Thursday, February 23, 2006

Vice president shoots himself in the foot
Gene Lyons
Feb 22, 2006

My first inclination upon hearing the news was to give Deadeye Dick Cheney’s hunting accident a pass. It’s not as if there aren’t more important things to think about. Unless a plausible case could be made that the vice president harbored a grudge of some kind against the Texas lawyer he’d mistaken for a quail, everything sounded fairly straightforward. As a one-time hunter, I could readily imagine Cheney’s horror, shame and fear at seeing Harry Whittington go down. Full disclosure: After accidentally blowing a 12-gauge hole in the ground on a long-ago rabbit hunting expedition, I was subjected to years of good-natured teasing by my partners. Even so, the message was clear: Keep the safety on and your finger off the trigger or find some other damn fools to hunt with. Assuming ole Deadeye doesn’t give up the dubious sport of killing pen-raised game birds (a bit like hunting in a hen house ), he may have trouble finding companions, because the more information emerged, the less straightforward things looked. Indeed, the incident grew curiouser and curiouser, until the ultimate “Alice in Wonderland” headline eventually appeared (on the CNN Web site ), “Shooting victim apologizes to vice president.”

And most of it was nobody’s fault but Cheney’s.

Look, everybody hates the press at times like these, or pretends to anyway. But any time a name-brand celebrity—actor, athlete, singer, politician, essentially anybody who shows up regularly on TV—either gets caught doing something stupid with his clothes off or shoots somebody, for heaven’s sake, there’s going to be a media circus. Wasn’t the vice president paying attention during “The Adventures of Big Bill, Little Bill and That Woman, Miss Lewinsky” ?

By those standards, Deadeye got off pretty easy, given the incoherence of his actions. To see how, let’s go back to the beginning. “Peppered pretty good” was how Katharine Armstrong, the ranch owner Cheney delegated to leak the story to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, described Whittington’s wounds some 18 hours after the fact. At that point, the man was still in the ICU.

In bird-hunting parlance, “peppered” means sprinkled with spent shot falling from overhead—an uncomfortable, but not life-threatening, sensation. A person shot in the face with a load of No. 7 birdshot, however, might easily have died.

Without doubting Cheney’s sincere concern for his victim, there must have been long minutes, maybe hours, after the 78-year-old man went down when the vice president must have been equally worried about himself. Even in South Texas, with what GOP spinner Mary Matalin called its “culture of rural enforcement” during her remarkable appearance on “Meet the Press,” gunshot deaths can’t simply be waved off like parking tickets.

As a grown man, much less as vice president of the United States, Cheney must have understood that if Whittington did die, he could have found himself under investigation for reckless endangerment or negligent homicide—whatever they call it in Texas—with all the witnesses, not only those approved by Armstrong and him, questioned under oath.

Cheney’s first action after getting back to the house, according to Armstrong, was to mix himself a cocktail. What on earth for ? Every homicide cop I’ve ever known would wonder if the purpose wasn’t to mask evidence of alcohol already in the shooter’s system.

Next, the sheriff’s deputy who showed up at the ranch in response to the ambulance call got turned away by the Secret Service, Matalin later alibied, on “national security” grounds. That’s preposterous.

Wouldn’t Cheney want to clear things up ASAP ? Would you or I be given 14 hours to compose ourselves before talking to authorities after shooting somebody in the face ? As an Armstrong Ranch guest in Kenedy County, Texas, population 441, maybe so, but almost nowhere else in the U. S., which is more to the point.

Because Cheney’s not you or me. He’s the vice president of the United States, a shrewd, calculating man and a Washington insider for almost 40 years. Badly shaken or not, he knew exactly how his evasiveness would look. And he decided to risk it anyway. Why ? Even before Cheney finally appeared on Republican State TV, a. k. a. FOX News, to express remorse and take the blame after four days of allowing surrogates to hint that Whittington’s uncanny resemblance to a bobwhite quail made him somehow to blame, GOP robo-pundits made an elaborate pretense of not understanding what the hubbub was all about—not who first reported the story or even when. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer went so far as to argue that Cheney “did the manly thing. He decided, ‘I’ll take the heat, but I’m going to give my host and my friend, who just got shot, a half a day of reprieve.’” Time subsequently reported that the initial draft of the vice president’s press statement neglected to mention exactly which manly man in the hunting party actually pulled the trigger.

Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.

(Via Moose & Squirrel.)

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