Gunning for Cheney

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006 10:24 AM

Other than the fact that a sitting vice president hasn't shot anyone since Aaron Burr dispatched Alexander Hamilton, why is Dick Cheney the non-sharpshooter getting so much coverage?

Okay, other than the fact that the comics haven't had so much fun since President Bush choked on a pretzel. (Letterman: "We can't get Bin Laden, but we nailed a 78-year-old attorney.")

Okay, other than the fact that the VP saw no reason to tell the press and immediately went into the metaphorical equivalent of a secret undisclosed location?

And other than the this-isn't-so-funny-after-all news yesterday that the birdshot had caused Harry Whittington to suffer a minor heart attack?

The reason this is such a crossover hit, I believe, is that it encapsulates everything we know, or think we know, about Vice President Cheney.

So secretive that he even waited to tell Bush. So taciturn that he feels no need for a public apology. So insulated that he defers a police interview until the following morning. So defensive that he has not so much as acknowledged a mistake.

At 2:47 p.m. yesterday, Cheney's office finally put out a statement, saying he had called Whittington and wished him well--but still not even a hint of public regret.

Part of the dynamic here is that the birdshot brouhaha gives everyone a chance to play their assigned roles.

The White House press corps is outraged at the 21-hour delay in informing the world.

Liberals say this is typical of the way the administration botched the war, and they wonder why journalists didn't get this exercised about being misled on WMD.

Conservatives say this is nothing but a common hunting accident, and they blame journalists for blowing it way out of proportion.

I'm happy to report that Bill O'Reilly reads Media Notes online (or at least someone on his staff does). He responded last night to my observation that he led with Al Gore saying in Saudi Arabia that the U.S. has mistreated Arabs (no coverage in major newspapers, he's right about that) and inexplicably reduced the Cheney accident to the day's most ridiculous item. The veep's failure to come clean, says Mr. O, is because of his "well-known press phobia. . . . The vice president's hunting accident affects no one, means nothing, and the vice president's refusal to brief the press was predictable." O'Reilly did allow that "Dick Cheney's secret style hurts him."

I would argue that Cheney's actions, while physically hurting no one other than poor Mr. Whittington, hurt the reputation of the vice president and the administration.

Don't take my word for it: Marlin Fitzwater tells Editor & Publisher he is "appalled" by Cheney's handling of the situation.

By the way, Scott McClellan exacerbated matters at yesterday's briefing by insisting he was "moving on" (standard practice in every administration under fire) but refusing to disclose what he knew, which was that Whittington had suffered a heart attack . I don't get it.

Okay, the White House whispers have begun, as we see in this New York Times piece on "the latest example of the degree to which Mr. Cheney's habit of living in his own world in the Bush White House -- surrounded by his own staff, relying on his own instincts, saying as little as possible -- had backfired since the accident in Texas on Saturday. Mr. Cheney's staff members have kept their comments to chronological details and to repeating the vice president's written statements.

"The tension between President Bush's staff and Mr. Cheney's has been palpable, with White House officials whispering to reporters about how they tried to handle the news of the shooting differently. Mr. McClellan, while being careful not to cross Mr. Cheney or his aides directly, has made a point of reminding reporters of how he dealt with Mr. Bush's bicycle accident last summer, when the president collided with a Scottish policeman at the G-8 summit. . . .

"His message was clear: There was a procedure for conveying this kind of news, and it was not followed in this case."

Washington Post : "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."

Wall Street Journal: "Republicans privately expressed concern, especially over the possibility that Americans will begin asking about whether average citizens involved in such accidents would face legal trouble."

Philadelphia Inquirer : "Dick Cheney's weekend 'peppering' of a 78-year-old hunting pal on a private ranch owned by wealthy Republican donors is threatening to become a metaphor for his tenure as America's number two.

"It's not always easy for voters to track all the details of Cheney's documented preference for secrecy: his secret war planning (which circumvented the State Department and the intelligence community); his secret energy-policy meetings with Enron and other major GOP contributors (he was sued by public-interest groups, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court); his ties to I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, the ex-aide (now indicted) who may have helped to discredit a whistle-blower; his insistence that secret warrantless surveillance of Americans is consistent with the U.S. Constitution."

But "Here we have a case where Cheney chose (by his own inaction) not to inform his fellow Americans that the man who is one heartbeat away from the presidency had pulled a trigger and put somebody in intensive care."

