WASHINGTON — President Bush knew Saturday evening that Vice President Dick Cheney had accidentally shot a hunting companion, but the information wasn’t made public until the next day by a private citizen, the White House acknowledged Monday.
In a contentious media briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Cheney’s staff was focused on making sure that the shooting victim, Texas attorney Harry Whittington, was receiving adequate medical care after the shooting on the private Armstrong Ranch in south Texas. Whittington and Cheney were hunting quail together.
Cheney apparently did not see Whittington and the vice president accidentally hit him in the face, neck and chest with bird shot, according to accounts of the accident.
Whittington was in stable condition at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial and was moved from intensive care to a “step-down unit” on Monday. Doctors decided to leave several birdshot pellets lodged in his skin rather than try to remove them.
Victim bouncing back
In cases like Whittington’s, it’s better to leave them there than to try to extract them, said David Blanchard, Christus Spohn chief of emergency care. He put the number of remaining pellets at “more than I can count on the fingers of my hand, but less than 100.”
Peter Banko, the hospital’s administrator, said some pellets had been removed but gave no number.
Blanchard said Whittington was “awake, alert, in good humor, (and) has made a few jokes.”
“In all likelihood, he will continue the rest of his long life and his longevity with those pellets remaining in place,” he said.
White House chief of staff Andrew Card told Bush about Cheney’s involvement in the shotgun accident on Saturday night.
McClellan was informed that night that someone in the Cheney hunting party was involved, but he didn’t know that Cheney was the shooter until the next morning, he said.
McClellan said that when he learned, around 6 a.m. Sunday, he urged the vice president’s office to get the information out “as quickly as possible.”
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News came from ranch owner
Ranch owner Katharine Armstrong said no one discussed notifying the public of the accident Saturday because they were so consumed with making sure Whittington was OK. She said the family realized in the morning that it would be a story and decided to call the local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. She said she then discussed the news coverage with Cheney for the first time.
“I said, Mr. Vice President, this is going to be public, and I’m comfortable going to the hometown newspaper,” she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “And he said ‘you go ahead and do whatever you are comfortable doing.’ ”
McClellan said, “The vice president thought that Mrs. Armstrong should be the first one to go out there and provide that information to the public, which she did. She reached out early Sunday morning to do so.”
The White House did not inform the national media of the accident, but the vice president’s office confirmed the story after journalists called to ask about the report on the Caller-Times Web site nearly 24 hours after the shooting.
On Monday, McClellan faced a combative press corps asking why the delay in disclosure took place and asking why it was announced by a private citizen rather than the White House or Cheney's office.
“That's one way to provide information to the public,” McClellan said.
“I think you can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job,” he added.
Lawyer won’t comment
Yvonne Wheeler, spokeswoman at Christus Spohn Hospital, listed Whittington's condition as “very stable” but said she did not know when he would be discharged.
Whittington sent word through a hospital official that he would have no comment on the incident out of respect for Cheney.
Armstrong told The Associated Press that the accident occurred after Cheney, Whittington and another hunter got out of a car to shoot at a covey of quail.
She said Whittington went to retrieve a bird he shot. Cheney and the third hunter, whom she would not identify, walked to another spot and discovered a second covey of quail.
Whittington “came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn’t signal them or indicate to them or announce himself,” said Armstrong, who was in the car.
“The vice president didn’t see him,” she said. “The covey flushed, and the vice president picked out a bird and was following it and shot. And by god, Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good.”
Armstrong said the shotgun pellets broke the skin. “It knocked him silly. But he was fine. He was talking. His eyes were open. It didn’t get in his eyes or anything like that,” she said.
Each hunter was wearing a bright orange vest at the time, Armstrong said.
‘Looks like chickenpox’
Sally Whittington told The Dallas Morning News her father was being observed because of swelling from some of the welts on his neck. His face “looks like chickenpox, kind of,” she said.
Emergency personnel traveling with Cheney tended to Whittington before he was taken first to a hospital in Kingsville and then transferred to Corpus Christi.
Whittington has been a private practice attorney in Austin since 1950 and has long been active in Texas Republican politics. He’s been appointed to several state boards, including when then-Gov. George W. Bush named him to the Texas Funeral Service Commission.
Armstrong said Cheney is a longtime friend who comes to the ranch to hunt about once a year and is “a very safe sportsman.” She said Whittington is also a regular, but she thought it was the first time the two men hunted together.
The 50,000-acre Armstrong ranch has been in the influential South Texas family since the turn of the last century. Katharine is the daughter of Tobin Armstrong, a politically connected rancher who has been a guest at the White House and spent 48 years as director of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. He died in October; Cheney attended his funeral.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman Steve Lightfoot said Cheney was legally hunting with a license he purchased in November.
Birds and stamps
But Monday afternoon, the White House released a statement acknowledging that, although he had properly obtained a $125 Texas nonresident season hunting license, he lacked a $7 stamp for hunting upland game birds.
“The staff asked for all permits needed, but was not informed of the 7 dollar upland game bird stamp requirement,” the statement read.
Cheney has since sent a $7 check to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, to cover the cost of an upland game bird stamp.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.