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February 22-28, 2006

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Open Mic

The Shootist

By Ted Rall


If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide. Or does that only apply to victims of government wiretapping?

On Feb. 11, Dick Cheney shot one of his quail-hunting companions, 78-year-old lawyer Harry Whittington, in the face, neck and chest on the Armstrong Ranch in south Texas. What happened next was astonishing. What happened next was nothing.

For nearly 24 hours, there was no public statement, no press conference, no mention that the world's most powerful politician had blasted a guy with more than 250 shotgun pellets. Finally, Katharine Armstrong, part owner of the ranch and a participant in the hunting party (though not a witness to the shooting), called Cheney for direction.

"Mr. Vice President," she told him, "this is going to be public, and I'm comfortable going to the hometown newspaper."

"You go ahead and do whatever you are comfortable doing," she says he replied. Remember, Cheney is the man Bush supporters counted on to be the grownup.

Armstrong reported the incident to the local Corpus Christi Caller-Times, whose story became national after being picked up by the Associated Press wire service.

Talking to the media doesn't come naturally to a vice president who hasn't held a press conference for the last three and a half years, but what about the White House PR machine? Why did it take so long to let the news out?

Attorney Alan Dershowitz speculates that Cheney may have stalled to cover up drunkenness. "One possibility is that it takes approximately that period of time for alcohol to dissipate in the body and no longer be subject to accurate testing," Dershowitz writes. "It is fairly common for people involved in alcohol-related accidents to delay reporting them until the alcohol has left the body." Cheney has a history of public intoxication, having been twice convicted of DUI.

Sirius Radio's Alex Bennett says that "Cheney and Whittington went hunting with two women (not their wives), there was some drinking and Whittington wound up shot." Bob Cesca alleges that one of the two women, U.S. ambassador to Switzerland Pamela Willeford, is rumored to be "Cheney's Lewinsky." (Major difference: Lewinsky is hot.) Cesca elaborates: "The vice president's Secret Service detail had to decide what to do with Willeford by way of perhaps covering up her relationship with Cheney, and thus the delay in reporting the news."

Or maybe the cover-up was motivated by something more prosaic than getting plastered or getting laid: Cheney knew the shooting was his fault. Statements that he was "focused on the quail" indicate a phenomenon hunters call "target fixation"—when a shooter is so concentrated on shooting his target that he loses awareness of what's going on around him. Moreover, quail hunters are supposed to wait until the birds take flight before firing their guns. Cheney's victim was about 30 yards away, indicating that he shot his 28-guage straight across the ground.

Cheney probably didn't blow away his friend on purpose (although, without an investigation, we can't know for sure).

But the story still matters, particularly because he waited so long to tell it. In 1969, Sen. Ted Kennedy drove Mary Jo Kopechne off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island, near Martha's Vineyard. The fact that Kennedy waited nine hours to report the accident to the police, more than the accident itself, prompted the endless speculation that ensured he would never become president. Cheney should be held to the same standard.

What should we do? What should we say? There're typical questions after things go wrong. Logic dictates that, if he had nothing to hide, Cheney would have told his companions to tell the truth. There's only one reason to let hour after hour slip away, knowing full well that your delay will add chum to the media feeding frenzy: you need time to make sure everyone gets their story—your story—straight.

As usual for the Bush administration, the Cheney shooting raises more questions than answers. The Secret Service won't let Cheney run down to Connecticut Avenue to buy pizza. So why do they let him play with guns? If he likes killing things, why did he apply for five draft deferments during the Vietnam War? And most pressing, how stupid does White House press secretary Scott McClellan think we are?

"Why is it that it took so long for the president, for you, for anybody else to know that the vice president accidentally shot somebody?" asked a reporter.

"You know what [Cheney's] first reaction was? His first reaction was, 'Go to Mr. Whittington and get his team in there to provide him medical care.'" McClellan went on to suggest that the media focus on Bush's healthcare savings account plan.

If a millionaire like Whittington was forced to wait 24 hours to see a doctor, our healthcare system is in even bigger trouble than I thought.


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