new boots-he had called to consult me on the purchase-and as new boots are wont to do, they are killing him. He is also demoing new skis, which I am amused to see are of the twin-tipped, pipe-and-park variety. These are freeride sticks made for off-axis aerials; the only time Scooter gets air under his skis is when he's carrying them on his shoulder.

If Scooter expects me to show him mercy because of his soul-crushing responsibilities, his toe-crushing boots, his unfamiliar skis or debilitating hours, he is sorely mistaken. We proceed immediately to a steep slope slathered in an uneven melange of new snow and old, scarred with irregular bumps, clogged with occasional trees and blanketed in a milky mist that rendered most of the terrain invisible. Scooter survives, but the struggle is graceless and cruel. We steer toward calmer waters.

Scooter's spirits-and skills-are renewed by retreating to what passes for prepared slopes at Jackson. (When it snows incessantly and the slope traffic is high, the grooming fleet is overmatched.) I set to work trying to rid him of his Carmen Miranda pelvic thrust by having him initiate each turn with a slight lift and roll of his inside foot. Visible progress ensues, but our session concludes before the improvement is imprinted on muscle memory.

On one of our ascents up the Thunder chair I inquire, in as offhand a fashion as I can muster, how Scooter proposes handling the North Korean crisis, which most press reports of the day view as spinning out of control. Scooter replies in level tones that his position, not widely accepted by other members of the inner circle, is that we should adopt a policy of vigorous name-calling. This is Scooter's witty way of saying-in an idiom tailored to his audience-that he isn't going to trade state secrets for ski lessons and he'd prefer to keep his otherwise omnipresent obligations from invading his few precious hours of ski time. [NEXT ""]Over dinner that night he is more forthcoming, noting in a typically crisp summation that North Korea's motivation isn't hard to fathom: "It's what you do when your only export is extortion." He volunteers that the administration's concern is not simply North Korea deploying a nuclear device, but the likelihood that they would sell an atomic weapon to any number of unsavory characters. As to when and how the administration would respond to these threats, Scooter keeps his own counsel.

Sunday dawns, but Scooter can't answer the opening bell for, as he puts it, "It's Monday somewhere." Still, he makes a noon rendezvous and we resume our biomechanical reprogramming. Scooter has always been a good athlete, and he remains fit, so I'm not surprised that he incorporates the lifting of the inside heel into his turn technique repertoire. But importing the new move fails to export the old, resulting in a bizarre turn sequence that borrows a bit from retrograde reverse-shoulder form and adds the inside leg lift spliced to the indelible, displaced-hip action.

Fortunately, having good technique and having fun aren't mutually exclusive, and when the boots come off, all skiers are on equal footing. Après-ski at the Mangy Moose I offer to introduce Scooter to Olympic gold medalist and Jackson Hole ambassador Tommy Moe; Scooter demurs, not presuming the right to invade a celebrity's privacy. Knowing well that the open-hearted Tommy not only won't mind but will find Scooter interesting, I overrule his objections. These guys are social chameleons, so they instantly adapt to one another. They bond so well I throw caution aside and introduce Scooter to Jeremy Nobis, erstwhile black sheep of the U.S. Ski Team, a loveable loose cannon who is possibly the best big mountain skier alive. J No is on his best behavior, effervescent but restrained (i.e., he keeps his clothes on).

Scooter also mingles with Micah Black, the local legend whose exploits in Teton Gravity Research films set the standard for how to attack a fall line. In minutes, Scooter meets the three best skiers on this butt-kicking mountain and melds with them. You don't have to scratch Scooter deeply to discover that he would have thrived in the ski life, though after meeting the barrel-chested Moe he confesses he feels he's at a genetic disadvantage.

The professional skiers adjourn to attend an all-night bender. Scooter peels off, as he will be getting up shortly after 4 a.m. Shortly after 4 a.m., I am in a local's home, listeni unfamiliar skis or debilitating hours, he is sorely mistaken. We proceed immediately to a steep slope slathered in an uneven melange of new snow and old, scarred with irregular bumps, clogged with occasional trees and blanketed in a milky mist that rendered most of the terrain invisible. Scooter survives, but the struggle is graceless and cruel. We steer toward calmer waters.

Scooter's spirits-and skills-are renewed by retreating to what passes for prepared slopes at Jackson. (When it snows incessantly and the slope traffic is high, the grooming fleet is overmatched.) I set to work trying to rid him of his Carmen Miranda pelvic thrust by having him initiate each turn with a slight lift and roll of his inside foot. Visible progress ensues, but our session concludes before the improvement is imprinted on muscle memory.

On one of our ascents up the Thunder chair I inquire, in as offhand a fashion as I can muster, how Scooter proposes handling the North Korean crisis, which most press reports of the day view as spinning out of control. Scooter replies in level tones that his position, not widely accepted by other members of the inner circle, is that we should adopt a policy of vigorous name-calling. This is Scooter's witty way of saying-in an idiom tailored to his audience-that he isn't going to trade state secrets for ski lessons and he'd prefer to keep his otherwise omnipresent obligations from invading his few precious hours of ski time. [NEXT ""]Over dinner that night he is more forthcoming, noting in a typically crisp summation that North Korea's motivation isn't hard to fathom: "It's what you do when your only export is extortion." He volunteers that the administration's concern is not simply North Korea deploying a nuclear device, but the likelihood that they would sell an atomic weapon to any number of unsavory characters. As to when and how the administration would respond to these threats, Scooter keeps his own counsel.

