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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, February 15, 2006; 1:00 PM


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome.

Sometimes you people ask me to make predictions, and I generally demur. You want to know why? I'll give you an example. I wrote my whole column this morning based on the assumption that Vice President Cheney would hold out at least one more day before going public on his hunting accident.

Then, just before my deadline, Fox News announces Cheney's doing an interview with Brit Hume later today! Argh! I had to do some quick rewriting. You can

read today's column here


The interview is supposed to take place around 2 p.m., and Fox News is promising to air bits and pieces ASAP, and the whole thing at 6.

This morning, the big question in Washington was: How much longer before Cheney cracks?

Now the big questions are: How tough will Hume be? And how defensive will Cheney be? Will he show any remorse, or come out shooting at the messengers?

Although Hume and Fox have typically been easy interviews for this White House, you can count on Hume to ask at least a few tough questions, given the circumstances. But will he follow up? Will he force Cheney to be specific about what happened, and why he initially hid the facts from the public?

Or will he accept the preposterous notion that Cheney's concern about his hunting buddy's health was so consuming that it paralyzed a fully staffed command center capable of running the most powerful nation in the world -- and somehow precluded quickly and accurately informing the White House and the American people?

And will Cheney actually eat quail? Hard to imagine.


Silver Spring, Md.: What are the chances of Fox News asking Cheney any remotely pointed questions about the shooting? Does Brit Hume have a good reputation among fellow journalists as someone who's wiling to ask this administration tough questions? Or is this interview likely to include only those questions Cheney has approved in advance?

Dan Froomkin: Hume is sufficiently in the mainstream that there is no conceivable way that he would let his questions be pre-screened.

And unlike some Fox "anchors", Hume is not actually a full-fledged conservative commentator.

That said, I mean, hello? It's Fox News. Unless Hume decides to bend over backwards to prove that he and his network are not conservative, Cheney can expect much gentler treatment than he'd get on any other network. That's why

The National Review

suggested it, and that's why Cheney did it.


Alexandria, Va.: This morning Charles Babington dismissed a question about whether Cheney might have delayed the reporting of his shooting because he had been drinking by saying "there is no evidence that drinking was involved." Is that an effective response, in light of the fact that the practical effect of the delay was to prevent the discovery of such evidence? It seems to me that the fear of discovery of consumption of alcohol is the most obvious reason to delay, and is the one thing that would be worth the negative publicity that he knew the delay would create.

Dan Froomkin: Here's the transcript of Chuck's chat .

You guys seem to have lots of questions about alcohol. And indeed, the possibility that alcohol was involved has been burning up the blogosphere since day one.

I'm quite sure the possibility has occurred to every single person who's written about this story. It's certainly one of the first things any normal person would suspect. And Cheney, of course, was twice

convicted of drunk driving

in the early 1960s

But because absolutely no evidence to suggest such a thing has emerged, reporters have largely dismissed the possibility.


Kennedy County Sheriff's Office

said there was no alcohol involved -- but keep in mind they didn't talk to Cheney until the next morning. (And the

Talk Left

blog has some interesting background on Kennedy County.)

This piece about Katharine Armstrong by

Aram Roston

for MSNBC stirred up quite a fuss in the blogosphere yesterday after bloggers noticed (see the

Crooks and Liars blog

) that an earlier version included this paragraph:

"Armstrong also told NBC News that she does not believe alcohol was involved in the accident. She says she believes no one that day was drinking, although she says there may have been beer available during a picnic lunch that preceded the incident. 'There may be a beer or two in there,' she said, 'but remember not everyone in the party was shooting.'"

So yeah, I agree with Chuck that there is no evidence -- but, as he says further down, that doesn't mean it's not a legitimate question to ask.

In fact, I think it's incumbent on Brit Hume not just to ask it, but also to follow up. Were you drunk? Had you had anything to drink? Do you understand that by refusing to meet with the police until the next morning, you have made some people suspicious on that count? Can you provide any witnesses to support your assertion? That sort of thing.


San Luis Obispo, CA: Were these game birds really domesticated or were they wild?

Dan Froomkin: I would love to know the answer. Haven't seen anything definitive on that. I know that Cheney has a history of participating in "canned" pheasant and duck hunting events, but I don't know about the Armstrong Ranch....

Apparently, former President Bill Clinton is wondering the same thing. See today's

George Rush and Joanna Molloy

gossip column in the New York Daily News.


