So far as we now know, Vice President Cheney did nothing wrong. Leading a bird with a 28-gauge shotgun, in late afternoon, he mistakenly shot in the face, neck and torso a hunting companion he thought he left a hundred yards behind.
Cheney’s doctor and Secret Service detail gave first aid, had the veep’s ambulance brought up and put the bleeding 78-year-old man in, and all went back to the Armstrong ranch for what had to be a horrible evening of anxiety about how gravely Harry Whittington had been wounded.
By 8 p.m., White House Chief of Staff Andy Card knew of the accident and Karl Rove had called Katharine Armstrong and been informed the vice president was the shooter.
The sheriff came around early the next morning and met with Cheney. As Cheney had no traveling press aide, it was agreed that Armstrong would inform the local paper. By afternoon Sunday, the story was on the wires.
But Monday, it had become something else altogether, as the White House press corps took on the aspect of that Muslim mob outside the Danish consulate in Beirut. Press secretary Scott McClellan, mild-mannered presenter of the daily press line, got the full Abu Ghraib treatment.
What caused the riot in the briefing room? The White House press corps, self-anointed custodians and conveyers of all news from the White House, had been left in the dark about what had happened in that field, while some little paper in Texas had broken the story, 12 hours after the accident. They had been left out of the loop.
To the White House press corps, it was all about them, about why they were not told, and thus there must be a Nixonian cover-up going on. But as the berating and badgering of McClellan went on and on, broadcast on cable, with clips rebroadcast all week, the White House press corps suffered serious damage. Right-wing talk radio replayed the clips and ripped them to pieces.
Rather than being seen as the informed and cool customers they play on talk shows, the White House press corps came off as nasty prep-school bullies. Said Dana Milbank of The Washington Post: "The press always looks awful. They (the White House) will once again make us look awful."
But the truth is the press revealed itself. The White House had nothing to do with it, unless one believes Cheney went dark for four days knowing a frustrated White House press would go berserk.
Yet, off-putting as their conduct was, the press succeeded. They directed the nation’s attention to the shooting. They drove the story into headlines. They captured the agenda from George Bush. They raised suspicions about the incident that linger. They forced the vice president to accept responsibility in an interview with Fox News. And they appear to have driven a wedge between the White House and Cheney, if not between the president and Cheney. By midweek, White House aides were leaking word President Bush felt his vice president mishandled the incident.
The press corps damaged itself, but it also damaged the White House, too, which should take note. The adversary press of the Nixon era is back, and it is out for blood.
As some of us have long argued, the Washington press corps — deeply ideologized as it is — is both a cargo vessel of news and information and a carrier of contraband. Though it flies a neutral flag, there is nothing neutral about it. The D.C. press corps is to liberalism what the Inquisition was to Catholicism: the defender of orthodoxy and scourge of heretics.
In the endless war in Washington, the national press corps is the most formidable ally of the Democratic Party. If it sides with a GOP president, as the press corps did from 9-11 to March 2003, the president is almost invincible.
But when the press returns to its ideological camp, and turns the full force of its hostility on the White House, as it did on Nixon in Watergate and Reagan in Iran-Contra, it is the Democrats’ last, best hope of bringing down a president.
Cheney’s mistake in this episode was that he acted as a normal human being, not a vice president being stalked. He gave his enemies an opening, and they stormed through it. The lesson of last week is that the Bush White House had better get its act together, because the adversary press has its act together.
They aim to take this president down, and last week they got the scent of blood in their nostrils. It was written all over them in that pressroom.
They liked it, and they will be back.