Shooter Slips on a Silencer

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

February 15, 2006

WASHINGTON

Who did this old guy think he was, coming between Dick Cheney and his helpless prey?

The luckless 78-year-old Texas lawyer, Harry Whittington, is in intensive care after a heart attack, with up to 200 pellets riddling his face and body — one stuck in his heart — from Dick Cheney's designer Perazzi Brescia shotgun. And still his friend, the vice president, is Swift-BB-ing him.

Private citizens have been enlisted to blame the victim. Maybe poor Mr. Whittington put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he was, after all, behind Vice, not in front of him. And the hunter pulling the trigger is supposed to make sure he has a clear shot. Wouldn't it be, well, classy for Shooter to express just a bit of contrition and humility?

Instead, the usual sliming has begun, with the Cheney camp trying to protect the vice president by casting a veteran hunter as Elmer Dud.

Scott McClellan told the White House press corps that Katharine Armstrong, a lobbyist with government ties who owns the Texas ranch (and whose mother, Anne, was on the Halliburton board that hired Mr. Cheney as C.E.O.), "pointed out that the protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington when it came to notifying the others that he was there."

As the story of the weekend's bizarre hunting accident is wrenched out of the White House, the picture isn't pretty: With American soldiers dying in Iraq, Five-Deferment Dick "I Had Other Priorities in the 60's Than Military Service" Cheney gets his macho kicks gunning down little birds and the occasional old man while W. rides his bike, blissfully oblivious to any collateral damage. Shouldn't these guys work on weekends until we figure out how to fix Iraq, New Orleans, Medicare and gas prices?

This version of "The Most Dangerous Game" neatly follows the four-step Bush-Cheney cycle:

Step 1: Set out to pick off what you think is an easy target, like quail this time or pen-raised and netted pheasant in the past, or a certain sanction-caged Iraqi dictator.

Step 2: In the corrupt company of lobbyist-contractor friends, botch things up. Ignore the peril at hand — as with, oh, Osama at Tora Bora, or Katrina, or the Iraq occupation — and with steely resolve, indulge your raging incompetence. (Oops.)

Step 3: Stonewall. Resist giving Congress information about 9/11 or Katrina; don't tell the public how you're tapping phones at home, setting up gulags abroad and making war and energy policy in secret. Why give the taxpayers, who are ponying up for these weekend hunting trips, the extraordinary news that Vice shot his hunting companion in the face and chest? Scott McClellan knew before yesterday's White House briefing at noon that Mr. Whittington was worse, but did not tell the reporters. He left that to Corpus Christi doctors, who spun the heart attack as "an inflammatory response to a metallic foreign BB."

Step 4: Admit no mistakes. Express sympathy. Blame the victim without leaving fingerprints by outsourcing the smear to the private sector.

Trent Lott joked in a meeting yesterday that Mr. Cheney was now the "shooter in chief," while other wags noted that Quayle was always a problem for Bushes.

Presidential staff members and lawmakers speculated yesterday about whether Shooter would resign and make room for Condi if Mr. Whittington did not survive. His death would trigger a more thorough police investigation and probably a grand jury.

"Are you crazy?" one Republican senator told a reporter. "He'd never quit." (Aaron Burr presided over the Senate after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.)

The shooter in chief can't quit because he is the administration. Who'd even tell him to quit? If necessary, he'd probably make W. take the fall.

Despite efforts by Mr. McClellan to joke and urge reporters to get back to "the pressing priorities of the American people," the hunting debacle once more showed Mr. Cheney running the imperial show.

He didn't talk to the sheriff for 14 hours, or even call the president to notify him after the 5:50 p.m. accident. Vice left that to Andy Card, who called Mr. Bush at 7:30 p.m. to say there had been a hunting accident, without mentioning that Vice was the gunman. Soon after that, Karl Rove called Mr. Bush back with that little detail.

A reporter, surprised, pressed Mr. McClellan: "The vice president did not call the president to tell him he was the shooter?"

Usually when there's a White House cover-up, the president's in on it.