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Cheney Under Pressure

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 15, 2006; 12:18 PM

Five days after he shot his hunting partner, Fox News announced today that Vice President Cheney will break his public silence this afternoon in an interview with anchor Brit Hume.

The pressure had been mounting for Cheney to address the public, and in this morning's press coverage the big question was when, precisely, he would crack.

Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write in The 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.

"The Republicans said Cheney should have immediately disclosed the shooting Saturday night to avoid even the suggestion of a coverup and should have offered a public apology for his role in accidentally shooting Harry Whittington, a GOP lawyer from Austin. . . .

"Some current and former White House officials said Cheney's refusal to address the issue or accept any blame has the potential to become a political problem for Bush because it reinforces the image of a secretive and above-the-law White House. . . .

"One person close to both men said that Bush is the only person in the White House who could persuade Cheney to change strategy and that even high-level White House aides are reluctant to take on the vice president's office."

On NBC's Today Show, Matt Lauer talked with Tim Russert , who explained why the White House was hesitant about insisting that Cheney go public.

"I think the concern is the questions that will be asked. . . . Why did it take so long to report this to the American people? Was there any special consideration given to the vice president because of his office? What was the distance involved between the vice president and the victim? A lot of unanswered questions. And they realize that if it's a full-blown press conference, it also could involve questions about Scooter Libby, his chief of staff who resigned, Katrina, Iraq, and so forth."

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Cheney the Drag

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The hunting saga follows much deeper-reaching Cheney-related problems for the White House. Last week, court papers surfaced that showed Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, had testified to a grand jury that 'superiors' had authorized him to disclose national intelligence in the summer of 2003 to drum up support for the war in Iraq. That followed Libby's indictment last year for alleged obstruction of justice in a federal probe of who leaked a CIA operative's identity.

"For President Bush, attempting to regain footing after the most politically difficult year of his presidency, the Cheney-related controversies have served to undermine the administration's efforts to direct attention toward positive news about the American economy, focus new attention on the president's remaining second-term agenda and renew flagging support for the war against terrorism."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "His strong insistence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction helped build the case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He also has played the role of point man in the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program in the war on terror.

"And, more recently, his indicted former chief of staff -- I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby -- testified to a grand jury about being authorized to disclose classified information to the press in the CIA leak case 'by his superiors,' according to court documents. Democrats have demanded to know whether Cheney was one of those superiors.

" 'These things become symptoms of a broader disquiet with Cheney,' said Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University.

"Among moderate and liberal Americans, 'there is such an anger toward Cheney,' Light said. 'There are people who believed he pulled the trigger figuratively on a lot of things. Vice presidents can get away with hitting people with golf balls, but they can't get away with shooting people with shotguns.' "

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Vice President Dick Cheney turned a hunting accident into a public relations disaster by maintaining his business-as-usual approach to his life: that it's nobody's business.

"Cheney's refusal to announce his involvement in the shooting underscored his secretiveness to the point of defiance about his public and private life, resulted in a two-day barrage of questions directed at a White House seeking to polish its image in a midterm election year and even prompted some Republicans to complain.

"And Cheney's failure to make a more public show of his regret over his friend's injury might have reinforced his image among many as an aloof and remote man, according to experts in political public relations and corporate crisis management."

Metaphor Watch

Dick Polman writes in the 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.

"Those are complex issues, bristling with lawyerly nomenclature and the kinds of nuances beloved only by think-tank habitues. But wounding a bystander in pursuit of quail - that's another matter. 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.

"In other words, this could be Dick Cheney's Killer Rabbit Moment."

Craig Gordon writes in Newsday: "Already, some are questioning whether Cheney's accidental shooting of Austin lawyer Harry Whittington on Saturday will harden into metaphor, like Jimmy Carter confronting a rabbit on a golf course or Gerald Ford's stumbling - relatively insignificant events that crystallize the public feelings about a presidency."

A Daily Kos blogger wrote on Monday how "this story is a perfect metaphor for this administration's foreign and domestic policy."

Marty Kaplan writes for Huffingtonpost.com: "Harry Whittington's predicament threatens to become a metaphor of what's happened to America under Bush/Cheney. Profound injury has been inflicted on us. The damage could worsen at any moment. And the only response from those responsible is silence, arrogance and misdirection. With their short-lived comedy offensive in disarray, how long do you think it will be before they return to tried-and-true 9/11 fearmongering?"

