- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

Sometimes the White House press corps gets it right: Dick Cheney had some ‘splaining to do.

His hunting accident may not have been the most important news story of the day Monday (the day Iran resumed enriching uranium). But 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 Republicans 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 taciturn, but his failure to admit what he had done immediately after the incident is puzzling nonetheless. Instead of releasing a statement Saturday evening, Mr. Cheney 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, Mr. Card did not initially realize Mr. Cheney was the shooter responsible. Upon learning of the accident, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove called Katharine Armstrong, owner of the ranch where the accident occurred, and discovered Mr. Cheney was involved. Mr. Rove called the president around 8 p.m., 11/2 hours after the accident, telling him what details he knew.

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 Web site, following a call from Mrs. Armstrong informing them of the event.

So why didn’t Mr. Card, Mr. Rove or the president get on the phone to Mr. Cheney to discuss releasing a statement? Certainly Mr. Rove understood that the best thing to do was to get the information out quickly.

And why did they let a private citizen, Mrs. Armstrong, deliver the news to the press instead of issuing a White House statement? 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 the lid on 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 treating Mr. Whittington, a bit of birdshot migrated to his heart, triggering a mild, asymptomatic heart attack, 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.

Millions of hunters would sympathize with Mr. Cheney’s mistake. From the details provided so far, it appears neither Mr. Whittington nor Mr. Cheney followed hunting guidelines perfectly. Mr. Whittington came up from behind the line of fire without announcing his presence, and Mr. 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 how Mr. Cheney handled prewar intelligence and to implicate him in outing CIA agent Valerie Plame. The last thing you want to do when unfairly attacked is to behave in ways that make those criticisms seem on the mark.

By failing to notify the press immediately, Mr. Cheney delivered a self-inflicted wound to his own reputation. Now that he has explained himself to Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume, this story should be relegated to the minor incident it always was. Too bad the vice president didn’t do this four days earlier.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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