Cheney's Response A Concern In GOP

Sen. Trent Lott tells reporters how Vice President Cheney described the shooting incident to GOP lawmakers.
Sen. Trent Lott tells reporters how Vice President Cheney described the shooting incident to GOP lawmakers. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Vice President Cheney's slow and unapologetic public response to the accidental shooting of a 78-year-old Texas lawyer is turning the quail-hunting mishap into a political liability for the Bush administration and is prompting senior White House officials to press Cheney to publicly address the issue as early as today, several prominent Republicans said yesterday.

The Republicans said Cheney should have immediately disclosed the shooting Saturday night to avoid even the suggestion of a coverup and should have offered a public apology for his role in accidentally shooting Harry Whittington, a GOP lawyer from Austin. Whittington was hospitalized Saturday night in Corpus Christi, Tex., and was moved back into the intensive-care unit after suffering an abnormal heart rhythm yesterday morning.

"I cannot believe he does not look back and say this should have been handled differently," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who is close to the White House. Weber said Cheney "made it a much bigger issue than it needed to be."

Marlin Fitzwater, a former Republican White House spokesman, told Editor & Publisher magazine that Cheney "ignored his responsibility to the American people."

The episode is turning into a defining moment for Cheney, a vice president who has operated with enormous clout to shape White House policy while avoiding public scrutiny over the past five years.

President Bush has allowed Cheney to become perhaps the most powerful vice president in history and has provided him with unparalleled autonomy. Early in Bush's first term, Cheney developed the administration's energy policy, largely behind closed doors, and then heavily influenced Iraq policy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

No evidence has emerged to suggest that the shooting was anything more than a hunting accident, but the spectacle of the vice president wounding a prominent Republican at an exclusive Texas ranch has become the punch line for politicians and comedians alike, and has penetrated the popular culture through late-night television. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he referred to Cheney as the "shooter in chief" in a meeting with members of Congress yesterday morning. It has also raised anew criticism of Cheney's operating style.

Cheney has avoided public comment on the shooting other than to release two short statements. One stated that he would be issued a warning for not paying a $7 hunting fee in Texas; the other, released by his office yesterday, detailed when he learned of Whittington's worsening condition and said his "thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Whittington and his family."

Whittington suffered an irregular heartbeat yesterday after a shotgun pellet in his chest traveled to his heart, according to hospital officials in Corpus Christi.

Some current and former White House officials said Cheney's refusal to address the issue or accept any blame has the potential to become a political problem for Bush because it reinforces the image of a secretive and above-the-law White House. Top White House aides are pressuring Cheney to discuss the incident as early as today, according to people familiar with the matter.

Cheney, a former House member, White House chief of staff and corporate executive, is dismissive of the national media and unfazed by criticism and unflattering publicity. Bush picked Cheney as vice president in large part because of his lack of political ambitions and his ability to keep confidences.

"If I read Dick Cheney right, he's got to be just devastated" by the shooting incident, said Robert H. Michel, a former House Republican leader from Illinois and a longtime friend. But Michel said he is mystified that the vice president has not come out in public to express his feelings.

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