Anonymous: I find Dick Cheney's behavior in this incident as nothing less than cowardly. His utter refusal to acknowledge any responsibility and face the embarrassment of a public statement is unconscionable. And where are the Republicans calling for personal responsibility? I used to think the refusal to admit a mistake was simply Texas/Wyoming macho posturing, but this incident seems to run much deeper. I also see Cheney's and the administration's fear of potentially uncontrolled and unfriendly interactions with the American people and the press also as cowardice in this light. Any thoughts on this?

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, I think his conduct doesn't pass what I call the schoolyard test.

If little Dick was playing soccer at recess and by mistake kicked the hell out of little Harry, would it be appropriate for Dick to publicly blame Harry? I don't think so.

And yes, I'm officially throwing open the floor for more schoolyard analogies.


Danville, Calif.: Though Fox is starting to spin the Cheney story as "reporters out of control," I'm more interested in why it takes something as soap-operaish as the Cheney shooting to get their juices flowing. The last time they got this agitated as when it turned out they had been deceived by Scott McClellan over Rove et al's involvement in the Plame outing. Why can't they show the same outrage and tenacious questioning about issues that in themselves are substantively important. Sure, whether the White House lied about its involvement in outing Plame, the more important issues such as deception around selling the Medicare drug plan, the details of the budget, the Iraq war etc. etc. etc. are instances that the Cheney incident merely echoes.

Dan Froomkin: I think both criticisms are partly justified.

But this story has a certain irresistibility to it. And it manifestly exposes one of the open secrets of this administration: That Cheney is a real pistol.

I thought

Dick Polman

captured it nicely in the Philadelphia Inquirer today, when he wrote: "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."


Delmar, N.Y.: Why haven't we heard anything from the other participant in the Vice President's hunting group, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, Pamela Willeford? She presumably was in a much better position to report what actually happened than Katharine Armstrong who was some distance away in a car and initially thought the commotion had something to do with Dick Cheney's heart condition. While details about this incident have been attributable to Ms. Armstrong, there has been almost no mention in the press about Ms. Willeford let alone her take on the incident.

Dan Froomkin: Good point. Willeford did grant a fairly detailed interview to

Dave Michaels and Todd J. Gillman

of the Dallas Morning News, in which she corroborated Katharine Armstrong's general outline.

"The three of us were out of the vehicle hitting a covey," she said. "Harry Whittington dropped back to pick up a bird he'd shot. The vice president and I moved on to shoot another covey, and unbeknownst to us, Harry had picked up a bird and caught up with us. He had walked up, and we didn't realize that he had caught up with us," she said.

"He was back behind us, and we turned off to the left to shoot another covey. ... The bird came up and was going back down, and you know how you swing on it, with your gun, following a bird," she said.

But it seems to me there are a lot more questions she could answer. And she is, after all, a public official.

Bush named her

ambassador to Switzerland

in 2003. She's a longtime Bush family friend and

campaign donor

, natch.


New York, N.Y.: Blaming the victim is truly unsportsmanlike.

In addition to finding out whether Cheney had been drinking, it seems key to find out the distance between the shooter and the victim. They must have been fairly close for the pellets to go through the victim's clothing and safety vest, to affect the heart, no?

Dan Froomkin: That's another one of the bigger, logistical, unanswered questions.

I was quite impressed by this fascinating video, that I linked to yesterday, in which Corpus Christi Caller-Times photographer

George Gongora

recreated the accident -- by shooting a human-sized target from 90 feet with a 29-gauge shotgun. The spread looked a lot like what Whittington was said to have been hit by. But I don't know about the impact.


Shingletown, Calif.: If Hume doesn't ask Cheney the alcohol question, what do you think the chances are that he will ever have to deny the accusation on the record? Would you care to speculate on any other reason that Cheney would have deliberately delayed reporting this incident for so long?

Dan Froomkin: There are lots of possibilities. It could have been an immature, petulant refusal to acknowledge what happened. It could have been a way to cover up -- or consider covering up -- for some other kind of negligence. It could have been just to spite the media. It could have been an intense aversion to being held accountable. Or I guess he could have just forgotten.


Norman, Okla.: I've been wondering about this for some time now. Why is this administration so afraid of real, two-way communication with the public? Some examples, although you won't need them: If the Iraq war is such a good idea, why did the president refuse to meet with Cindy Sheehan as she requested? If the President's plan for changing Social Security was such a good idea, why did he limit his public appearances to controlled audiences that were friendly to his ideas?

Dan Froomkin: Bush is notoriously impatient with dissent. So if he can avoid it -- and there's no public outcry -- then it's a no-brainer. What I don't understand is why there's been so little public outcry.


