Dick Cheney may be the most powerful vice president in American history. He also is one of the most secretive, and he has dedicated much of his career to concentrating power in the hands of the president.
This triple combination explains why last week's closed meeting of conservative activists in Salt Lake City gave people the creeps. And why many journalists in Utah and around the country are amazed or aghast that Deseret Morning News Editor Joe Cannon, until last year a lobbyist and chairman of the Republican Party in Utah, would agree not only to address this shadowy group, but to abide by its gag order not to talk or write publicly about what was said.
When fraternity boys meet for shrouded rituals, nobody cares. But when professional spinners and policy wonks with an obvious political agenda meet in private with the vice president of the United States, people naturally wonder what's going on and what might come of it.
Nor was Cheney the only public official to meet with the Council for National Policy. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Richard Greco, Jr., assistant secretary of the Navy, also spoke to the group.
The public has more than a passing interest in what these folks had to say, which is why it would have served that interest to have the meetings open to the public. News organizations also have a vested interest in maintaining public access to public officials and the people who want to influence and be influenced by them. Newspapers and other media frequently decry and seek to expose government secrecy, often going to court to force elected officials to obey open-meeting laws.
Which is why Cannon's participation in this meeting was an insult to the role of a free press. That role includes fighting for the public's right to know, not abetting those who, like Cheney, are contemptuous of that right.
Cannon told The Tribune he is "not in the politics business anymore" and that his purpose in speaking to the group was to explain how newspapers operate. "I believe I can do a service to the readers of our paper by talking to some of these people - and a lot of them are newsmakers," he said, later telling Editor & Publisher magazine that he was "just looking for grist for a column."
How is promising not to talk about what is said at a meeting of Cheney and a bunch of influential conservatives a service to readers? Rather, Cannon's choice to hobnob with this crowd effectively placed its interests above those of News subscribers, whose right to know should be advocated, not abrogated.
Perhaps Joe Cannon needs to decide whether to be a journalist or the back-room political operative he once was, for he can't credibly be both.