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UC Berkeley Point of View

Dick Cheney at Davos: The 'man in the bubble'

Orville Schell is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and the author, most recently, of "Virtual Tibet." This article, written by Schell, was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on February 8, 2004.

 Orville Schell
Orville Schell (photo Jane Scherr)

DAVOS, Switzerland – Each January, I take a narrow-gauge Swiss railway up through the snowy Alps to Davos to attend the World Economic Forum. Just as in the days when tubercular patients went to the community's sanitariums (made famous by Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain") "for the air," this outpost still has the rare feeling in our global vortex of a self-contained place, a world unto itself.

During the five days of the forum, this feeling is enhanced by the steel fence erected around the conference area, the thousands of Swiss police who guard the perimeter against demonstrators and the bunker-like Congress Centre, where many of the speeches, panels, discussions and much of the endless networking that characterize Davos take place. Here, undisturbed by the chaotic world, the 2,000-plus participants from corporations, government, politics, academia, the media and civil society mingle in a bubble, a rarefied bubble, occupied largely by people who rank near the top of the periodic tables of wealth, power and fame.

Davos is a modern agora, the forum-marketplace in Periclean Athens where those with citizenship - as distinguished from the lower castes and slaves - gathered to deliberate on the city-state's affairs. One is apt to run into the International Atomic Energy Agency's director-general, Mohammed Baradei, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), financier George Soros, Playboy Enterprises Chief Executive Christie Hefner, Warsaw Stock Exchange President Wieslaw Rozlucki, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger or Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Kassymzhomart Tokayev engaged in conversation. And it is perfectly within the etiquette of the forum to say hello and start a conversation oneself.

Almost every prominent figure is in attendance without staff, much less the retinue that usually trails the high and the mighty. There is, in fact, a curious and unexpected equivalence among the participants as they hoof back through the snow, often to quite-modest hotels. Presidents and prime ministers can be seen wandering narrow streets, and CEOs of mighty corporations struggle to get e-mail at Internet kiosks alongside lowly professors or directors of nongovernmental organizations.

This year, though, there was an exception to this momentary democracy of the elite, a participant who kept himself isolated in a personal bubble even within the bubble that is Davos. Vice President Dick Cheney did not so much attend as descend on Davos, roaring up the narrow valley in his helicopter, accompanied by a squadron of military choppers. On what was only his second trip abroad while in office, he brought with him the bubble of all bubbles.

Certainly, given our terrorized planet, one expected the vice president to be accompanied by a considerable security complement. But the measures taken for him, even in this new, security-conscious world, outstripped by a light-year those taken for any other participant. Also in attendance were such world leaders as France's Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin, Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, Bill Clinton, the United Nations' Kofi Annan and U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans, but their security details - even that of Musharraf, the target of two assassination attempts recently - were dwarfed by Cheney's.

Helicopters swooped in, bombproof limousines appeared, caged attack dogs materialized, elaborate communications systems were set up and scores of bulky Secret Service agents, sporting American flag lapel pins and telltale earpieces, fanned out ahead of Cheney's every movement.

Cheney's arrival at the five-star Steigenberger Belvedere hotel left the world's elite suddenly experiencing periodic lockdowns, in some cases confined to their rooms as the vice president entered or left the building. And when he arrived at the Congress Centre to give his well-written and well-delivered speech, the normally relaxed atmosphere of the forum was suddenly transformed. Officious aides with clipboards bustled around, security guards fanned out and yellow tape mysteriously blocked off certain spaces. It was as if the emperor himself had suddenly appeared among members of the scholar-official class of ancient China, who saw themselves as holding sway not only over the "Middle Kingdom" but the known world.

Cheney alone ignored the Davos ethos. Although he answered a few unscripted questions after his speech, there was no schmoozing in the lobbies à la Bill Clinton, no chance encounters or random cups of coffee and no real opportunity for him to participate in any of the back-and-forth interaction that makes Davos unique. He arrived; he spoke; he vanished behind his security shield.

Cheney's isolation didn't alter Davos for the rest of us, except for minor annoyances. But it provided a disturbing picture of how isolated our president and vice president have become, how apart from the world their existence is. I came away from Davos sensing that the leaders of our country are ever more cut off from the kind of normal feedback and outside input crucial to grasping the current state of the world.

An administration little inclined to read the daily press, unmotivated by the kind of intellectual curiosity that makes people seek out discussion, and so tightly wrapped in fear and insecurity that even Davos seemed filled with frightening possibilities presents a worrisome picture.

Hermetically sealed inside his bubble, Cheney for a short moment entered the larger bubble of the World Economic Forum. But like a missionary in a heathen land, his only urge was to deliver a message, to evangelize for his faith. Missing was any desire, perhaps even the ability, to learn something meaningful about the world he had entered. Indeed, the Bush bubble reflects a spirit deeply evangelical, more concerned with justifying and converting than questioning and learning. In its embunkered certainty, the administration's belief system is strangely akin in spirit to the party discipline of Leninism.

What is most important to men like Cheney is "teaching" in the almost biblical sense of that word, which means "preaching." Not emphasized is "learning," in the sense of engaging in constant questioning or wrestling with ambiguity. Whatever one may choose to say about Davos as a summit of elitist power brokers, it is deeply committed to asking questions in an informal setting that encourages spontaneous exchange.

It would have been reassuring just once to spot Cheney on a couch quietly talking with some European counterpart or having a cup of coffee with an Arab journalist. But there were too many souls to be saved elsewhere for Cheney to linger and actually participate. His limousines, security guards and helicopters were packed up and he was whisked away from Davos without, in a sense, ever having arrived.