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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News accounts routinely described Whittington as Cheney's "old friend" and "hunting buddy." In fact, the two men barely knew each other. Before the shooting, they had met briefly only three times since the mid-1970s and had never gone hunting together before. "The most you could say is that he was an acquaintance," Whittington says.
The circumstances of the accident also suggest the hunting party may have pushed the limits of safety. According to eyewitnesses quoted in a brief police investigation of the incident, the accident took place around 5:30 p.m. -- essentially dusk in southern Texas in February. Visibility was fading. Whittington says the sun had already retreated below the horizon but that there was a "limited" amount of daylight. Further, Cheney was wearing safety glasses, but it's unclear from the investigation if he was also wearing his eyeglasses. (Cheney's spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Whittington recalls that he was standing off to Cheney's right, looking for a downed bird. He doesn't remember exactly how far away he was when Cheney, tracking a bird, twisted quickly in his direction and fired. Whittington was angled toward Cheney at the time; hence, the wounds on his right side. Cheney later told a police investigator that he was standing in a slightly elevated position relative to Whittington, meaning he was aiming downward. The police report notes that Whittington would have been wounded on the lower half of his body if he and Cheney had been on same level.
This violates two basic rules of hunting safety, says Ralph Stuart, the editor of Shooting Sportsman, a hunting magazine. The first is the shooter's obligation to ensure that he has a clear line of fire before pulling the trigger. The second is the "blue-sky rule," meaning that a hunter shouldn't fire until he can see blue sky beneath a bird, thus greatly reducing the chances of hitting another hunter or dog. "Quail often fly low and demand lower shots," Stuart points out, but that makes it "doubly important" that the shooter is aware of what's between him and the bird and just beyond.
Whether alcohol played any role in the shooting has long been a point of speculation. Eyewitnesses, including ranch owner Anne Armstrong and her daughter Katharine, strongly denied it. Cheney did, too, although he later told Fox News that he had had "one beer" during a picnic lunch some five hours earlier. Whittington says alcohol "was available" at the picnic, but he didn't notice if anyone was drinking at lunch or afterward when the hunting party took a midafternoon break. The police investigation was useless on this point; even if Cheney had been given a Breathalyzer test, the result would have been meaningless since authorities didn't speak to Cheney until the next morning.
Whittington says he wasn't aware that the White House initially blamed him for the accident (McClellan told reporters that Whittington failed to follow hunting "protocol" and announce his presence to Cheney). But he's not bothered to hear of it now. "Naturally, people want to make it appear that it's someone's fault," he shrugs. "I didn't care. Plain and simple, it was an accident. It could happen to anyone."
He acknowledged that his "apology" statement upon his release from the hospital could have confused the issue by suggesting he was admitting fault. "It really wasn't that," he says. "I didn't intend it that way. It was more of a sense of disappointment that it happened at all. I'm sure it must have been difficult for Mr. Cheney and his family. I still feel the same way."
In the years since, Whittington has gone hunting only a few more times. But it's not the same as it was, he says. He's not gun-shy, as his father was after his accident so many decades ago. It's just . . . different now: "Some of my enthusiasm is gone," he says.
The shooting didn't bring Cheney and Whittington any closer. Although Whittington says they've exchanged birthday greetings, they haven't seen each other for two years. The last time they met was when they attended the funeral of Anne Armstrong, the ranch owner whose invitation drew the two men together.
Despite his scars, Whittington bears no ill will toward Cheney. He calls him "a very capable and honorable man" and adds, "He's said some very kind things to me."
But did Cheney ever say in private what he didn't say in public? Did he ever apologize?