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Cheney hunting accident seen as a P.R. disaster

Damage-control experts in both political parties agree: The handling of Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident has been a disaster, a case study in how not to handle bad news.
Washington Reacts To Cheney Hunting Accident
Vice President Dick Cheney, left, arrives at the White House on Thursday. A Texas county sheriff's department said Thursday Cheney will not be charged for accidentally shooting a fellow hunter.Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Damage-control experts in both political parties agree: The handling of Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting mishap has been a disaster, a case study in how not to handle bad news.

At best, it has fed criticism of Cheney as aloof and isolated. At worst, critics suggest, it has shown a president unable to control his own vice president.

“It’s a self-created nightmare,” said Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House troubleshooter who now heads a Washington law practice that specializes in legal crisis management. “Cheney took a non-story, or a minor story, and created a huge negative story because of his stubbornness and his arrogance.”

Under pressure from the White House and outside Republican strategists, Cheney took responsibility in a Fox News Channel interview for the accidental shooting of a 78-year-old quail-hunting companion in Texas on Saturday. The interview, broadcast Wednesday evening, followed three days of public silence on Cheney’s part.

Although White House aides had earlier conveyed concern about the slowness of Cheney’s response, President Bush on Thursday said the vice president had handled the matter “just fine” and had given a “powerful explanation.”

No apology for delay
In his interview, Cheney said the shooting was his fault and “one of the worst days of my life,” but he made no apologies about the delay in getting out the word. Bush said it was “a deeply traumatic moment” for Cheney and that Democrats who criticized him as being overly secretive were drawing “the wrong conclusion about a tragic accident.”

In Texas, meanwhile, the Kenedy County Sheriff’s Department closed its investigation of the shooting on Thursday and said no charges would be filed. It issued a report that supported Cheney’s account of the accident that wounded Austin attorney Harry Whittington, who remained in stable condition in a Corpus Christi hospital.

Some public relations veterans suggested Cheney may need to do more.

Republican consultant Rich Galen, who was a senior adviser to both Newt Gingrich and former Vice President Dan Quayle, suggested that Cheney comes from an old school of thought dating to his days in the House in the 1980s “that you don’t respond to an attack from your opponent that raises the level of the discussion.”

“That entire doctrine has come and gone. Now the doctrine is you respond instantaneously, and where possible with a strong counterattack. A lot of that is because of the Internet, a lot of that is because of cable TV news,” Galen said.

On Cheney’s decision to leave it up to the ranch owner to tell a local paper the next day what happened, Galen said, “I’d use this as an example of how you can overthink a problem.”

“If you could rewind the clock, a better idea would be to get the vice president’s communications operations together with the president’s communications staff, and get something out, something on the wire, right away.”

‘No way’ to hide the news
Former Clinton White House spokesman Michael McCurry agreed, saying that because the story had a major human-interest component, “there’s no way you can get around keeping people informed.”

He recalled being pounded when his office was slow in getting information out when Clinton severely wrenched his knee in an early-morning fall outside golfer Greg Norman’s house in Jupiter, Fla., in 1997.

“My point is, there is just a high degree of interest in these personal stories, and you have to be equipped to deal with that,” McCurry said.

Interview an important step
Frank Luntz, a pollster and political communications adviser, said Cheney’s interview with Fox’s Brit Hume was a good first step. “But he needs to come out and deliver a very personal reaction to the events,” said Luntz, suggesting a wide-ranging news conference was not the best venue for him, and that CNN’s “Larry King Live” would be a less-hostile format.

“I think it’s wise for him to make one more statement, one more interview, then go back to work. This is a distraction. ... This is a private matter, and you don’t want a private matter to get in the way of public business,” said Luntz.

Davis, who has advised both Democrats and Republicans since serving as Clinton’s special counsel, said the political problems for the Bush White House “are not going to go away by Cheney just being interviewed by Brit Hume.”

“This is not about the hunting incident, it’s not about a day’s delay in getting out news of the shooting, it’s about Dick Cheney,” Davis said. “It’s dangerous to our system of government when you have a vice president with so much power and so little accountability.”

Unprecedented presidential move
As to Bush’s apparent willingness to let Cheney deal with the shooting problem himself, “There has never in American history been a White House where the president said to the vice president, ‘You handle the press,”’ Davis said.

Former Bush Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, out promoting her new book that offers advice to politicians in trouble, “Lipstick on a Pig,” said Cheney “had a responsibility to get the word out” sooner.

Marlin Fitzwater, who served as press secretary to both President Reagan and the first President Bush, said Cheney should have notified his press secretary, who could have gotten a statement out quickly.

“They could have done all of that in about two hours on Saturday. It is beyond me why it was not done this way,” he told Editor and Publisher magazine.