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Shoot first, take questions later

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February 15, 2006

By MARTIN SCHRAM

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 veep.

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 well.”

(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)gmail.com.)