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Loose Cannon

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 14, 2006; 2:18 PM

Who's calling the shots at the White House? Dick Cheney, of course.

There are lots of lessons to be learned from Vice President Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting buddy on Saturday, and the ensuing press blackout.

But the evidence suggests that Cheney isn't interested in learning any of them. Instead, the public is getting an opportunity to learn some lessons about Cheney.

And lesson number one is that Cheney gets his way.

Jim VandeHei and Sylvia Moreno write in The Washington Post about new details that show that "the White House allowed Cheney to decide when and how to disclose details of the shooting to the local sheriff and the public the next morning.

"President Bush and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove were told of the shooting Saturday night but deferred to Cheney on providing information to the public, White House aides said. In what one official described as a break with the White House practice of disclosing such high-level mishaps immediately, Cheney waited more than 14 hours after the shooting to disclose it publicly. . . .

"The White House typically releases information immediately on incidents involving the president's personal life, such as bike-riding accidents, to avoid the appearance of covering up embarrassments. It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for the White House to allow a private citizen [to] serve as its de facto spokesman.

"But current and former aides said the White House rarely imposes its practices, especially on press matters, on Cheney. The vice president's office often operates autonomously in a manner that many top White House officials are reluctant to challenge."

Anne E. Kornblut and Ralph Blumenthal write in the New York Times: "At the White House, Mr. Cheney made no statement on Monday and remained out of public view. At the beginning of a meeting with Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations, Mr. Bush laughingly told Mr. Cheney that reporters would later enter the room; the vice president left before the journalists arrived."

Kornblut and Blumenthal write that the White House was under pressure "from questions about whether Mr. Cheney -- who is already known for his inclination to keep his business, professional and political dealings behind closed doors -- might have been trying to play down the incident, a suggestion rejected by those who were with Mr. Cheney over the weekend.

"Among the people with him at the Armstrong Ranch in South Texas was his host Katharine Armstrong, a lobbyist and longtime friend of Mr. Cheney. Her lobbying clients include several that do business with the federal government, though Ms. Armstrong said she did not believe that she had ever lobbied Mr. Cheney."

Here's Bill Plante on CBS this morning: "The vice president's office did what they wanted. . . . In any other White House that I've covered -- and that's several, as you know -- the vice president would never have this kind of power. But if it were up to Dick Cheney, he wouldn't tell us if our shirts were on fire, for heaven's sakes. He likes to hold things close and he and his office drove this."

Mike Allen writes on Time.com: "The Vice President was the press strategist, and Karl Rove was the investigative reporter. Vice President Cheney overruled the advice of several members of the White House staff and insisted on sticking to a plan for releasing information about his hunting accident that resulted in a 20-hour, overnight delay in public confirmation of the startling incident, according to several Republican sources."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "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. . . .

"And at some point Cheney's starchy behavior is also insulting. Shouldn't there be some minimum level of explanation he's willing to offer as the second-highest ranking public official? When you nearly commit homicide as a public official shouldn't the honor of your office compel you to stand up and explain yourself in some fashion, at least say something in a press release and not just whisper it to a Texas rancher?

"If that sense of duty doesn't compel him, Cheney should see the political necessity of saying something fast."

About Deciding to Call the Press

VandeHei and Moreno write in The Washington Post: "In a telephone interview, [Katharine] Armstrong said that she, her mother and her sister, Sara Storey Armstrong Hixon, decided on Sunday morning after breakfast to report the shooting accident to the media. 'It was my family's own volition, and the vice president agreed. We felt -- my family felt and we conferred as a family -- that the information needed to go public. It was our idea,' Armstrong said."

CBS News's Mark Knoller reports: "Ranch owner Katharine Armstrong said no one discussed notifying the public of the accident Saturday because they were so consumed with making sure [Harry] Whittington was OK. She said the family realized in the morning that it would be a story and decided to call the local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. She said she then discussed the news coverage with Cheney for the first time."

But Nicholas Riccardi and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times that Anne Armstrong, co-owner of the ranch, "said Cheney had spoken with her Saturday evening about disclosing the incident to the public. 'We knew word would get out,' she said. He urged her to tell friends and family first, before word leaked out to the media."

Here's what CNN's Suzanne Malveaux said at yesterday's press briefing: "Katharine Armstrong talked to CNN Sunday evening. She said that she thought this was going to become a story, so she was going to go to the local press. She also told CNN that she did not believe the Vice President's office was aware that she was going to go to the local press."

And lest we forget, according to press secretary Scott McClellan, Rove called the ranch shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday night and spoke to one of the Armstrongs about the incident.

