This article about Harry Whittington, the Texas lawyer wounded in a hunting accident by then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney, misstated the year in which he managed the campaign that first put John Tower (R-Tex.) in the U.S. Senate. It was 1961, not 1960. Tower won the seat in a special election after Lyndon B. Johnson, who defeated him in 1960, became vice president.
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Since Dick Cheney shot him, Harry Whittington's aim has been to move on
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The shotgun sprayed upward of 200 birdshot pellets at Whittington, causing scores of wounds. His facial lacerations were the most dramatically bloody, but the injuries to his neck and chest were the most serious. Four days after being hit, the birdshot near his heart prompted it to beat erratically, forcing him back into the intensive care unit. Doctors said Whittington suffered a mild heart attack; he thinks it was something less, a heart "event."
Still, the injuries were more dire than previously disclosed. Whittington suffered a collapsed lung. He underwent invasive exploratory surgery, as doctors probed his vital organs for signs of damage. The load from Cheney's gun came close to, but didn't damage, the carotid artery in his neck. A rupture could have been fatal, particularly since it took the better part of an hour to transport him from the vast Armstrong ranch to the Kingsville hospital.
"I was lucky," he says today, sitting in his law office in downtown Austin, the same one he has worked in since 1965. "I just feel like every day is a gift. Sometimes I wonder why I got these extra years."
Tall and lean as a cowhand, Whittington is a gracious and formal man. He sports a crisp suit and green tie over a light pink dress shirt monogrammed with his initials, "HMW." His office is a somber, wood-paneled affair lined with legal books and heavy curtains. An oil painting of Texas Hill Country dominates one end of the room. At the other end is Whittington's massive desk, sans computer or other modern technology. Long a multimillionaire, he still comes to work five days a week.
Whittington lived a full life before Cheney shot him. He's especially grateful, however, for the years he's had since.
He grew up in the boom-and-bust oil patch in Henderson, 140 miles from Dallas. His family struggled through the Depression, and Whittington never forgot it. His father lost his dry-goods store and cotton gin after the community suffered four successive crop failures. The young man learned to work hard, taking odd job after odd job to see himself through the University of Texas and its law school. Once, as a band booker in college, he brought the Nat King Cole Trio to rigidly segregated Austin; the band played separate shows for blacks and whites.
Whittington soon built a thriving legal practice a few blocks from the state capitol, handling property transactions, oil and gas leases, estate planning, trust management (he was never was a trial lawyer, despite Cheney's quip after the shooting that President Bush had told him that he'd shot "the only trial lawyer in Texas who supports me"). He patiently invested in real estate. He bought his own office building, then another, then a whole block in downtown Austin.
He took an interest in politics, too. Attracted by the GOP's small-government/low-tax message, Whittington shocked his family, Democrats for generations, by becoming a Republican as a young man. Along with his college sweetheart, Mercedes, now his wife of 60 years, he threw himself behind moderate Republican candidates, methodically helping to build a party that had been overshadowed by a Democratic machine run by a crafty Austin operator named Lyndon B. Johnson.
Whittington managed John Tower's successful 1960 bid to become the first Republican since Reconstruction to win a Senate seat in Texas. He became "social friends" with a transplanted Texan named George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, eventually working on Bush's failed campaign for the Senate in 1964. He supported another friend, future secretary of state James Baker, when he lost the race for Texas attorney general in 1978. He helped a young man named Karl Rove set up his first direct-mail firm, leasing office space to him in his building (Whittington still sits on the board of Rove's consulting firm).
As Republicans ascended in Texas, they favored Whittington with appointments to a series of state agencies. His most lasting work was on the state prison board from 1979 to 1985. Whittington pestered lawmakers and held public hearings to expose a series of messes: drug-running scandals, rampant cronyism, no-bid contracting and a barbaric system in which wardens permitted prisoners to discipline other prisoners. The crusade culminated in the ouster of the prison system's director.
Whittington eventually launched an initiative on behalf of nonviolent, developmentally disabled inmates, pushing the state to adopt a legal standard for determining who deserves such consideration. Whittington later aided in the legal appeals for Walter Bell, a developmentally disabled man who was on death row for 28 years for a double murder (the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 struck down capital punishment for the developmentally disabled, leading a judge to commute Bell's sentence to life in prison). For Whittington, the issue was personal: One of his four daughters was born with such disabilities.