Bristow, Va.: Tell me Dan, WHY does the VP have to come out and say something to the press? Why does he have to tell the public what his thoughts and feelings are? Why does the VP have to rehash the events that have already been reported as facts?? I've got four words for you.... MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Hunting accidents happened all the time. In this case, the only person who Cheney beholden to was the friend he accidentally hit with birdshot, and according to facts, he took care of that. What bearing does this event and his private-only response have on his office and the daily operation of this great country? What more do you think that you can get out of this? Aren't there more pressing stories to cover?? Or is this the national press corp thumping their chests and making news instead of covering it?? Fanning the flames of politics??

Dan Froomkin: I understand how some people think the press is overreacting. But I don't understand people who just want to act like ostriches and pretend nothing happened.

The vice president of the United States shot a 78-year-old man in the head. That's news.

He refuses to tell anyone about what happened. That's news.

You may not share my passion for this story, but how anyone can say it's not news, I just don't get it.

And when you're the president, or the vice president, you're always acting officially, even when you're on vacation. You're traveling on the taxpayer dollar, surrounded by federal employees, you have a responsibility to conduct yourself appropriately. You're also a role model, like it or not.


Berkeley, Calif.: The White House wants to claim that they were fully engaged on the response to Katrina. Given how poorly the response went, is that really a sound strategy? Is incompetence a better public face than indifference?

Dan Froomkin: This is one story that's certainly been unfairly eclipsed by the Cheney story. And your point is interesting.


College park, Md.: We now know that Libby said his "'superiors' had authorized him to disclose national intelligence in the summer of 2003." Who, besides Cheney, are his 'superiors'? I really have no idea of the chain of command in the White House with respect to the Office of the VP.

Dan Froomkin: As "assistant to the president and chief of staff to the vice president," my understanding is that Libby would report to Cheney, Bush, and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.

But it's also conceivable that he would report to a deputy chief of staff, either Joe Hagin or -- yes -- Karl Rove!


Tucson, Ariz.: To go back to the Plame investigation. With recent news about superiors allowing Libby to talk, do you know the legal ramifications for the Vice President if it comes out in a public trial that he gave the order? What happens if he just says that the President told him it was okay, does it no longer have the same secrecy then?

Dan Froomkin: The interesting thing is that Libby was indicted for obstruction of justice and perjury -- not divulging classified information. Unless he says he was ordered to lie, the fact that he may or may not have been authorized to leak would appear to be a red herring. But that may be precisely the point.


Portland, Ore.: Dan:

Your remark about Cheney being a "role model" is right on -- just as we were told when Clinton engaged in his sorry behavior. My 7-year-old was curious about what my wife and I were talking about regarding Cheney's "accident," and as I explained I had to further explain that this is not how we behave. When we do something wrong, we take responsibility, advise the proper authorities promptly and do the necessary penance. There are people who demand this of professional athletes, but are amazed we should expect it from the Vice President of the United States? Amazing.

Dan Froomkin: I imagine it might be hard to explain to a 7-year-old that shooting someone isn't wrong as long as it's the other person's fault.


Boston, Mass.: Dan,

I really look forward to your column, in part because you put some perspective to the incredible sterility of the White House beat reporters. My question, doesn't this intense focus on Cheney's hunting incident suck all the air out of town and prevent real stories like the latest developments from Republicans eating their own on Katrina, White House lobbying to beat back domestic surveillance hearings, "superiors" (POTUS/VPOTUS?) telling Libby to divulge classified info, etc. from getting their proper due? Can you lead the pack and make your column Quail-free tomorrow?


Dan Froomkin: Oh, dear, I don't think I'm strong enough to do that.


New York, N.Y.: Once again, there's this bizarre prioritization on the Republicans' part (although, to be fair, many have seemed confused and angry about the VP's "accident"). They get worked up in a lather about Clinton hooking up with an intern, but have no problem being lied to about a war, the deaths of thousands of American soldiers or the Vice President of the United States of America shooting a man in 2006! How, and in what fantasy world, is a personal affair more egregious than almost killing someone?

Dan Froomkin: Look, it is quite possible -- in fact probable -- that this was truly a freak accident. In other words, that Cheney didn't do anything wrong, at least not on purpose.

Volition is relevant here. For instance, it's hard to argue that Clinton didn't do what he did on purpose.

The reason this is more than a one-day story, however, is that Cheney's stonewalling has raised doubts about what happened -- and has raised concerns about whether he considers himself answerable to anyone.


Boulder, Colo.: I bet Brit Hume ask Cheney "don't you wish the media would show a little more respect for Mr. Whittington's family?"

Dan Froomkin: Funny.


Dan Froomkin: OK thanks everyone. Sorry I couldn't get to more of your questions. I'll see you again here in two weeks and every afternoon on the home page.


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