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The Press Corps

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The White House struggled Monday in the face of an aggressive press corps to explain why it took nearly a full day to disclose that Vice President Dick Cheney had shot a fellow quail hunter.

"The uproar over a matter as straightforward -- some would say trivial -- as a hunting mishap demonstrated the long-standing tension between the media's presumption that it be kept promptly informed and the Bush administration's insistence on managing the news."

Alan Freeman writes in Toronto's Globe and Mail: "After five years of largely accepting the Bush administration's version of events on everything from Iraq's illusory weapons of mass destruction to the bungled response to hurricane Katrina, the White House press corps suddenly turned aggressive yesterday, refusing to accept spokesman Scott McClellan's explanations of why the public had been left in the dark about Mr. Cheney's hunting mishap."

Briefing and Gaggle Follies

Entirely too much material to excerpt from yesterday's briefing . You'll just have to read it yourself.

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune's Washington blog about the early-morning gaggle, which was even more raucous.

"David Gregory, the chief White House correspondent for NBC News, was warmed up.

"Why was the White House relying on a Texas rancher to get the word of Cheney's hunting accident out over the weekend, asked Gregory, accusing McClellan of 'ducking and weaving.'

"'David, hold on . . . the cameras aren't on right now,' McClellan replied. 'You can do this later.'

" 'Don't accuse me of trying to pose to the cameras,' the newsman said, his voice rising somewhat. 'Don't be a jerk to me personally when I'm asking you a serious question.' "

McClellan's Joke

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press this morning: "The White House has decided that the best way to deal with Vice President Dick Cheney's shooting accident is to joke about it.

"President Bush's spokesman quipped Tuesday that the burnt orange school colors of the University of Texas championship football team that was visiting the White House shouldn't be confused for hunter's safety wear.

" 'The orange that they're wearing is not because they're concerned that the vice president may be there,' joked White House press secretary Scott McClellan, following the lead of late-night television comedians. 'That's why I'm wearing it.' "

Comedy Central

The Associated Press has a wrap-up of last night's late-night humor at Cheney's expense.

From the "Late Show with David Letterman": "Good news, ladies and gentlemen, we have finally located weapons of mass destruction: It's Dick Cheney."

From "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno": "That's the big story over the weekend. . . . Dick Cheney accidentally shot a fellow hunter, a 78-year-old lawyer. In fact, when people found out he shot a lawyer, his popularity is now at 92 percent. . . .

"I think Cheney is starting to lose it. After he shot the guy he screamed, 'Anyone else want to call domestic wire tapping illegal?' "

And from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart": "Now, this story certainly has its humorous aspects. . . . But it also raises a serious issue, one which I feel very strongly about. . . . Moms, dads, if you're watching right now, I can't emphasize this enough: Do not let your kids go on hunting trips with the vice president. I don't care what kind of lucrative contracts they're trying to land, or energy regulations they're trying to get lifted - it's just not worth it."

Salon's War Room transcribes Stewart's dialogue with "correspondent" Rob Corddry on the Daily Show:

"Stewart: Rob, obviously a very unfortunate situation. How is the vice president handling it?

"Corddry: Jon, tonight the vice president is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. According to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be a 78-year-old man, even knowing that today, Mr. Cheney insists he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face. He believes the world is a better place for his spreading buckshot throughout the entire region of Mr. Whittington's face.

"Stewart: But why, Rob? If he had known Mr. Whittington was not a bird, why would he still have shot him?

"Corddry: Jon, in a post-9/11 world, the American people expect their leaders to be decisive. To not have shot his friend in the face would have sent a message to the quail that America is weak.

"Stewart: That's horrible.

"Corddry: Look, the mere fact that we're even talking about how the vice president drives up with his rich friends in cars to shoot farm-raised wingless quail-tards is letting the quail know 'how' we're hunting them. I'm sure right now those birds are laughing at us in that little 'covey' of theirs."

Matea Gold in the Los Angeles Times and Brooks Barnes also offer humor wrapups.

Diane Sawyer offered ABC views a video pastiche of the late-night humor at Cheney's expense. Here's a video of the Daily Show.

Lance Gay writes for Scripps Howard News Service: "The Internet sprouted with offerings of 'Dick Cheney hunts people' T-shirts and comments about calling the vice president 'Deadeye Dick.' There also was a version of the vice-presidential seal featuring a shotgun-wielding Elmer Fudd in hunting gear, with the inscription: 'Be vewy vewy quiet, we're hunting I-wackies.'"

