February 15, 2006,
Beginning today, and in the days to come, we are likely to see a shift in emphasis in the Cheney hunting-accident story. Early interest focused on the vice president's still-unexplained decision after an overnight delay to leave the job of informing the public about the accident to his host, the prominent Texas Republican Katharine Armstrong. Now, however, the setback in the health of the shooting victim, lawyer Harry Whittington, has focused interest on the shooting incident itself, and on what, precisely, we know about it.
One question raised by Whittington's condition is just how far from Whittington was the vice president when he pulled the trigger on his 28-gauge Perazzi Brescia Italian shotgun. The original report on the incident from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says Cheney was 30 yards away from Whittington. But the news that one shotgun pellet is now apparently lodged in the muscle of Whittington's heart will likely lead to a reexamination of the force with which Whittington was hit, and therefore, of the distance between the two men when the shooting occurred.
That, in turn, will spur requests for more information on other specifics of the incident. For example, on Monday Katharine Armstrong told National Review Online that Whittington "was in kind of a low spot" when the shooting happened. If that is the case, how low was the vice president aiming? Just where was Whittington? Where were the other hunters? What did they see?
So far, much of what is known about the matter comes from the Parks and Wildlife Department's standard hunting-accident form. Listing one witness Armstrong the report says:
Whittington downed a bird and went to retrieve it. While he was out of the hunting line, another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest at approximately 30 yards. Cheney was using a 28 gauge shotgun loaded with 7 1/2 shot. Immediate medical attention was rendered from Cheney's staff.
On Sunday, Armstrong told the Associated Press that Whittington "came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn't signal them or indicate to them or announce himself. The vice president didn't see him. The covey flushed and the vice president picked out a bird and was following it and shot. And by god, Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good."
So far, Armstrong's account has defined the boundaries of what we know about the incident. Yet there were other witnesses who have not been heard from. In addition to Cheney and Whittington, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, Pamela Willeford, was also in the hunting group. And Armstrong told NRO that her sister also saw the accident. "My sister and I were sitting in the front seat of the hunting vehicle watching the shooters," when Whittington was hit, Armstrong said.
While they have not talked to the press, it is not clear whether all the witnesses have spoken to investigators. The Kenedy County Sheriff Department's report says that "Mr. Whittington's interview collaborated [sic] Vice President Cheney's statement. This Department is fully satisfied that this was no more than a hunting accident." But whatever statements made by the other witnesses have not been made public.
All of that will likely be explored in coming days, and the vice president will have to address the issues. And the longer he waits, the more likely it is that the questions will multiply. Certainly the performance of White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Tuesday did nothing to suggest that either the vice president or the White House is being fully open about the matter.
"If you all want to continue to focus on this, you all can spend your time on it," McClellan told the press. "We're going to keep focusing on the pressing priorities of the American people, like talking about how to make health care more affordable and accessible. We've got important work to do for the American people, and that's where we're going to keep our focus. You're welcome to continue to focus on these issues. I'm moving on." McClellan's Clintonian ploy a ploy that often failed to work for Bill Clinton himself simply reinforced the impression that the White House is determined not to answer questions.
Yet for all its mistakes, the White House still has one formidable factor on its side, and that is the tendency of its political adversaries and some in the press to overreach. The behavior of the White House press corps at Monday's briefing disgusted many viewers around the country and briefly turned the story away from the vice president and toward the media. On Monday night, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank appeared on MSNBC in an orange hunting cap and vest, and the next day the Clinton strategist Paul Begala did the same thing on CNN, suggesting that, whatever they might be saying, some of the vice president's critics were simply not serious about the matter.
And then there are the darker theorists of the left. To take one example, Lawrence O'Donnell, the Hollywood producer, has asked "Was Cheney drunk?" There is no known evidence to support that notion and there is a sheriff's report which specifically says, ""The investigation reveals that there was no alcohol or misconduct involved in the incident." Yet on Monday O'Donnell wrote, "Every lawyer I've talked to assumes Cheney was too drunk to talk to the cops after the shooting."
A straightforward word from Cheney could end that kind of talk provided that there was indeed no drinking going on and also make the administration's adversaries look foolish and opportunistic. But a failure by the vice president to answer questions about the accident might allow such speculation to grow until it does significant damage to the administration. And if that happens, it will be the result of the vice president's failure to be forthcoming about the issue from the very start.
Byron York, NR's White House correspondent, is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President and Why They'll Try Even Harder Next Time.