Alas, a scandal the city slickers in the White House press room, who know everything, can’t understand. Dick Cheney peppers a man with birdshot on a quail hunt in Texas.
Guns, bad. Quail hunting, bad. So far, so good. There must be a capital crime in here somewhere. But what happened next could have been out of a rewrite of “Scoop,” Evelyn Waugh’s classic press novel about the empty vanities of posturing journalists trying to cover their ignorance with bluster and bullying.
The man who took a face full of birdshot — tiny pellets the size of BBs — was quickly relegated to a bit part. He wasn’t seriously hurt, he’s recovering, and he isn’t mad at the vice president. But in Washington, where making a set of matched luggage out of a sow’s ear is a thriving industry, the politics are far more important than what happened to Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old Austin lawyer who was a member of the hunting party. The shooting was an accident; no one suggests otherwise (yet). Mr. Whittington violated the protocol of the hunt by not announcing that he was walking across the line of fire when a covey of quail suddenly took flight, and Mr. Cheney fired.
For many of the White House reporters, accustomed to getting their snippets of news out of a government spoon, having to learn about the incident from the local newspaper was the insult beyond injury. The posting of the transcript of the “gaggle,” the mid-morning torturing of Scott McClellan, the president’s press agent, offers the full flavor of Men at Work around his desk:
David Gregory of NBC News: “The vice president shoots a man, and he feels that it’s appropriate for a ranch owner who witnessed this to tell a local Corpus Christi newspaper, not the White House press corps at large, or notify the public in a national way?”
Though the actual shooting of Mr. Whittington was an accident, there is certainly a very, very serious crime here, and Mr. Gregory nails it. Telling the Corpus Christi Caller-Times the news first is capital crime writ large. Knowing how important press notabilities really are should be the first responsibility of any president’s press secretary. Corpus Christi, small. Television swellhead, bigger.
The comic opera grew ever more entertaining, as voices were raised, coiffures were mussed, spittle sent flying, and heat replaced light. Mr. Gregory accused Mr. McClellan of “ducking and weaving.”
Replied Mr. McClellan: “David, hold on … the cameras aren’t on right now. You can do this later.”
“Don’t accuse me of trying to pose to the cameras. [Voice rising] Don’t be a jerk to me personally when I’m asking you a serious question.”
“You don’t have to yell.”
“I will yell.” [He pointed a finger at the dais.] “If you want to use that podium to take shots at me personally, which I don’t appreciate, then I will raise my voice, because that’s wrong.”
“Calm down, Dave, calm down.”
But being calm is not what such worthies are paid to do, and this looked like the smoking gun, so to speak, that the pursuers of Dick Cheney have been looking for. Peter Baker, the White House reporter for The Washington Post, chatting online, tells how he and his fellows were “flabbergasted” by news of such titanic import breaking out on such a snowy day. Nothing so flabbergasting had happened to a vice president since Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in 1804, but that was in a duel “and that was actually intentional and in that case the victim died.”
By day’s end, some of the White House press worthies were trying to get a Texas sheriff to open an investigation. But Mr. Whittington is recovering, rotten luck, and making a murder charge stick would be difficult. (Only a corpse could give this story legs.) The Texas authorities are more bemused than interested, since such accidents are commonplace in bird-hunting country. Birdshot wounds are rarely serious, and many a good ol’ boy has been peppered in an unmentionable place, climbing out of a lady’s boudoir at 4 in the morning. Your best friend on that occasion is someone with a soft pillow and a pair of tweezers, but it smarts.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.