Cheney’s Bad Aim

Shoot first; don’t answer questions later.

In a distant corner of a faraway land known as “Texas,” a shotgun blast rang out and a man fell to the ground, wounded. Natives called the shooter by an obscure title: “Vice President of the United States of America.” Surrounding him was a clan of primitive warriors, their buckskin belts weighed down by tribal trinkets they dubbed “cell phones,” “walkie-talkies,” “BlackBerrys,” and “two-way pagers.” On the roadside sat their humble transport, massive vehicles capable of little beyond serving as the command center for the most powerful nation in the world. So, no wonder that news of the shooting took a day to make it 60 long miles away to Corpus Christi, and from there, to the outside world.

Vice President Cheney shot a man in the head on Saturday, and 21 hours later you had to be looking at the Web page of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times to find out about it. (The victim has now suffered a heart attack as a result of being shot.) As White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan picked buckshot out of his own hide, he said “the vice president’s office was working to make sure information got out. We learned additional information overnight—throughout the night. We were learning additional information here in Washington.”

If the vice president’s office was “working,” it was working awfully slowly. They didn’t even let McClellan know until 6 a.m. Sunday morning, 12 hours after the hunter had been “peppered.” McClellan, by focusing on the distinction between what was going on “here in Washington” and what might have been going on down on the ranch, tried an unusual strategy for such a unified administration: to separate the president from the vice president. McClellan implied that it was Cheney’s show and it was his advisers who held up the information. Furthermore, McClellan reminded the press corps, he did things differently. He recounted what had happened last July when President Bush collided with a police officer during the G8 in Scotland. Reporters were notified quickly and given a rundown on Bush, his bike, the condition of the officer and the phone call Bush placed to make sure the officer was okay.

Perhaps the even more apt analogy was Bush’s own hunting incident in 1994. When the gubernatorial candidate accidentally killed a protected killdeer during a dove shoot, he wrote that he reacted this way: “Karen [Hughes] and I looked at each other. What now? ‘We confess,’ we both said, almost simultaneously. Bush then called every reporter who had been on his hunting trip. He then announced it at a press conference. The lesson of the shooting, Bush wrote in his biography, is that “people watch the way you handle things; they get a feeling they like and trust you, or they don’t.”

Unfortunately for the president, Bush wasn’t able to give his vice president this advice. (He learned about the shooting from Karl Rove, who talked to the ranch owner.) Cheney played his own press secretary after this incident, agreeing with the owner of the ranch that there would be no official notice and that she could release the information herself. Cheney’s allies (and those are different than Bush allies in this case) argue that Cheney cared more about his hurt friend and his host than he did about informing the Beltway press. Maybe for the first hour or two, but to wait so long only points out what we always have known about the vice president: He doesn’t give a damn about the public or press’ right to know.

A Bush adviser once described the Cheney press strategy this way: “Never explain, never apologize.” This has damaged Cheney’s public standing and hurt the president, but it is a legitimate philosophical position, linked to his stingy views about sharing information with Congress. But in this case, treating the press like Patrick Leahy is bad staff work. As a veteran staffer of two administrations and a cabinet secretary in another, Dick Cheney should know that he is not supposed to embarrass his boss.

Cheney’s silence has forced White House aides to answer for the 21-hour delay without being able to give the real story (there is still no official account of what happened). The Cheney delay has also exacerbated questions about the Bush administration’s candor and truthfulness. Those topics were already in the news enough. Last week, the former CIA official who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year charged White House officials with “cherry-picking” intelligence on Iraq to justify a decision it had already reached to go to war. This week, Republicans in Congress will issue a report that says the Bush administration delayed the evacuation of thousands of New Orleans residents by failing to act quickly on early reports that the levees had broken during Hurricane Katrina, a charge that contradicts the president’s assertion about when they knew the levees would fail. Suddenly, a lot of columnists sound like Maureen Dowd, bemoaning the gang that can’t get the truth straight.

And at some point Cheney’s starchy behavior is also insulting. Shouldn’t there be some minimum level of explanation he’s willing to offer as the second-highest ranking public official? When you nearly commit manslaughter as a public official shouldn’t the honor of your office compel you to stand up and explain yourself in some fashion, at least say something in a press release and not just whisper it to a Texas rancher?

If that sense of duty doesn’t compel him, Cheney should see the political necessity of saying something fast. He doesn’t want the GOP to become the it’s-OK-to-shoot-people-while-hunting party. A few early words from Cheney could have quelled controversy (and, incidentally, saved us from the horrible spin his supporters are starting to offer: It’s just a flesh wound. Elite city opinion writers don’t know boo about quail hunting; I’ve been peppered my whole life, never hurt me.)

Aaron Burr was the last sitting vice president to shoot a man. He killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804. Since then, vice presidents have become known for attending funerals, not necessitating them. If Cheney had handled this right, it would have been a one-day story. Now, the vice president may find it won’t become history fast enough.