The New York Post headline: "DICK DUCKS."

Cheney's boss also had a brush with a hunting mistake, as Slate's John Dickerson recalls:

"Perhaps the even more apt analogy was Bush's own hunting incident in 1994. When the gubernatorial candidate accidentally killed a protected killdeer during a dove shoot, he wrote that he reacted this way: 'Karen [Hughes] and I looked at each other. What now? "We confess," we both said, almost simultaneously. Bush then called every reporter who had been on his hunting trip. He then announced it at a press conference. The lesson of the shooting, Bush wrote in his biography, is that 'people watch the way you handle things; they get a feeling they like and trust you, or they don't.'

"Unfortunately for the president, Bush wasn't able to give his vice president this advice. (He learned about the shooting from Karl Rove, who talked to the ranch owner.) Cheney played his own press secretary after this incident, agreeing with the owner of the ranch that there would be no official notice and that she could release the information herself. Cheney's allies (and those are different than Bush allies in this case) argue that Cheney cared more about his hurt friend and his host than he did about informing the Beltway press. Maybe for the first hour or two, but to wait so long only points out what we always have known about the vice president: He doesn't give a damn about the public or press' right to know.

"A Bush adviser once described the Cheney press strategy this way: 'Never explain, never apologize.' This has damaged Cheney's public standing and hurt the president, but it is a legitimate philosophical position, linked to his stingy views about sharing information with Congress. But in this case, treating the press like Patrick Leahy is bad staff work."

Power Line's John Hinderaker is willing to put his body at risk:

"Almost all of us hunters have been peppered with shot at one time or another. Mostly it's inconsequential and the wind plays a big part. But I will say this: lots of us have quit a hunt when we realize that the next guy is an idiot. And this, too: knowing what I think I know about Cheney, there is no one in North America who I'd rather hunt with."

Conservative radio talker Neal Boortz is off the reservation on this one:

"Sorry . . . I don't care whether or not Harry Whittington announced his return to the party or not. I'm not a hunter, but I see no excuse at all for this. You don't pull the trigger until you know . . . well what or who is in your line if fire. Cheney screwed up. Whittington may have erred in not announcing his presence, but Cheney pulled the trigger."

The Huffington Post devotes much of its home page to the topic, with Arianna saying of McClellan and the media: "Talk about your dysfunctional relationship. The air of a love affair gone sour hung over the gaggle like a cheap perfume. It was actually very appropriate viewing for a Valentine's Day morning. The emotional intensity reminded me of many failed relationships I've witnessed -- and a few I've been part of. . . .

"Channeling Dr. Phil for a moment, I couldn't help but wonder: is the press really this worked up about being kept out of the shooting loop for 18 hours or are there bigger issues at play? What the relationship gurus call 'baggage'. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this isn't a big story -- especially now that Cheney's victim has suffered a heart attack. But it was only a few days ago we learned that Cheney might have authorized Scooter Libby to leak classified information to reporters -- and that story didn't generate a tiny fraction of the coverage."

Lawrence O'Donnell gets a little tipsy in writing:

"How do we know there was no alcohol? Cheney refused to talk to local authorities until the next day. No point in giving him a breathalyzer then. Every lawyer I've talked to assumes Cheney was too drunk to talk to the cops after the shooting."

Assumes ? Is that the new standard?

National Review posts a transcript of ex-senator Alan Simpson dissecting Cheney for Chris Matthews:

"MATTHEWS: Doesn't he have a special responsibility as someone in line to be President and Vice President of the United States to let people know that something this serious happened this Saturday?

"SIMPSON: Nothing happened to the Vice President, so what did the people of America need to know? Nothing happened to the Vice President, nothing.

"MATTHEWS: But he was the shooter in an accident that shot a guy.

"SIMPSON: That's right.

"MATTHEWS: You don't think that's newsworthy?

"SIMPSON: All I know, Chris, is after a life in Washington, Dick Cheney, and I'm not paranoid, is not popular with the media, they don't like him because he's aloof and he doesn't answer their questions and sometimes he tells them to stuff it, so any time Dick Cheney makes a fluff, it's going to be the news of the day. I have been called by 20 different news agency today as if they had bombed Iraq again. I mean, this is nuts, absolutely nuts."

