The political echoes from a single shotgun blast on the Texas prairie continued to reverberate across the nation Tuesday, growing especially loud in the nation's capital as journalists scrambled to piece together the full story behind Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental Saturday shooting of a hunting companion.
While politically motivated rants and bad jokes about the shooting of Harry Whittington spread like wildfire through office corridors and around the Web, the 78-year-old lawyer suffered "a silent heart attack," which doctors blamed on birdshot from Cheney's errant blast that had moved into or was touching his heart.
Whittington was immediately moved back to the intensive care unit for further treatment at a Corpus Christi, Texas, hospital, and the vice president, lauded and pilloried as the unflappable fix-it man of the Bush adminstration, once again moved into the white-hot spotlight of controversy.
Cheney issued a brief written statement saying that he "stood ready to assist" and that "his thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Whittington and his family," but the lack of any public comment from the vice president on the incident itself has only fueled questions and theories about what actually happened at Katharine Armstrong's 50,000-acre spread.
The dustup over the accident and when it was made public "is part of the secretive nature of this administration," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "I think it’s time the American people heard from the vice president."
According to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department report issued Monday, Whittington was retrieving a downed quail about 5:30 p.m. CT and stepped out of the hunting line he was sharing with Cheney at Armstrong's ranch south of Corpus Christi. "Another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest at approximately 30 yards," the report said.
The report went on to note that neither Cheney, who wielded a .28-gauge Perazzi shotgun loaded with 7.5 birdshot, nor Whittington appeared to be under the influence of intoxicants or drugs. While Whittington had not taken a hunter safety course, optional for hunters of his and Cheney's age in Texas, state officials could not determine if Cheney had, the report said. While they had Texas hunting licenses, both men were admonished for failing to buy a $7 stamp allowing them to shoot upland game birds. A department spokesman said warnings are being issued in most cases because the stamp requirement only went into effect five months ago and many hunters weren’t aware of it.
The department found the main cause of the accident was a “hunter’s judgment factor.” No secondary factors were found to have played a role.
Late Tuesday, Whittington, a wealthy Republican donor, was in stable condition and expected to stay in the hospital for another week to make sure that more birdshot does not move to vital organs.
Hospital officials said they knew that Whittington had some birdshot near his heart ever since the Saturday evening shooting. The pellet always was at risk of moving closer since scar tissue had not had time to harden and remain in place, they said.
They said they are not concerned about other birdshot — widely estimated to be between six and 200 pieces — that might still be lodged in Whittington’s body.
The doctors said Whittington did not experience classic symptoms of a heart attack, but they estimate that he probably had a minor or "silent" one around 6:30 a.m. CT. They said they decided to treat the situation “conservatively” rather than conduct surgery to remove the pellet. They said he could live a healthy life with it left in place.
Asked whether the pellet could move further into the heart and become fatal, hospital officials said that was a hypothetical question they could not answer. But they said they are extremely optimistic that he will recover.
Controversy swirled around the incident almost as soon as national reporters got wind of it because more than 20 hours elapsed before any public word about it, which then came via a call from ranch owner Armstrong to a local newspaper in Corpus Christi, reportedly with Cheney's consent. Also, it wasn't until the morning after the shooting that Cheney and members of his party were interviewed by local law enforcement.
Bush quickly learned about shooting
President Bush was told about Cheney’s involvement in the accident shortly before 8 p.m. ET Saturday — about 90 minutes after it occurred — but the White House did not disclose the accident until Sunday afternoon, and then only in response to press questions.
Facing a press corps upset that news had been withheld, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, “If you want to continue to spend time on that, that’s fine. ... We’re moving on to the priorities of the American people. That’s where our focus is.”
The shooting presents a new problem for the White House as it seeks to repair damaged credibility in a midterm election year in which continued GOP control of Congress hangs in the balance.
Cheney, 65, whose “favorable” rating was just 24 percent in a recent CBS-New York Times poll, has found himself in other storms swirling around the Bush presidency.
His strong insistence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction helped build the case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He also has played the role of point man in the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program in the war on terror.
And, more recently, his indicted former chief of staff — I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby — testified to a grand jury about being authorized to disclose classified information to the press in the CIA leak case “by his superiors,” according to court documents. Democrats have demanded to know whether Cheney was one of those superiors.
“These things become symptoms of a broader disquiet with Cheney,” said Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University.
'Such an anger toward Cheney'
Among moderate and liberal Americans, “there is such an anger toward Cheney,” Light said. “There are people who believed he pulled the trigger figuratively on a lot of things. Vice presidents can get away with hitting people with golf balls, but they can’t get away with shooting people with shotguns.”
Cheney succeeded in avoiding reporters during a visit to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for meetings with lawmakers.
The terse, unsigned statement issued by Cheney's office said the vice president had phoned Whittington from the White House.
Whittington’s “spirits were good, but obviously his situation deserves the careful monitoring that his doctors are providing,” the statement said.
Unlike the president, who is accompanied by a news media pool whenever he travels in public, Cheney repeatedly makes unannounced trips around town and around the country — as he did with his weekend hunting excursion in south Texas, and again on his trip to the Capitol on Tuesday.
Cheney remains popular with the GOP conservative base. Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster and strategist, said that all vice presidents have to overcome the fact that “you never get the benefit of the doubt for the good things you do, and never any lack of blame for the bad things.”
He said he expects the controversy to pass, especially if Whittington makes a full recovery.
If the shooting victim’s condition worsens, that could increase the seriousness of the incident, and bring more scrutiny to bear on what exactly happened on the private Texas ranch.
“But if somehow the president considers Cheney gets to be a liability, I think that getting rid of him or encouraging him to step down would cause problems for the Republicans with their base,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.
“And Cheney is like a member of the Bush family. The president would no sooner push Cheney overboard than he would Jeb,” Baker said, referring to Bush brother Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida.