By CALVIN WOODWARD and NANCY BENAC
Vice President Dick Cheney said he didn’t immediately disclose his hunting accident because he wanted the confusing details to come out right. Instead, authorized accounts came out slowly — and often still wrong.
The result: a week of shifting blame, belatedly acknowledged beer consumption (not "zero" drinking after all) and evolving discrepancies in how the shooting happened, its aftermath and the way it was told to the nation.
"There’s a reason they call this crisis management," said corporate damage-control specialist Eric Dezenhall, "and that’s because it’s a mess."
In the first days after the vice president wounded attorney Harry Whittington while shooting at quail last Saturday in Texas, blame was placed on the victim for not announcing his presence to fellow hunter Cheney.
"The vice president did everything right," Katharine Armstrong, the ranch owner approved by Cheney to disclose the accident, said Monday. Whittington, 78, should have shouted that he was rejoining the hunting group after drifting off to retrieve a downed bird. "The mistake exposed him to getting shot," she said. "It’s incumbent on him. He did not do that."
The White House picked up on that theme the same day in attempting to deflect any responsibility from the vice president. "If I recall," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said of Armstrong, "she pointed out that the protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington, when it came to notifying the others that he was there."
The about-face came Wednesday when Cheney made his first public comment on the accident.
"It was not Harry’s fault," he said. "You can’t blame anybody else. I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."
Although there is no evidence that beer impaired Cheney’s judgment, initial denials that he had consumed alcohol were wrong.
"No one was drinking," Armstrong said at the outset. "No, zero, zippo." She said the hunters washed down lunch with Dr Pepper. Later, she qualified her comments and said beer might have been in the cooler but she did not think anyone drank any.
The investigating officer from the Kenedy County sheriff’s department, after interviewing Whittington in the hospital, reported that the victim "explained foremost there was no alcohol during the hunt."
Authorities did not investigate the accident until the next day. The Texas Parks and Wildlife accident report, dated two days after the shooting, checked "No" on the question of whether Cheney appeared under the influence of intoxicants. It did not address whether the hunters had been drinking at all. (The report also included a diagram depicting Whittington’s wounds on the wrong side of his body.)
Cheney acknowledged Wednesday, "I had a beer at lunch" several hours before the group’s afternoon hunt, asserting "nobody was under the influence."
In the rush to assure everyone Whittington was "just fine," some important details were left out.
Initial reports had him treated at the scene, then taken by ambulance to the hospital, where in no time he was cracking jokes with the nurses. It turned out that after being taken to the emergency room of a local, small hospital, he was flown by helicopter to the intensive care unit of the larger hospital in Corpus Christi.
According to Armstrong’s initial account of the accident scene: "He was talking. His eyes were open." Later, Cheney said that when he rushed up to the stricken man and talked to him, Whittington had one eye open and did not respond. He was, however, conscious.
Doctors said Tuesday that Whittington suffered a mild heart attack while in the hospital when one of the pellets migrated to his heart. He was released Friday.
Cheney did not have all his hunting papers in order, as suggested by the White House and initially stated by Texas authorities.
On Sunday, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said Cheney was legally hunting with a license he bought in November. While that was true, the department’s accident report the next day stated that he was in violation of a law requiring him to have an upland game bird stamp.
The accident raised questions about the flow of information into and out of the White House communications apparatus.
Asked why no one released news of the shooting on Saturday night, McClellan said "the vice president’s office was working to make sure information got out" but that details were slow to reach Washington that evening.
Armstrong, for her part, said no one at the ranch even discussed releasing the news on Saturday.
She said her family realized Sunday morning that it would be a story and decided to call the local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. She said she then discussed news coverage with Cheney for the first time.
"I said, ‘Mr. Vice President, this is going to be public, and I’m comfortable going to the hometown newspaper,’" she told The Associated Press. "And he said, ‘You go ahead and do whatever you are comfortable doing.’"
McClellan said President Bush was told shortly before 8 p.m. EST Saturday that Cheney had shot Whittington, less than half an hour after Bush first heard there had a been an accident of some sort involving Cheney’s hunting party. Confirmation that Cheney was the shooter was obtained when deputy chief of staff Karl Rove called Armstrong, McClellan said.
However, McClellan said he didn’t personally know Cheney was the shooter until the next morning, about 6 a.m. EST Sunday, when he was awakened with the news.
He said he only knew the previous evening that someone in Cheney’s party had been involved in a hunting accident.