Harry Shearer sees a case of delayed outrage by the press:

"Of course, the Bush administration's media strategy--keep it secret, deny it if it leaks, fire the dissenters--has been practiced far more than thrice. But the first two major versions of the strategy--the runup to the Iraq War and the aftermath of Katrina--occurred as tragedy. Now the gods reward us with the Dick Cheney shooting story, in which the media strategy resurfaces as farce.

"And, predictably, the White House press corps, which sat still and silent for the tragic versions, is up in arms over the farcical one."

In the Charlotte Observer, North Carolina professor and hunter Scott Denham fears for the image of his pastime:

"It is unfortunate that upland bird hunting has gotten this kind of bad press because of irresponsible hunting practices by a prominent member of the upper class. Hunting preserves open spaces for use by all; hunting connects younger generations with the land and with traditions; hunting is about conservation. As a hunter and conservationist, I feel misrepresented by Cheney and his ilk. They portray hunting as a sport for the rich, carried out on vast private lands, where pulling the trigger takes priority over everything else."

Ed Morrissey rips The Post's Dana Milbank for appearing with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann in an orange cap and orange safety vest:

"No, this isn't a tryout for America's Worst-Dressed Nerds; it's Milbank trying to be funny and only succeeding at being funny-looking. Since when do serious journalists pull stunts like this? Heck, most bloggers I know wouldn't be dumb enough to dress like this on national TV even as a joke, not if they wanted to maintain any credibility.

"Memo to the Exempt Media: it was an accident. Report it and get over it, and then shut . . . up so that we can listen to the real comedians make fun of Dick Cheney. Anyone want to guess how much higher the ratings for Jay and Dave will be tonight?"

I missed the memo. When did we become the exempt media, and what are we exempt from ? The normal rules of human discourse?

"And while we're at it, can we all just calm down about the White House waiting all of eighteen hours to release the news of the shooting? When the shooting occurred, I for one am glad that the first thought through Cheney's mind wasn't 'Gee, how soon do I need to put out a news release?' I understand that the White House press pool feels put out because the story got covered by a local Corpus Christi newspaper instead of the courtiers in DC, but all this fuss over eighteen hours is sheer silliness. It's not a cover-up, people. It's not even a crime to have a hunting accident, and it's certainly not a crime not to report it to the Exempt Media, no matter how mad it makes them."

Wonkette takes a stand on the orange-outfitted Milbank:

"Journalistic ethics? Pish posh! We're more concerned about his fashion transgressions."

The heavily exercised White House media contingent is late to the party and missing the point, says the Nation's John Nichols x

"The White House press corps, taking a break from its usual stenography duties, actually roused itself to ask truth-impaired spokesman Scott McClellan some tough questions about Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, while it was good to see a few reporters rise from their bended knees, they were asking the wrong questions about the wrong issue.

"What got the press corps all hot and bothered was the fact that Cheney and his aides kept details about the vice president shooting a man secret for the better part of 24 hours, and then slipped the story to a local paper in the city nearest the Texas dude ranch where the incident took place.

"Most of Monday's 41-minute-long White House press briefing was taken up with questions about the gun-slinger-in-chief's penchant for secrecy and the bloody details of the shot Cheney's hunting buddy took to the face. But what was especially clear was that the members of the press corps do not like to get scooped on the story of a vice presidential shooting sprees by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. . . .

"To be sure, a trigger-happy vice president makes for good feature stories -- not to mention good comedy. But where were the demands for answers, where was the cries for accountability, where were the shows of righteous indignation last week, when it was revealed by the National Journal that Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, had told a federal grand jury he was 'authorized' by Cheney and other White House 'superiors' to disclose classified information to journalists as part of a plot to defend the Bush administration's manipulation of prewar intelligence to make the 'case' for going to war with Iraq."

I checked, and Cheney's office had no comment on that story. What a shock.

Betsy's Page wonders if this is just Beltway myopia:

"I suspect that the great majority of the American people realize that this was an accident. They know that Cheney must feel awful about injuring his friend. But they also know that the American people didn't suffer by having to wait a day over the weekend to learn the story. I wonder how many of the Washington press corps have ever been hunting in their lives."

Actually, Cheney probably does feel awful about injuring his friend. But how would we know that since he hasn't uttered a syllable in public?

The LAT , meanwhile, describes how Abramoff, for $1.2 million, kept calling Karl Rove until he got the embattled prime minister of Malaysia a meeting with Bush.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive