Cheney's image gets fresh blow

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a fellow hunter was the latest embarrassment for President Bush's image-challenged No. 2, and its aftermath dramatized the poor relations with the news media that have plagued Cheney since the start of the administration.

The 18-hour gap between the shooting of prominent Austin lawyer Harry M. Whittington on Saturday afternoon and when the vice president's office spoke to reporters about it fed stereotypes about Cheney, often portrayed as grouchy and secretive, who became known in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for disappearing to an "undisclosed location."


It was also the most recent instance of Cheney becoming the public face of the Bush administration's tight-lipped ways and a further blow to a vice president who took a beating last fall with the indictment and resignation of his top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., for his role in leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

As of last night, Cheney and his spokesmen had yet to issue a statement about the shooting incident. The vice president did not appear at an Oval Office photo session with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Bush had nothing to say about it there.


However, yesterday evening, Cheney's office released a five-paragraph statement explaining that Cheney had sent a $7 check to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which was expected to issue a warning to the vice president for his failure to obtain a required stamp for hunting upland game birds.

Some former Bush administration officials call the handling of the hunting episode symptomatic of Cheney's staff, describing his top aides as hostile to reporters and his press office as in turmoil.

The quail-hunting mishap on the Armstrong Ranch in southeast Texas, which occurred about 5:50 p.m. Saturday, took on a life of its own yesterday as reporters hammered the White House about why the public was not told earlier and why key details - such as who else was hunting with Cheney - were being kept secret.

One member of the hunting party was Pamela Willeford, a Texan who serves as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland. Cheney's spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, referred a reporter to Katharine Armstrong, whose mother owns the Armstrong Ranch, for information about others who were there with Cheney. Armstrong declined requests by The Sun to be interviewed.

Bush first learned of the shooting from his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., on Saturday night, and was told later that night by Karl Rove, his top political adviser, that Cheney had been involved, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

The 'first priority'

Peppered with questions at his daily news briefing, McClellan defended the White House failure to acknowledge that the shooting had taken place until the day after the incident, saying that the "first priority" was making sure that Whittington got proper medical attention.

It was Cheney's decision not to immediately release information about the shooting, said McClellan, adding that he heard about the accident Saturday night but did not learn of the vice president's involvement until Sunday.


Cheney's "first reaction was: Go to Mr. Whittington and get his team in there to provide him medical care," McClellan said. The vice president decided, along with Katherine Armstrong, that she should be the one to tell the news media. Her mother, Anne Armstrong, was a top official in Republican administrations dating back to the Nixon White House and a director of Halliburton Co. when Cheney was hired as chief executive.

Katherine Armstrong spoke by phone with a reporter from The Corpus Christi Caller-Times on Sunday morning about the shooting, said Shane Fitzgerald, the newspaper's managing editor. Cheney's office confirmed the account later that day.

Whittington remained hospitalized in Corpus Christi in stable condition, officials at the Christus Spohn Health System said yesterday. Administrator Peter Banko said the 78-year-old attorney was to be moved from intensive care to a normal medical surgical unit.

Whittington was "talking, awake, alert in good spirits," said Dr. David Blanchard, a physician who treated him, adding that the patient had been making jokes.

After Whittington was taken to the hospital on Saturday, Secret Service officials notified the Kenedy County sheriff of the accident and the sheriff arranged to interview Cheney at 8 o'clock the next morning, said Eric Zahren, a Secret Service spokesman.

"Anytime there's an incident, we're going to notify local law enforcement," especially if someone is taken to the hospital with injuries, Zahren said.


But authorities posted outside the Armstrong Ranch turned away local officers who arrived Saturday night to interview Cheney, a law enforcement source said.

Unlike Bush, Cheney does not have a news media contingent covering him at all times. Cheney travels with a small number of reporters only for certain official trips, as has been the practice of past vice presidents, and he and his staff are notoriously close-mouthed.

"Any press that doesn't have to do with being an advocate for the president or his policies is superfluous," said Mary Matalin, a former communications director in Cheney's office. "There's a persistence of the notion that this is something personal with him about the press. ... But his job is to advocate for the president."

Avid outdoorsman

An avid hunter and fisherman who has a compound on the outskirts of St. Michaels on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Cheney has been a frequent visitor to the 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch, where he has hunted with prominent Republicans and wealthy Bush donors.

He told The Sun last year that in addition to hunting quail in South Texas, he enjoys going after ducks in Maryland and pheasants in South Dakota.


Cheney caused a stir in January 2004 when he took Justice Antonin Scalia hunting in Louisiana just after the Supreme Court agreed to review a case involving a Bush administration energy task force that Cheney led.

The Texas hunting accident came at an inopportune time for Cheney, after the departure of his communications adviser Steve Schmidt and another top spokesman, Kevin Kellums. It is also an example of how his office's secretive approach can tarnish his image.


Sig Rogich, an image adviser to the first President Bush, said Cheney's reclusiveness comes from his "natural demeanor" and years of sparring with a press corps put off by his sometimes brusque style.

"I don't think he's media-shy. He's media-tough. He's media-hardened," said Rogich, adding that Cheney has been called on to answer some of the Bush administration's toughest critics.

Cheney "chooses to tell it on his own terms, in his own style, and perhaps because he is so forthright and a little blunt he does not get the best of it from the press," Rogich said.


He said the hunting accident is destined to be "fodder for the press for a long time," comparing it to other famous presidential foibles that became media jokes, such as Gerald R. Ford's stumble when leaving an airplane, immortalized in imitations by comedian Chevy Chase.

Already yesterday, a game had appeared on the Internet spoofing the hunting mishap. In the game, posted on the liberal blog The Huffington Post, a cartoon Cheney, holding a shotgun, takes aim at a bird and instead ends up blasting away at a Secret Service agent, a young girl or a fellow hunter in a bright orange vest.



5:50 p.m. CST - Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shoots Harry M. Whittington. Whittington is flown by helicopter to a hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, and admitted to the trauma-intensive care unit.


6:20-7 p.m. CST - Secret Service agents inform Kenedy County sheriff of the accident and make arrangements for the sheriff to interview Cheney at 8 a.m. the next day.

7:30 p.m. EST - Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. alerts President Bush at the White House about a shooting accident involving Cheney's quail hunting party but does not specify that Cheney was the shooter.

8 p.m. EST - Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove updates Bush, telling the president that Cheney was the shooter.


6 a.m. EST - White House press secretary Scott McClellan is awakened at home and told that Cheney was the shooter. He says he began urging the vice president's staff to release details of the incident.

Sunday morning - Katharine Armstrong, the host and an eyewitness to the accident, speaks with Cheney about notifying the news media.


8 a.m. CST -Armstrong starts trying to telephone Jaime Powell, a reporter at The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, to describe the accident.

Sunday morning - Cheney talks by telephone with Merce Whittington, the victim's wife, to check on his condition.

1:48 p.m. CST - The Caller-Times posts the first article about the incident on its Web site.

2:30 p.m. CST - Cheney visits Whittington at the Corpus Christi hospital before returning to Washington.

3:30 p.m. EST - News organizations confirm the Corpus Christi newspaper's account with the vice president's office at the White House.

From staff and New York Times reports.