By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010; C01
AUSTIN -- Nearly five years on, Harry Whittington still speaks with a slight flutter in his voice -- a "warble," he calls it, inadvertently choosing a bird metaphor. His easy East Texas drawl changed forever one day in February 2006 when a tiny lead pellet pierced his larynx. It's still there.
Whittington sweeps a hand up to his dusky face and points near his right eye, then to the right side of his forehead. The eye socket, hairline and hand have birdshot pellets lodged in them, too. If you look closely -- and strangers occasionally sidle up to him to do just that -- the accident's remnants are evident; there's a tiny bump in each spot.
Every so often, for months afterward, some of the lead in Whittington's body worked its way to the surface. But many pieces remain too deeply embedded to remove, including one near his heart. At 82, Whittington knows he will live the rest of his days with about 30 pieces of shot inside him. Somehow, he jokes, he can get through a metal detector without causing a commotion.
Four years ago, Whittington was on a quail hunt, walking in the tall grass of a South Texas ranch, when a fellow hunter wheeled on a winging bird and fired. The shot peppered Whittington in the face, neck and torso. The shooter was Dick Cheney, the vice president of the United States.
Eyewitnesses, including Cheney, said the shooting was accidental. Whittington doesn't dispute that, but his memory of the event is limited only to his most immediate sensations. "All I remember was the smell of burning powder," he says. "And then I passed out."
Paramedics rushed the bleeding and unconscious Whittington to a hospital in tiny Kingsville, Tex. Doctors deemed his injuries serious enough to transfer him via helicopter to larger hospital in Corpus Christi, about 40 miles away.
No one in the vice president's entourage said a word about it publicly until the next morning, when Katharine Armstrong, the daughter of the ranch's owner, spoke with a reporter from a local newspaper. Armstrong blamed Whittington for blundering into Cheney's line of fire, a comment that White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeated later that day. Investigators didn't speak to Cheney until the next morning, and Cheney didn't address the issue in public until four days later. In a TV interview on Fox News back in Washington, he took responsibility for the shooting ("Ultimately, I am the guy who pulled the trigger . . . ") but offered no apologies.
For Whittington, the accident was not just physically traumatic but introduced chaos into his orderly life. Reporters camped outside the hospital, where he spent a week in intensive care. Someone posed as a member of the hospital's staff and tried to sneak into his room to take a photo, necessitating a security detail at his door. When he was released a week later, a battered and exhausted Whittington did the apologizing: "My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week."
Convalescing at his home in west Austin, Whittington was besieged by reporters for weeks. They called, hovered around his office and banged on his front door, some bearing flowers and fruit baskets as gifts. TV networks wanted to fly him to New York for interviews. "That was the last thing I wanted to do," he says.
All the while, he said nothing, even as late-night comics and Cheney himself used the incident as a punch line.
And then, to Harry Whittington's relief, he was forgotten.
* * *
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.
"Harry is a patrician Republican; he's as conservative as they come," says Scott McCown, a former state's attorney who now runs the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin think tank that advocates on behalf of the state's poor. "He came on the prison board having a pro-corrections, pro-administration stance. But he's a hard-nosed guy, and he didn't like being lied to. He raised hell. When he sees a problem, he speaks his mind. And since he's richer than God, he can afford to."
For nearly a decade, Whittington has waged a legal fight on his own behalf. In 2000, the city of Austin declared eminent domain over a city block owned by Whittington's family and commenced to build a parking garage and water-cooling plant on it. Whittington sued, and several courts have upheld his claim that his property was unlawfully seized. He's not sure if he'll live to see the dispute resolved -- the Texas Supreme Court is now considering whether to hear the case -- but he senses victory. One more favorable decision will make him the owner of block now worth an estimated $14 million.
* * *
"Let me show you something," Harry Whittington says.
He disappears into a back room of his home, a dramatic contemporary structure perched on a scrubby bluff overlooking Lake Austin. From their terraced back yard, the Whittingtons can look across the lake to the estate of tennis star Andy Roddick. Lance Armstrong's walled compound is a few blocks in the other direction.
Whittington enters his kitchen with a curious set of garments on a hanger.
"Take a look," he urges, holding out a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of a hunting resort, and a hunting vest, both in safety orange. The vest has been sliced up the side, as if someone was trying to remove it in a hurry. Its surface is splattered with brownish, irregularly shaped bloodstains.
Mercedes Whittington almost blanches when she sees the vest. "It was just awful," she says, as her husband offers a closer look.
Harry Whittington saved the vest not just as a souvenir but as a warning. He shows it to friends, and to the children of friends, to illustrate the dangers of firearms. "It's an education for them," he says.
The spattered vest makes Whittington reflective. In nearly 60 years of quail hunting, he'd never had a mishap. But he remembers his father, who was slightly wounded in a hunting accident when Whittington was a child. His father never hunted again.
Whittington credits his survival to two factors. One was the care he received at the hospital in Corpus Christi, Christus Spohn Memorial. Cheney's personal medical staff also monitored Whittington's recovery and offered advice to his primary caretakers during his week in intensive care.
The other was his physical conditioning. For years, Whittington has followed the same routine. Seven days a week, he works out at the Tarry House, a country club the Whittingtons co-founded in the 1960s. Whittington is proud of the club, and one afternoon he shows it off to a visitor. The gym is large and spotless, equipped with a gleaming array of weight machines. By the front door, a logbook records the daily comings and goings of club members. An entry for this morning reads, "Harry Whittington, 5:30 a.m.; 6:15 a.m."
* * *
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?
Whittington, who has been talking about his life and career for hours, suddenly draws silent.
"I'm not going to go into that," he says sharply after a short pause.
Harry Whittington is too gracious to say it out loud, but he doesn't dispute the notion, either.
Nearly five years on, he's still waiting for Dick Cheney to say he's sorry.
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