Orange Morning Gives Way to a Darker Afternoon

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

White House press secretary Scott McClellan was in fine fettle yesterday morning when he strode smiling into the briefing room and made a joke about Vice President Cheney's hunting accident.

President Bush, he announced, would be on the South Lawn to honor the national champion University of Texas Longhorns, whose football jerseys are burnt orange and white. "The orange they're wearing is not because they are concerned that the vice president will be there," the spokesman deadpanned.

The reporters, who had tormented a stone-faced McClellan about the episode on Monday, guffawed at his newfound levity. "Although," McClellan continued, pointing to his orange tie and eyeing the loaded-for-bear reporters, "that's why I'm wearing it."

But the stand-up routine ended abruptly when McClellan returned two hours later for the afternoon briefing. The joking spokesman had been replaced by flack in full scandal mode, informing the questioners that he would indulge the silliness no more and was, instead, pressing on with the people's business.

"If you all want to continue focus on this, you all can spend your time on it," he said icily. "We're going to keep focusing on the pressing priorities of the American people. . . . You're welcome to continue to focus on these issues. I'm moving on." Nine times the press secretary announced to the cameras that he was going ahead with the people's "priorities," regardless of what the feckless journalists were asking about.

Why the quick switch in tone? Unbeknownst to the reporters -- but well beknownst to McClellan -- the White House had been informed before the second briefing that the shooting victim, Harry Whittington, had suffered a heart attack and had undergone a cardiac procedure because a pellet from the vice presidential shotgun was in his heart. Suddenly, the White House had more than an embarrassment on its hands.

Even without knowledge of Whittington's setback, the journalists wouldn't play along. "This is our briefing; we get to ask the questions," David Sanger of the New York Times fired back. NBC's David Gregory lectured: "Don't tell us that you're giving us complete answers when you're not actually answering the questions."

McClellan dared the reporters to question him about the accident, informing them that "the American people want us to spend our time" on other matters. But even McClellan couldn't get the misfire out of his head. Asked about oil company royalties, he noted that "we limited and imposed triggers at the beginning of the administration to cut off relief." Triggers?

As the briefing proceeded, the spokesman became snippier. "It is what it is," he said of the shooting, "and I think it's time to move on for the American people." By the time ABC's Ann Compton rose with the last question, McClellan was suppressing a grin. "It's time to focus on the priorities of the American people," he said one final time. Then, departing for the Texas football event, he flashed the school's "Hook 'em, 'Horns" sign.

But as Bush and McClellan went to greet the Longhorns, Whittington's doctor was heading to the microphones in Corpus Christi, Tex., to deliver the bad news. It was open season on Cheney.

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) joined in, remarking after lunch with his caucus that the matter "is part of the secretive nature of this administration" and that "they keep things pretty close to the chest." Aides said the thoracic pun was not intentional.

The vice presidential misfire revived all the old Cheney gossip. In the morning, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell wondered if she should interpret the lack of a phone call between Bush and Cheney on the day of the accident as a sign of a "strain in the relationship."

"No," McClellan said with a forced laugh, "you shouldn't."

Proposed Ken Herman of Cox News: "Why don't they go hunting together?"

Other questioners wondered if the episode was evidence that Cheney could not be reined in by Bush or that Cheney had other dark secrets. The New York Post's Deborah Orin asked what had happened to "personal responsibility," and why Cheney couldn't just say "I made a mistake."

"He has commented through his spokeswoman," McClellan offered.

"But why haven't we heard from him?" demanded CBS's Bill Plante.

"I don't think he had any public events scheduled," McClellan replied.

"He could schedule one," Plante persisted. "It would be easy. If he wanted to come over here, you'd probably let him. We would turn up."

McClellan was done taking advice. "Okay, then you can start running the vice president's office, Bill." Plante declined the offer, and Cheney stayed out of sight.

After news of Whittington's heart attack, Cheney's office issued a statement -- in the third person -- saying: "The vice president said that his thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Whittington and his family."

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