Failures to Communicate

So it turns out that Cheney knew early yesterday that Harry Whittington's condition had taken a turn for the worse, but he didn't bother to tell press secretary Scott McClellan. And then McClellan found out before his mid-day briefing , but he didn't bother to tell the press corps.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "When the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, came to the press room just before 10 a.m. Tuesday and suggested he was wearing an orange tie to avoid a stray shot from Vice President Dick Cheney, it seemed to signal an effort to defuse the accidental-shooting story with a laugh.

"But by midday, it was clear that the staffs of the president and the vice president had failed to communicate. Just after arriving at work around 7:45 a.m., Mr. Cheney learned that the man he had shot, Harry M. Whittington, was about to undergo a medical procedure on his heart because his injuries were more serious than earlier believed, Mr. Cheney's spokeswoman said.

"No one in Mr. Cheney's office passed the word to Mr. McClellan, senior officials at the White House said, adding that the press secretary would never have joked about the shooting accident if he had known about the turn of events involving Mr. Whittington.

"It was 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."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "White House press secretary Scott McClellan was in fine fettle yesterday morning when he strode smiling into the briefing room and made a joke about Vice President Cheney's hunting accident. . . .

"But the stand-up routine ended abruptly when McClellan returned two hours later for the afternoon briefing. The joking spokesman had been replaced by flack in full scandal mode, informing the questioners that he would indulge the silliness no more and was, instead, pressing on with the people's business."

Matt Lauer raised the issue with Tim Russert this morning.

Lauer: "Now we've got Scott McClellan, standing in front of the press corps yesterday, already knowing that Mr. Whittington has had a minor heart attack, and doesn't say a word about it. Doesn't that seem to add insult to injury?"

Russert: "Yes. And it reinforces the stereotype of an administration that seems to relish or enjoy secrecy, or an administration that in the eyes of the national press corps is suspect in terms of credibility because of issues like Iraq, like Katrina."

Bryan Bender and Michael Kranish write in the Boston Globe: "In a telephone interview, McClellan said he learned of Whittington's condition 'literally just before I was going out to brief' reporters at the White House yesterday. McClellan said he kept the news to himself because 'we didn't know all the facts, and I'm not a doctor.' "

A Statement of Sorts

The vice president's office did release a statement yesterday afternoon, written in the third person and expressing concern -- but no regret or contrition.

Elisabeth Bumiller and Anne E. Kornblut write in the New York Times: "Mr. Cheney was told, his statement said, that Mr. Whittington would need a cardiac catheterization to determine the condition of his heart. The procedure was performed about 10 a.m. Eastern time. The vice president then continued his schedule for the day, but changed his plans when his chief of staff informed him during a Capitol Hill national security briefing that Mr. Whittington's doctors were about to hold a televised news conference.

"Senator Trent Lott, who had teased the vice president about the accident during the briefing, said Mr. Cheney immediately returned to the White House to watch the news conference. 'He didn't look like he was having a whole lot of fun,' said Mr. Lott, Republican of Mississippi."

( VandeHei and Baker write in The Washington Post that Lott called Cheney "the shooter in chief.")

Former Press Secretaries Speak Out

Joe Strupp writes in Editor and Publisher: "Ari Fleischer, who served as President George W. Bush's first press secretary, added to the growing criticism of Vice President Dick Cheney's handling of the weekend shooting incident in Texas, telling E&P this afternoon that it 'crosses the threshold of news worthiness that ought to be announced and explained.' "

That came only hours after Strupp wrote: "Former White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater criticized Vice President Dick Cheney Tuesday for delaying the release of information about his hunting accident on Saturday, saying Cheney 'ignored his responsibility to the American people.' He told E&P he was 'appalled by the whole handling of this.' "

Legal Questions

John D. McKinnon and Greg Hitt write in the Wall Street Journal: "[T]he local district attorney said late yesterday that he has seen nothing so far to indicate charges are warranted. But whether the incident causes lasting political damage may yet depend on how Mr. Cheney responds, and whether it appears to the public that the vice president is being treated differently from other hunters involved in accidental shootings. . . .

"In Texas, Carlos Valdez, the district attorney whose office would prosecute any suspected crimes, said that he has seen no indication of criminal wrongdoing. . . .

