In politics, certain unplanned moments can suddenly _ and often unfairly _ crystallize a vague and unformed public impression into a lasting stereotype.

President Bush senior’s perplexity at a supermarket scanner that he was an out-of-touch elitist; Vice President Quayle’s misspelling of potato that he wasn’t too bright; President Ford’s stumble that he was a buffoon; President Carter’s encounter with a swamp rabbit that he was a wimp.

And now it has happened to Vice President Cheney.

While shooting quail on a Texas ranch, Cheney peppered Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old lawyer, with birdshot. The wound was serious enough that the victim had to be medevaced, and the hospital says it will keep him at least another week. Cheney’s hunting companions say the shooting was Whittington’s fault. Local law enforcement officials are satisfied it was an accident and regard the case as closed.

It is hardly closed in the rest of the country. Cheney jokes are all over the Internet and the comedy shows, and they distill the impression that — what with undisclosed secure locations, closed-door meetings with the powerful, a mania for secrecy, an indicted top aide — that he is a remote, arrogant and even sinister presence in the Bush administration.

Standard Washington practice is that incidents involving the presidency are announced immediately and fully. For whatever reason, the White House deferred to the vice president’s office on when and how the shooting would be disclosed, and it’s clear that the vice president’s inclination was to say nothing.

Presidential press secretary Scott McClellan, the chief information officer of the administration, didn’t find out about it until 12 hours after it happened, the public not until 24 hours later and then only because his wealthy hostess, a politically influential lobbyist, phoned the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. The precedent of private citizens announcing delicate news about the vice presidency is not a happy one.

With the vice president’s office in stonewall mode, it was left to McClellan to try to spin Cheney’s way out of the mess, which he loyally tried to do in several contentious briefings. He doggedly stuck to the script. Asked about the delay in disclosing the incident, he offered the non-answer that “the first priority” had been getting medical care for Whittington. He said it nine times.

Cheney defender former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, the vice president’s home state, predicted to The New York Times that the incident will be “all through after a few days.” Begging your pardon, senator, but it will be in his obituary.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)