Thursday, February 16, 2006

Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday took full responsibility for accidentally shooting a hunting companion, but defended his decision not to immediately disclose the mishap.

“I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend,” Mr. Cheney said. “It was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life.”

He added, “The image of him falling is something that I’ll never be able to get out of my mind.”

The interview with Fox News Channel was the vice president’s first public explanation since spraying his friend, 78-year-old lawyer Harry Whittington, with birdshot while hunting quail on a Texas ranch Saturday.

The birdshot struck Mr. Whittington in the face, neck and chest, with one pellet later moving toward his heart and causing a mild heart attack. Mr. Whittington was in intensive care yesterday, but hospital officials said that this was for privacy reasons not medical ones and that his heartbeat was back to normal.

Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial administrator Peter Banko said Mr. Whittington had dismissed the furor over his shooting as “much ado about nothing.”

Mr. Cheney has come under criticism from the Washington press corps for not immediately notifying reporters of the accident. Instead, he said he decided to let the ranch owner, Katharine Armstrong, break the news to a local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, on Sunday.

That decision led to cries of outrage from White House correspondents.

“The press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them — they didn’t like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of the New York Times,” the vice president said. “But it strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as the New York Times is — especially to cover a major story in south Texas.”

Mr. Cheney was unapologetic about snubbing the national press, even saying he personally resisted calls from White House officials to get the information out more swiftly.

“I thought that was the correct call,” he told interviewer Brit Hume. “I still do.”

He added, “My first reaction, Brit, was not to think I needed to call the press. My first reaction is: ‘My friend Harry has been shot. And we’ve got to take care of him.’”

The vice president also said he wanted Mr. Whittington’s family notified before the news was broken to journalists.

The vice president’s insistence on taking full responsibility for the accident marked a shift in strategy for the administration.

Previously, the White House suggested that Mr. Whittington had violated a hunting “protocol” by not making his whereabouts more clearly known to Mr. Cheney.

“It’s not Harry’s fault,” the vice president said yesterday. “You can’t blame anybody else.”

The White House hoped that yesterday’s interview, which was conducted in the vice president’s ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, would begin to quell the story that has dominated the headlines for days.

Democrats had tried to turn the mishap into a larger political issue by saying it exemplified the administration’s unhealthy fixation with secrecy.

“A tendency of this administration — from the top all the way to the bottom — is to withhold information,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, on Tuesday. “The refusal of this administration to level with the American people on matters large and small is very disturbing.”

In yesterday’s 27-minute interview, Mr. Cheney gave a detailed account of the accident. He said he fired his shotgun at a quail before seeing Mr. Whittington, who was half-hidden in a gully 30 yards away.

“The bird flushed and went to my right,” he recalled. “I turned and shot at the bird, and at that second, saw Harry standing there. I didn’t know he was there.

“I saw him fall,” he said. “I ran over to him.”

“I said, ‘Harry, I had no idea you were there,’” Mr. Cheney added. “He didn’t respond. He was bleeding.”

A medical aide who was traveling with the vice president treated Mr. Whittington, who was then taken by ambulance to one hospital before being transferred to a second by helicopter.

“I had no idea how serious it was going to be. I mean, it could have been extraordinarily serious,” Mr. Cheney said. “You just don’t know at that moment.

“You know he’s been struck, you know that there’s a lot of shot that hit him,” he added. “You think about his eyes.

“Fortunately, he was wearing hunting glasses that protected his eyes.”

The vice president called Mr. Whittington “a true Texas gentleman.”

“When I first saw him in the hospital, for example, he said, ‘Look, I don’t want this to create problems for you,’ ” he recalled. “He said he was more concerned about me and the impact on me than he was on the fact that he’d been shot.”

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