Full of Holes

The gossip about Cheney’s bad shot.

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Austin, TEXAS—The headquarters of Harry Whittington, the 78-year-old Austin lawyer who was shot by Vice President Dick Cheney in a hunting accident Saturday, is the nondescript 10-story Vaughn Building, located a block from the Texas Capitol in downtown Austin. Because of Whittington’s lifelong Republican credentials, the building has always been a favorite of GOP politicos. Today, however, it has become ground zero for anyone trying to get the latest news about Harry’s condition, as well as about what really happened on the Armstrong Ranch last Saturday morning.

Harry’s office—he is always referred to by his first name here—is on the 10th floor, and many tenants have dropped in or called to inquire about how he’s doing. None of the ones I spoke to want to be quoted by name, because many of them are questioning the official accounts of the accident. The place is aswirl in rumor and speculation, especially since Harry suffered what was described as a mild heart attack Tuesday morning. Keep in mind that hunting, especially quail hunting, is deeply embedded in the political culture of this state, and invitations to hunt on prestigious spreads like the Armstrong Ranch are among the most prized of political perks.

The talk in the Vaughn Building centers around three questions:

Who was in charge of the hunt?As many Americans are learning for the first time, quail hunting is dangerous—arguably the most dangerous type of hunting. Participants, usually a threesome, follow dogs through thick brush and tall grass seeking what Karl Rove, a dedicated quail hunter, calls “the wily bob white.” When the quail flush, hunters are surrounded by panicked birds. Each hunter is supposed to fire forward, but in the adrenalin spike of the flush, it is easy to lose your bearings. That is why it’s good practice for someone who is not shooting to be in charge of the hunt. The hunters are supposed to maintain a horizontal line as they move forward, but this is harder * than it sounds in rough country. When someone falls behind—someone, for instance, like Harry Whittington—the person in charge calls a halt until the line forms up again. Whittington, as we know, dropped back to pick up a bird. This happens all the time in quail hunting; the question is, why did the other two hunters keep going? Perhaps, veteran quail hunters are speculating, no one was in charge on the Armstrong Ranch, leaving the three hunters in Dick Cheney’s party on their own while hostess Katharine Armstrong watched from the car that had transported them.

At what range was Harry Whittington hit?The official story is that the blast from the vice president’s shotgun hit Whittington at a distance of 30 yards. Hunters at the Vaughn Building are skeptical. The hunt took place on a cold, windy afternoon. Whittington and his fellow hunters were probably wearing warm clothing—say, a jacket and a flannel shirt. Cheney was using a 28-gauge shotgun, a smaller-diameter firearm with pellets smaller than BBs. Whittington’s friends question whether the pellets could have penetrated his layers of clothing and skin at that range. Yet two pellets lodged against his larynx, another was in his liver, and another migrated into the heart muscle, causing the heart attack. The pattern of wounds was between the lower chest and the forehead, a pretty tight zone for shot of 30 yards. If the range was considerably less than 30 yards, then it is likely that Whittington’s injuries were worse than the initial statement by Katharine Armstrong indicated. (The blast “knocked him silly,” but “he was fine.”)

Whose fault was it?If there is anything that Harry’s friends at the Vaughn Building are angry about, it is not the shooting itself but the attempt by White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan to place the blame on the victim. It’s the shooter’s duty to know what he is shooting at and where his companions are. A shooting accident is always the fault of the shooter. Always.

* Correction, February 15, 2006: This piece originally said that maintaining a horizontal line during a quail hunt is “easier” in rough country. Of course we meant to say it is “harder.” Click here to return to the corrected sentence.