By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
It was one of those "everyone's a wise guy" days in Washington yesterday, thanks to Dick Cheney. Quipping at the vice president's expense was like shooting fish, or quail -- oh, never mind.
It's never a good thing to be a punch line in politics, and the vice president had the field to himself after accidentally shooting his hunting companion, Austin lawyer Harry Whittington, at a Texas ranch late Saturday. The accident left the 78-year-old man seriously injured. He was released from the intensive care unit yesterday.
Meantime, the incident provided a laugh bounty for gallows humorists, particularly those of the anti-Bush persuasion. Have at 'em, kids:
"Bush-Quail '06," cracked Democratic strategist Jenny Backus.
"The CIA assured Cheney that Harry Whittington was actually a pheasant," added Democratic speechwriter Jeff Nussbaum.
"The worst part is, he was aiming at the special prosecutor," contributed John Kerry spokesman David Wade.
Democratic staffers on the Hill could be heard singing a parody of Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun," using the words "Cheney's got a gun." Or marveling at how "Republicans really don't like lawyers, do they?" or circulating a quote from Bush, in a 2000 interview with the Houston Chronicle, in which he hailed Cheney as "somebody who is going to shoot straight with the American people."
This was just a small sampling, taken from amateur jokesters willing to attach their names to the one-liners.
As for the professionals: On "The Daily Show" last night, Jon Stewart, speaking as a "concerned parent," urged viewers never to let their children go on hunting trips with the vice president. "I can't emphasize this enough," Stewart said. "I don't care what kind of lucrative contracts they're trying to land, or energy regulation they're trying to get lifted. . . . He'll shoot them in the face."
Likewise, David Letterman's Top 10 list was devoted to "Dick Cheney's excuses," which included that he "thought the guy was trying to go gay cowboy on me."
As neither President Bush nor Cheney spoke publicly about the accident yesterday, it fell to White House spokesman Scott McClellan to suffer the media equivalent of birdshot. He was pressed repeatedly on why it took a day for the administration to acknowledge that the vice president had accidentally shot a man.
The most heated public moment occurred during McClellan's off-camera "gaggle" with White House reporters yesterday morning. It featured NBC's David Gregory, one of McClellan's most persistent inquisitors over the last year, who raised his voice while asking a question about the incident.
"Hold on," McClellan interrupted, pointing out that "the cameras aren't on right now. You can do this later."
"Don't accuse me of trying to pose to the cameras," Gregory replied. "Don't be a jerk to me personally when I'm asking you a serious question."
"You don't have to yell," McClellan said.
"I will yell," said Gregory, jabbing his finger in McClellan's direction. "If you want to use that podium to try to take shots at me personally, which I don't appreciate, then I will raise my voice, because that's wrong."
"Calm down, Dave. Calm down," said McClellan evenly.
The two men spoke privately after the gaggle, Gregory said later. No apologies were exchanged.
"I said what I said and I meant what I said," Gregory said. He said he and McClellan get along "very well," a point agreed upon by McClellan during a brief interview.
"David's a good guy and a good reporter," McClellan added. He said that yesterday was "one of those days where I knew exactly what to expect."
McClellan began his midday news conference with a few words about how strong the U.S. economy is. Then he took questions, none of which was about the economy. The majority of the 41-minute briefing was given over to Cheney's hunting accident.
"Scott, do you think that the shooting accident involving the vice president on Saturday should have been disclosed to the public on Saturday?" a reporter asked.
McClellan replied -- as he did to many questions -- that the first priority was to ensure that Whittington was receiving appropriate medical care.
He referred about a dozen questions to the vice president's office.
"The vice president spoke with Mrs. Katharine Armstrong," McClellan said, referring to the owner of the ranch where Cheney and Whittington were hunting. "And they agreed that she should make that information public. She was an eyewitness. She saw what occurred. And she called her local paper to provide those facts to the local paper."
Later McClellan was asked, "As press secretary, are you satisfied with the way this was handled?"
"Well," he replied, "I think you can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job."
After an indecipherable blur of shouted questions, Gregory's voice rose over those of his competitors.
"Let's just be clear here," Gregory said. "The vice president of the United States accidentally shoots a man, and he feels that it's appropriate for a ranch owner who witnessed this to tell the local Corpus Christi newspaper and not the White House press corps at large or notify the public in a national way?"
"Well, I think we all know that once it is made public, then it's going to be news and all of you are going to be seeking that information," McClellan replied.
Several questions followed, including three variations on "When did the president learn that the vice president had shot someone?"
In the course of the session, reporters made seven references to Cheney having "shot" someone, with four to a "shooting."
McClellan referred to the episode as an "accident." His shoulders relaxed noticeably when the questions turned, briefly, to Iranian nukes, riots over cartoons and Brownie.