News of the Vice President's Misfire Hits A Fellow Bird Hunter Where It Hurts

The pleasure -- and the challenge -- of bird hunting is that you are in motion against the texture of the land and it can always trick you.
The pleasure -- and the challenge -- of bird hunting is that you are in motion against the texture of the land and it can always trick you. (1996 Photo By Angus Phillips -- The Washington Post)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

How many vice presidents does it take to shoot a 78-year-old Texas lawyer?

The answer is only one, and the talk show monologuists will have a merry old time at Vice President Cheney's expense for his hunter's blunder, as will the editorial cartoonists and virtually every human being with an opinion.

So there'll be some partisan coup-counting, some journo-sniggering, and probably a news conference with both the vice president and his friend and very lucky victim Harry Whittington in the near future. One thing I've always liked about Cheney is his samurai blankness and refusal to be cuddly for the cameras; but it's likely that he and Harry will have to get together -- although probably not cling and weep and thank God as they should -- to the tune of the motor-driven Nikons.

But here's the important question: What can be learned from the incident? Like all gun accidents, the events of Saturday morning teach a lesson and in this case a serious one -- that even longtime, seasoned hunters can make a mistake if they forget the fundamentals.

The fundamental etiquette and safety device of bird hunting is: Obey the line.

The line is between you and the game ahead of you, and by you I mean everybody in your party. The line is invisible but should exist in the imagination as powerfully as the Great Wall of China. It is the simple geography of safety that determines that we are here and we only shoot there -- that is, ahead of us. It has certain mandates. One is that at any given moment, one should know where everybody in the hunting party is. You have to keep those images in mind as you move over the ground. It has to be second nature.

It can be tough. The pleasure of bird hunting is that unlike still hunting (the duck blind, the deer stand) you are in motion against the texture of the land and it can always trick you with unseen folds, with grass that's higher than it should be, with trees that aren't as thick or are twice as thick as they seem. Then irregularities of incline and decline, of vegetation and stoniness all play havoc against the line, as well as heat, thirst, hunger, comfort and emotional state.

But you risk much if you lose contact with the line.

It appears the vice president lost contact with the line. News reports indicate that, as the man farthest to the right in his party, he assumed that the third member, his friend Whittington, was well off the field. He did not know and Whittington did not inform him that Whittington was rejoining the party from the right rear. When the vice president "busted a covey" -- that is, startled a group of birds into flight to his far right -- he tracked one, stayed on it even as he curled around farther to the rear and pulled the trigger.

At that moment a great many things were in play.

For one thing, the vice president has selected his bird and his mind is busy solving the geometric problem of lead and flight time. Second, he is boring in on the target itself, which is accelerating. Wing shooting alone demands that a gunner concentrate on the target, not the sights. The art of the shot is in mastering the mount so that as the gun comes up and is placed to the shoulder, head, eye, arm and hand are in perfect synchronism and the shot pattern goes where the eyes are looking. If you take your eye from the target to divert to the sights, the whole elegant choreography falls apart and you miss. That's apparently what Cheney was looking at -- he saw only the bird, its wings whirring as it drilled through the air, everything else was blur. Whittington, orange vest or not, was invisible to him.

Some may say of Cheney: He was really unlucky.

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