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.
"I guess he's so measured with what he does say personally, but boy, I'd think on something of this nature, you'd let your feelings [be] known," Michel said.
In general, Michel said, Cheney has "enclosed" his personal feelings so tightly to avoid showing them in public. "I guess that discipline upon himself is probably the thing that holds him back." Cheney, he added, is virtually immune to public criticism and image problems: "I don't think he really cares."
Former senator Alan K. Simpson, a fellow Wyoming Republican who hunts with Cheney, said the vice president decided when he was defense secretary during the Persian Gulf War that journalists ask "stupid questions" and distort things, and so he probably sees no need to publicly explain himself.
"Whatever he does, Dick will do it his own way, because whatever he does, it will be the subject of ridicule," Simpson said.
That disregard for public approval, though, can become a problem for the White House, according to veteran presidential aides from both parties. "When the vice president is immune to politics and tone-deaf to politics, as Vice President Cheney has shown himself to be at various stages along the way, then his perspective on this kind of situation isn't as sharp," said Ronald A. Klain, chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore.
Despite a string of political embarrassments linked to Cheney, including not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the indictment of the vice president's chief of staff in the CIA leak case and now the shooting, he remains a powerful force inside the White House.
A testament to his power is the deference Bush showed Cheney in the handling of last weekend's shooting episode. White House aides said Bush has not pressured Cheney to disclose more details about the shooting or to apologize.
One person close to both men said that Bush is the only person in the White House who could persuade Cheney to change strategy and that even high-level White House aides are reluctant to take on the vice president's office. That left White House press secretary Scott McClellan to be battered by reporters on national television.
"This is one of the challenges of having a high-profile, very powerful vice president inside the White House," said Klain, who added: "The disadvantage is when something negative happens involving the vice president, it is much harder for the White House staff to step in and exert control."
Typically, the relationships between vice presidents and White House staffs are fraught with politics and personal ambitions because nearly every modern vice president has used the position as a launching pad for his own campaign for the top job. With Cheney, Republicans have often boasted that no such dynamic would get in the way because he does not covet the presidency. Cheney has said he will never run for president.
Nonetheless, the relationship has become increasingly complicated. With no political future of his own at stake, Cheney seems indifferent to public perceptions of him. He prefers not to talk with reporters, favoring red-meat speeches before friendly audiences such as last week's Conservative Political Action Committee gathering or call-in chats to conservative radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.
His approval rating dropped to an all-time low of 36 percent in November, according to a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll, before rebounding to 41 percent last month. Although White House officials disagree, some outside Republicans wonder whether he has lost influence because his aggressive promotion of the Iraq war led to the CIA leak case and the indictment of his chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who resigned after being charged.
Mary Matalin, a Cheney adviser who has helped him deal with the shooting fallout, rejected suggestions that the White House's handling of the incident might result in political damage. "We have a history replete with evidence to the contrary," she said. "Every time we've had predictions of monumental liability, it never occurred."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.