Mark Leibovich writes in The Washington Post about the inside-the-beltway jokesters: "Democratic staffers on the Hill could be heard singing a parody of Aerosmith's 'Janie's Got a Gun,' using the words 'Cheney's got a gun.' Or marveling at how 'Republicans really don't like lawyers, do they?' or circulating a quote from Bush, in a 2000 interview with the Houston Chronicle, in which he hailed Cheney as 'somebody who is going to shoot straight with the American people.' "

Political Cartoons

An amazing outpouring from the nation's political cartoonists.

Here are Tom Toles ; Mike Luckovich ; Ben Sargent ; David Horsey ; Doug Marlette ; Stuart Carlson ; Chan Lowe ; Bob Engelhart ; Kevin Siers ; Richard Crowson ; and much more from Daryl Cagle 's cartoonist index.

Tabloid Humor

The cover of the New York Daily News calls it "Birdgate!"

The New York Post cover depicts Cheney as Elmer Fudd.

Inside, Deborah Orin writes: "The White House took heavy flak yesterday for waiting a vewwy, vewwy long time before revealing that wascally Vice President Dick Cheney had shot a fellow hunter."

Documents in the Case

The Smoking Gun Web site yesterday posted the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department report, which blames the shooting on a "hunter's judgment factor," and the Kenedy County Sheriff 's office announcement that it is "fully satisfied that this was no more than an accident."

The vice president's office -- in its only official communique on the issue -- responded with an acknowledgement that Cheney lacked the requisite $7 stamp for hunting upland game birds, but offered no details about the incident.

In this fascinating video, Corpus Christi Caller-Times photographer George Gongora recreates the accident -- by shooting a human-sized target from 90 feet with a 29-gauge shotgun.

The Victim's View

Dave Michaels and Todd J. Gillman write in the Dallas Morning News: "Sally (Whittington) May said her father does not recall a lot of the incident, nor was he involved in how or whether information about the incident was released: 'He didn't know at the time if he was going to the hospital or the mortuary.' "

Opinion Watch

Mike Leggett , the outdoors writer for the Austin American-Statesman, writes: "You shot a guy. At least stay in town until he's out of the hospital.

"You shot a guy. Don't blame the sun or the wind or the rotation of the Earth. And for goodness' sake, don't blame Harry Whittington.

"He's the guy you shot, and unless he pulled the trigger himself, it wasn't his fault. Unless he was invisible, it wasn't his fault. And it wasn't his fault that he didn't 'announce his presence,' either. He was supposedly 30 yards behind you. His only fault was being a human being standing on two legs. . . .

"Stand up. Take responsibility. Be a man. You shot a guy."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "out-of-control is the way this whole administration operates: Ready, fire, aim. Global war on terrorism, global war on poultry, what's the difference? You see something moving, shoot it."

John Podhoretz writes in National Review's Corner: "This story is a very big deal, despite all the mitigating factors -- the accident involved a friend, his medical team was right there to help, and all that. Something like this has never happened before, and it is a genuinely disturbing thing to think that the vice president of the United States actually shot somebody last weekend, even for fans of his. It's disturbing as well that there was a news blackout that lasted nearly a day about this serious incident. It seems beyond question that the vice president is going to have to go before the cameras, explain what happened, and show genuine remorse for his actions, however inadvertent. It's a difficult challenge for someone as reticent as Dick Cheney. But unless he does so, and makes a good showing of it, he will be damaged goods for the remainder of the Bush presidency."

Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum writes: "Now, 48 hours after the shooting, Cheney still hasn't talked to the press or even issued a statement saying he feels terrible about what happened, but he has released a statement saying that after learning he didn't have the right permit for shooting quail he has 'sent a 7 dollar check to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which is the cost of an upland game bird stamp.'

"Can this episode get any more ridiculous? The Veep's office can't rouse itself to say even a single word about what happened, but somehow they have the time to assure us that Cheney is good for the seven bucks he failed to pay for an upland game bird stamp?"

Editorial Watch

Washington Post editorial : "Mr. Cheney did not check his official title at the Armstrongs' front gate. That was no private citizen who pulled the trigger, sending someone to the hospital. That act, though accidental -- and doubtless both agonizing and embarrassing -- was committed by the country's second-highest public official. Neither Mr. Cheney nor the White House gets to pick and choose when to disclose a shooting. Saturday's incident required immediate public disclosure -- a fact so elementary that the failure to act properly is truly disturbing in its implications."

New York Times editorial : "The vice president appears to have behaved like a teenager who thinks that if he keeps quiet about the wreck, no one will notice that the family car is missing its right door. The administration's communications department has proved that its skills at actually communicating are so rusty it can't get a minor police-blotter story straight. And the White House, in trying to cover up the cover-up, has once again demonstrated that it would rather look inept than open."

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