Sunday dawns, but Scooter can't answer the opening bell for, as he puts it, "It's Monday somewhere." Still, he makes a noon rendezvous and we resume our biomechanical reprogramming. Scooter has always been a good athlete, and he remains fit, so I'm not surprised that he incorporates the lifting of the inside heel into his turn technique repertoire. But importing the new move fails to export the old, resulting in a bizarre turn sequence that borrows a bit from retrograde reverse-shoulder form and adds the inside leg lift spliced to the indelible, displaced-hip action.

Fortunately, having good technique and having fun aren't mutually exclusive, and when the boots come off, all skiers are on equal footing. Après-ski at the Mangy Moose I offer to introduce Scooter to Olympic gold medalist and Jackson Hole ambassador Tommy Moe; Scooter demurs, not presuming the right to invade a celebrity's privacy. Knowing well that the open-hearted Tommy not only won't mind but will find Scooter interesting, I overrule his objections. These guys are social chameleons, so they instantly adapt to one another. They bond so well I throw caution aside and introduce Scooter to Jeremy Nobis, erstwhile black sheep of the U.S. Ski Team, a loveable loose cannon who is possibly the best big mountain skier alive. J No is on his best behavior, effervescent but restrained (i.e., he keeps his clothes on).

Scooter also mingles with Micah Black, the local legend whose exploits in Teton Gravity Research films set the standard for how to attack a fall line. In minutes, Scooter meets the three best skiers on this butt-kicking mountain and melds with them. You don't have to scratch Scooter deeply to discover that he would have thrived in the ski life, though after meeting the barrel-chested Moe he confesses he feels he's at a genetic disadvantage.

The professional skiers adjourn to attend an all-night bender. Scooter peels off, as he will be getting up shortly after 4 a.m. Shortly after 4 a.m., I am in a local's home, listening to J No's tortured, lubricated soul expound on why the ski film biz shouldn't be about who's the best, though he might be the best, not that that's important. Suffice it to say Scooter and I are on different diurnal tacks.

I curl into a fetal position on a local's couch roughly half an hour after Scooter has bounced out of bed. Scooter and I have one more bit of business to attend to, however. On our last afternoon together, I lure my former roommate into Bivouac Woods, an expert's playground. The first run, I can't resist the urge to launch the road that rims the upper entry to the forest, allowing Scooter to fall behind just enough to get lost. He ends up taking the densest, most difficult line possible. He emerges intact, but his normally piercing, focused eyes are wide with the realization that life is fleeting. He agrees to one more assault, and this time he follows me to a tamer line that nonetheless entails rollercoaster drops among thick pines. Scooter takes to it like an otter to water, and comes off the final pitch with a Cheshire-cat grin. The insidious hip check is gone, expunged by dire necessity. "It's safe to say," Scooter breathlessly confides, "that beats the average day at the office."

That night over dinner, my friend and I celebrate the end of a strange year that, by different paths, has led us to places we would not have imagined for ourselves just two years earlier. My old ski buddy, the writer whose scribbling that long ago summer in Summit County was the seed for a warmly received first novel, The Apprentice (a Japanese fable set in ceaseless snow); the guy I used to head a soccer ball with in the rain on a muddy Yale greensward now helps guide the most powerful men on the planet at a most treacherous time. I pray the short spell cast by his breakthrough in Bivouac Woods radiates still, imparting the balance and serenity that makes skiing steep trees possible.

As for Scooter's boss, my impression is of a man unimpressed by his own credentials, confident in his convictions, committed to civic duty despite having to live in what amounts to a mobile prison. Yet seeing him on his home soil, I sense the tug this place has on his spirit. I leave believing its pull will prove more irresistible than the soul-draining prerogatives of power. tening to J No's tortured, lubricated soul expound on why the ski film biz shouldn't be about who's the best, though he might be the best, not that that's important. Suffice it to say Scooter and I are on different diurnal tacks.

I curl into a fetal position on a local's couch roughly half an hour after Scooter has bounced out of bed. Scooter and I have one more bit of business to attend to, however. On our last afternoon together, I lure my former roommate into Bivouac Woods, an expert's playground. The first run, I can't resist the urge to launch the road that rims the upper entry to the forest, allowing Scooter to fall behind just enough to get lost. He ends up taking the densest, most difficult line possible. He emerges intact, but his normally piercing, focused eyes are wide with the realization that life is fleeting. He agrees to one more assault, and this time he follows me to a tamer line that nonetheless entails rollercoaster drops among thick pines. Scooter takes to it like an otter to water, and comes off the final pitch with a Cheshire-cat grin. The insidious hip check is gone, expunged by dire necessity. "It's safe to say," Scooter breathlessly confides, "that beats the average day at the office."

That night over dinner, my friend and I celebrate the end of a strange year that, by different paths, has led us to places we would not have imagined for ourselves just two years earlier. My old ski buddy, the writer whose scribbling that long ago summer in Summit County was the seed for a warmly received first novel, The Apprentice (a Japanese fable set in ceaseless snow); the guy I used to head a soccer ball with in the rain on a muddy Yale greenswaard now helps guide the most powerful men on the planet at a most treacherous time. I pray the short spell cast by his breakthrough in Bivouac Woods radiates still, imparting the balance and serenity that makes skiing steep trees possible.

As for Scooter's boss, my impression is of a man unimpressed by his own credentials, confident in his convictions, committed to civic duty despite having to live in what amounts to a mobile prison. Yet seeing him on his home soil, I sense the tug this place has on his spirit. I leave believing its pull will prove more irresistible than the soul-draining prerogatives of power.

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