Shoot first, take questions later

No doubt you are as sick and tired as I am at having to listen to
the whining of the White House press corps. Just because they are not
informed in a timely fashion every time a vice president shoots someone.

No wonder people think that this gang that Spiro Agnew famously
labeled “nattering nabobs of negativism” doesn’t love America enough to
write a positive story. After all, Vice President Cheney has gone
hunting hundreds of times in his political career. But you can’t name
one time when one newsperson wrote one good news story about any of
Cheney’s pals who survived a sporting event without getting shot by the

Instead, on Monday, the reporters wasted the valuable time of
President Bush’s press secretary by asking why the White House withheld
for a full day the news that at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday the vice
president accidentally shot someone.

The reporters also wondered why a bloated presidential
communications staff of trained professionals let the news be leaked by
an amateur leaker, a private citizen. Don’t these reporters realize
that Katharine Armstrong is not just the owner of the ranch and a loyal
Republican, but is herself a trained lobbyist so she knows how to do
things? She leaked the news to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, that a
78-year-old Texas lawyer, Harry Whittington, had stepped into Cheney’s
line of fire and, as she colorfully explained, “got peppered pretty

(It became less laughable, however, on Tuesday when doctors said a
piece of the birdshot lodged in Whittington’s heart, causing a mild
heart attack.)

Reporters seemed preoccupied with the fact that Bush had great
difficulty in discovering just who was the triggerman. For some reason,
they seemed to doubt the word of Bush press secretary Scott McClellan.
The reporters seemed flummoxed when McClellan tipped his
uncommunicative hand by lapsing into the passive/intransitive verb
tenses that politicians and their flacks traditionally choose when they
want to fuzz the truth.

What McClellan’s version seemed to say was that, many hours after
the shooting, newsworthy factoids kept walking into the White House on
their own, unaccompanied by a person who could have been questioned
further. (As in: So, who pulled the trigger?) McClellan: “…there was
information that we were continuing to learn about throughout the
course of that evening and into early Sunday morning. The initial
report that we received was that there had been a hunting accident. We
didn’t know who all was involved, but a member of his party was
involved in that hunting accident. And then additional details
continued to come in overnight.”

Bush first heard about the shooting from chief of staff Andrew Card
and later, his deputy chief-and-top-schemer Karl Rove. But the White
House press corps unpatriotically refused to accept obvious fact that
the problem really began with President Clinton. After all, Clinton was
the one who first told us an acceptable presidential policy could be
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Beyond a lack of patriotism, most journalists also are not
compassionate enough to feel the pain of a president who simply cannot
get good intelligence. The same Washington journalists who wouldn’t cut
Bush some slack for telling the world that Iraq had weapons of mass
destruction were also skeptical about the White House version that Bush
was kept ignorant for hours (how many was carefully fuzzed) about the
identity of this lone Texas triggerman.

Why does the press corps find it so hard to believe that maybe Bush
couldn’t find a reliable source on it? Maybe Texas is a place like Iraq
where good HUMINT (that’s top secret code for human intelligence) is
hard to find? Presidential loneliness can be poignant. We remember
President Nixon, as antiwar protesters massed in Washington, sneaking
out of the White House well after midnight and visiting the brightly
lit Lincoln Memorial, where he chatted in painful awkwardness with
stunned student protesters.

One night soon, Bush may be moved to visit the gleaming, domed
Jefferson Memorial to commiserate with the ghost of the only other
president whose veep shot a man. That one was no accident. Vice
President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Back then,
President Jefferson faced no huge nattering White House press corps
voicing doubts about the details. And it only took a century and a half
before a patient America got the riveting account of it in “Burr,” a
wonderful novel disguised as a memoir.

Gore Vidal, please call your publisher. Your country needs a sequel.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)