Start 'Splaining, Cheney

Sometimes the White House press corps gets it right: Dick Cheney had some ‘splaining to do. While the vice president’s hunting accident may not have been the most important news story of the day Monday (the same day Iran began enriching uranium again), reporters were right to badger the White House press spokesman about the long delay in revealing what had happened and why the "official" announcement came from a private citizen rather than the White House. The public had the right to know immediately that the vice president of the United States had accidentally shot someone while hunting. For all those Republicans who are playing this as much ado about nothing, imagine their reaction if John Kerry or Al Gore or Bill Clinton had done the same thing.

The vice president is known for being a taciturn fellow, but his failure to admit what he had done immediately following the incident is puzzling nonetheless. Instead of releasing a statement Saturday evening, the vice president apparently chose to maintain public silence. It is not entirely clear who called White House Chief of Staff Andy Card to inform him a hunting accident had occurred in the vice president’s party, but according to news reports, Card did not initially realize that Cheney was the shooter responsible. Upon learning of the accident, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove called Katharine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch where the accident occurred, and discovered the vice president was involved. Rove called the president around 8 p.m., an hour and a half after the accident, telling him the details as he knew them. The first official word from the vice president’s office came 20 hours after the shooting, when a Texas newspaper posted a story about the incident on its website, following a call from Ms. Armstrong informing them of the event.

So why didn’t Card, Rove or the president get on the phone to Cheney to discuss releasing a statement? Certainly Rove understood that the best thing to do was to get the information out quickly. And why did they let a private citizen, Ms. Armstrong, deliver the news to the press instead of issuing a statement from the White House? Sure, there would be a lot of questions, finger-pointing and not a few bad jokes if the president’s or vice president’s spokesman had made the announcement, but it is not as if trying to keep a lid on this quelled the obvious reaction. And matters have suddenly turned more serious now that the victim, 78-year-old Harry Whittington, appears to have suffered a "silent heart attack" as a result of his injuries. According to doctors who are treating Whittington, a piece of birdshot migrated to his heart, triggering a mild, asymptomatic heart attack, which was discovered when he was put on monitoring equipment Tuesday.

Accidents happen — and hunting accidents are relatively rare. According to one recent study of hunting accidents in Texas, 29 people were injured in 2004, for a rate of 2.7 accidents per 100,000 hunting licenses granted. But that makes it all the more peculiar that the White House didn’t accept responsibility for what happened earlier. There are millions of hunters who would sympathize with Cheney’s mistake. From the details provided so far, it appears that both Whittington and Cheney did not follow hunting guidelines perfectly. Whittington came up from behind the line of fire without announcing his presence, and Cheney pivoted to take a shot without making sure he knew where everyone in his party was at the moment.

By not coming forward in person or through a spokesman soon after the event, the vice president played into all the worst stereotypes about himself. The litany is familiar: He is out of touch, duplicitous, arrogant, above-the-law. These are the same criticisms used — I believe unfairly — to describe the way Cheney handled pre-war intelligence and to implicate him in outing CIA agent Valerie Plame. The last thing you want to do when you are unfairly attacked, however, is to behave in ways that make those criticisms seem on the mark. By failing to notify the press immediately, the vice president delivered a self-inflicted wound to his own reputation. Too bad the vice president didn’t do this four days earlier.