"Prosecutors have latitude in such cases, legal experts said. In Mr. Valdez's office, 'if all the witnesses agree that it was an accident . . . we let it go at that,' absent evidence of recklessness or criminal negligence, the district attorney said. Mr. Valdez added that if Mr. Whittington were to die, it could trigger a grand jury investigation. . . .

"Randy Wilson, an Abilene, Texas, lawyer who is president of the state's criminal defense lawyers association, said he believes prosecutors might be able to find a basis for charges -- for instance, a reckless-endangerment charge."

Medical Questions

Lawrence K. Altman writes in the New York Times: "The account given yesterday by doctors caring for the Texas lawyer accidentally shot by Vice President Dick Cheney last weekend raises serious questions about how and when a pellet entered his heart and what tests were done to establish where the pellet was lodged, doctors not connected with his case said.

"Although the public was told for the first time yesterday that a shotgun pellet from a hunting accident had lodged in the lawyer's heart, one of his doctors said that 'we knew that he had some birdshot very close to the heart from the get-go,' but not its precise location. . . .

"Earlier accounts described as minor the pellet wounds that the lawyer, Harry M. Whittington, suffered in the face, neck, chest and ribs."

Clinton's View

George Rush and Joanna Molloy write in their New York Daily News gossip column: "Speaking to us Monday night, the former President allowed that we should cut Cheney some slack if he was hunting 'in a serious quail place, where wild birds land,' where 'you've got to rustle them up and they fly fast. A lot of times you can't see them on the ground, and you do turn and fire. As awful as it looks, [accidents] happen.'

"But then there's the kind of place where Cheney's known to hunt - where, Clinton noted, 'They raise the quail on a farm.' He added: 'It's hardly a sport. The quail are slow. You have to stomp on the ground to get them to get up and fly. And you can't not get your limit. If it was that kind of farm, then, whatever the facts are, the Vice President shouldn't have done that. Because he was going to get his limit.' "

Humor Watch

Timothy McNulty writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Late-night television kicked off last night sparing the 78-year-old lawyer Dick Cheney shot in a hunting accident Saturday, but continued to target the vice president.

" 'Happy Valentine's Day. Good news, good news today -- so far Dick Cheney has not shot anybody,' David Letterman said in his 'Late Night' monologue on CBS.

" 'But the real question now is -- is this a one-time thing or will the vice president try to kill again?' Mr. Letterman said later.

"Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's 'Daily Show' showed a color-coded threat level chart like that used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, saying that, based on lawyer Harry Whittington's heart attack, 'we're going to downgrade the condition of the story from 'Incredibly Hilarious' to 'Still funny, but, mmm, now a little sad.' "

Here are more Cheney political cartoons from Slate .

Opinion Watch

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post column: "Nobody died at Armstrong Ranch, but this incident reminds me a bit of Sen. Edward Kennedy's delay in informing Massachusetts authorities about his role in the fatal automobile accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969. That story, and dozens of others about the Kennedy family, illustrates how wealthy, powerful people can behave as if they are above the law. For my generation, the fall of Richard Nixon is the ultimate allegory about how power can corrupt and destroy. It begins not with venality but with a sense of God-given mission."

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times column (subscription required): "As the story of the weekend's bizarre hunting accident is wrenched out of the White House, the picture isn't pretty: With American soldiers dying in Iraq, Five-Deferment Dick 'I Had Other Priorities in the 60's Than Military Service' Cheney gets his macho kicks gunning down little birds and the occasional old man while W. rides his bike, blissfully oblivious to any collateral damage. Shouldn't these guys work on weekends until we figure out how to fix Iraq, New Orleans, Medicare and gas prices?"

From a USA Today editorial : "Cheney has plenty of high-priced public relations experts on his payroll to give him advice, so he probably doesn't needs ours. But for what it's worth: Go to Corpus Christi. Comfort your friend. Hold a news conference in the hospital parking lot. Explain what happened. Express anguish. Take responsibility.

"That won't end all the jokes, but it might take the sting out of many of them."

But apparently Cheney reads the National Review, not USA Today.

From a National Review editorial: "Cheney himself should make a public appearance on the matter, and the sooner the better. He should get himself with a respected national anchor -- perhaps Brit Hume of Fox News -- as soon as this evening to express his regret and explain in his own words what happened. He should stop relying on press aides who were not present at the accident to tell his side of the story. Not talking only feeds speculation, and aids the cause of those who want to lampoon and smear him. Let's hear from the vice president."

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