Cheney tries damage control

McClatchy Newspapers

Calling it “one of the worst days of my life,” Vice President Dick Cheney took responsibility for shooting a friend while hunting last weekend but defended his decision not to publicize the incident earlier.

“You can’t blame anybody else,” Cheney said in a taped interview with Fox News Channel. “I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend. That’s something I’ll never forget.”

Cheney was hunting for wild quail Saturday in south Texas on a private ranch while guides or “outriders” on horseback looked for birds and radioed to the hunters when they’d found a covey.

Cheney and another hunter walked toward an identified covey and when a bird took flight, the vice president turned to shoot it. That’s when he struck Harry Whittington, 78, a Texas attorney who was approaching the group after searching for a felled bird. Whittington’s head, neck and upper torso were showered with pellets. He has been hospitalized since, and doctors said he suffered a mild heart attack because one of the birdshot fragments dislodged to his heart, requiring a cardiac catheterization.

“The image of him falling is something I’ll never be able to get out of my mind,” Cheney told Fox’s Brit Hume, the network’s Washington managing editor. “I fired and there’s Harry falling. It was, I have to say, one of the worst days of my life at that moment.”

Cheney said the physician’s assistant who was traveling with him was on the scene within a couple of minutes and treated Whittington while they awaited the ambulance _ one always travels with Cheney.

It’s what happened afterward that has had Cheney and the White House on the political hot seat in the last few days. Neither announced the incident to the public.

Instead, Cheney deferred to the property owner, Katharine Armstrong, a friend of his for 30 years, who evidently wanted to tell local journalists she felt confident would write a fair story.

The result was that the news wasn’t widely available to the public until a full day later.

“Katharine suggested and I agreed that she would go make the announcement, that she’d put the story out,” Cheney said. “I thought that made good sense. She was an eyewitness; she’d seen the whole thing. She’d grown up on the ranch, hunted there all of her life.”

In addition, she was the immediate past head of the Texas wildlife parks department’s game control commission, so “an acknowledged expert in all of this,” Cheney said.

“She wanted to go to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times to a reporter she knew. I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from someone who knew and understood hunting. Then it would go up to the wires. I thought that was the right call.”

Cheney said he still thinks it was the right move because “accuracy was enormously important.” He said he didn’t have any “press people” with him and he wanted to make sure that his friend’s condition was properly assessed before any announcement.

Cheney said he had one beer when the group of hunters had a barbecue lunch under an old oak tree on the property. The incident occurred a few hours later.

In describing how this was one of the worst days of his life, Cheney said:

“What happened to my friend as a result of my actions, it’s part of this sudden, you know, in less than a second, less time than it takes to tell, going from what is a very happy, pleasant day with great friends in a beautiful part of the country, doing something I love _ to, my gosh, I’ve shot my friend. I’ve never experienced anything quite like that before.”

The incident has prompted discussions about both the influence of the vice president as well as the efficiency of White House communications.

Joel Goldstein, author of “The Modern American Vice Presidency,” said he thinks the handling of the incident was consistent with Cheney’s “penchant for secrecy.” Goldstein said Cheney should have known better than to keep quiet for so long.

“He likes to be behind the scenes, isn’t particularly oriented toward the public role,” said Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University. “The vice president is such an experienced Washington professional, having served in major positions in the highest level of government for 30 years, one would have thought he would have understood from an early point the consequences of not being more forthcoming.”

Although the White House was notified Saturday, Cheney said he didn’t personally talk to anyone at the White House until Sunday morning, in a conversation with chief of staff Andy Card. He first spoke of the incident with Bush on Monday.

Goldstein said that because Cheney doesn’t have presidential ambitions of his own, he doesn’t work to look good to the public, and that comes across as a “lack of accountability.”

“For people who don’t like the Bush administration and his policies, Cheney really personifies what they don’t like: Iraq, torture, eavesdropping, secrecy, links to big oil, and so forth,” Goldstein said. “He’s a lightning rod for those who don’t like the administration. That’s not really new. This provides fresh fodder for the late night comedians and his other critics.”