06/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dick Cheney: The Quintessential Villain of the American West

Dick Cheney is a black hat-wearing bad guy straight out of the Old West. But he is not of the West in the way he pretends -- the long-past Wyoming childhood, the simple black and white tough talk, the hunting with and wounding of other rich cowboys. He is not a lone villain or even a leader of a rogue gang. He is not symbolically riding the range and terrorizing the good citizens of Americaville from his undisclosed location.

All that is schlock, an image -- yes, even the bad stuff -- that serves mostly, at this point, to infuriate the left. I can hear liberals screaming right now, "Old West?!? He was the CEO of Halliburton; he lived in Washington DC for decades; he is the ultimate Beltway insider!"

Yes! Yes! Yes! That is the point. The Old West was not about cowboys and bootstraps, a lone rancher or hunter exposed to the elements or brave settlers battling hostile Indians or a heroic man standing alone at high noon on Main Street waiting to draw his gun. That is all a cultural overlay -- hard-earned and authentic for the relative few who actually lived it -- but for the most part, it serves better as an advertising campaign for dude ranches.

No, the story of the American West is of industrial might and brute military force, projected from the settled East towards the unsettled West, making a select few rich, empowering big government, leaving most of the rest to chase a dream manufactured in dime store westerns, John Wayne movie and comical photo ops of George W. Bush clearing brush on his "ranch."

Don't get me wrong, I love the myth. I was raised on the myth, and I liked prospecting for fake 49er gold in my California school yard, even if artisanal gold mining and charmingly scruffy prospectors quickly led to industrial strip mining and to big holes in the earth that inspire more existential dread than 19th century charm (take a drive between beautiful old Bisbee, Arizona and the mine next door if you want the best example).

The dream of the West has inspired greatness. But for every wagon train that made it unaided across the wilderness, there have been thousands of workers beholden to the railroads, the mining companies, big oil, timber, and, finally, defense contractors. These behemoths gobbled up land and lives, lobbying their way to power in Washington, ruling over Western cities like personal fiefdoms (for the best take I know on the myth of California, which is essentially the myth of the West, read Joan Didion's book, Where I Was From).

And what made all this possible in the end? The strategic and often brutal use of the U.S. Army to pacify the Native Americans and keep the rabble in line.

Sound familiar?

This is Dick Cheney's version of the West, spewing crap about self-reliance while enriching big business, casually defending brutality to further the power politics of the United States.

Cheney is from Wyoming, which is 48 percent owned by the federal government -- more than 30 million acres ripped out of the hands of private enterprise, if you want to look at it that way (I do not). His father was a federal employee; he has been a federal employee for most of his life. The big industries in Wyoming these days? Tourism in national parks and... coal, natural gas and oil extraction.

So do not think of him as any character in a typical Western, bound by a private code of honor, for good or evil. He is more the Iago-like quartermaster at an Army outpost filling the ear of the spectacularly weak commander. He is the bureaucrat always on the telegraph to headquarters, refusing supplies to his enemies, passing off disease-ridden blankets to defeated Native Americans.

Now, of course, the post has a new commander, and Dick got discharged. So he wanders aimlessly from saloon to saloon, drinking too much sarsaparilla, blabbering on and annoying soldiers, cowboys and townsfolk alike.

But he is not done. He will get off the sarsaparilla, find a new undisclosed location in Wyoming or Texas or Washington DC and get back to the business of the West, now the business of Halliburton, of Iraq, of oil exploration in pristine wildernesses.

For sadly, in both the Old West and the new West, the big boys in the smoke-filled rooms always need a Dick Cheney. He is the face of faceless corporations, the embodiment of secret decisions made in smoke-filled rooms. After he sobers up and stops talking, the spiritual descendants of the railroad barons will seek out this quiet bureaucratic strongman so they can continue to gobble up land, consolidate power and keep the little guy in line.