Cheney stayed out of public sight for three days after the Saturday evening shooting of 78-year-old lawyer Harry Whittington, with news photographers catching surveillance-style shots of the Vice President hustling into the side door of the West Wing. Finally, under pressure from Bush aides and much of Washington's Republican establishment, Cheney decided to sit down Wednesday afternoon with an interviewer whom the VP appears to trust, Brit Hume of Fox News.
Among the new facts the Vice President disclosed in the interview:
· Whittington, dressed in orange, was "down a little ways" in a gully. "The sun was directly behind him that affected the vision, too, I'm sure," Cheney said.
· Cheney went up to Whittington and said, "Harry, I had no idea you [were] there," but his friend "didn't respond" at first, possibly because he was stunned.
· Whittington was wearing hunting glasses that protected his eyes. He arrived at a nearby emergency room within less than an hour after leaving the ranch, then was taken by helicopter to Corpus Christi.
· Cheney did not accompany his friend to the hospital because the ambulance was crowded and instead went to ranch headquarters.
· "We did not know until Sunday morning that we could be confident that everything was probably going to be okay," Cheney said.
· Cheney did not talk to White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. until Sunday morning, and said he doesn't recall talking to Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove about it. The first time he talked to Bush about it was Monday, and then again on Tuesday.
In the 27-minute interview, the taciturn Cheney did not express regret about the way he handled the situation, but took responsibility for the shooting and came as close as he ever has to showing public emotion. "The image of him falling is something I'll never be able to get out of my mind," Cheney said. "I fired, and there's Harry falling. And it was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life, at that moment." Whittington was about 30 yards away, Cheney estimated. "We went over to him, obviously, right away," he added.
Cheney told Hume in the Vice President's Ceremonial Office, next to the White House in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, that he "had a beer at lunch" during a barbecue under an ancient oak tree on the ranch. "After lunch we take a break, go back to ranch headquarters," he said. "Then we took about an hour-long tour of ranch, with a ranch hand driving the vehicle, looking at game. We didn't go back into the field to hunt quail until about, oh, sometime after 3:00 p.m. The five of us who were in that party were together all afternoon. Nobody was drinking, nobody was under the influence."
The most controversial element of the Cheney response was his insistence, against the advice of White House communications experts, on dispensing with the usual protocols for announcing news about the President and the Vice President and releasing word of the shooting by having Katharine Armstrong, an owner of the Texas ranch where it occurred, call her local paper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, with an eyewitness account.
Cheney said he still thinks that was the right call. "I still do," he said. "I still think that the accuracy was enormously important. I had no press person with me. I didn't have any press people with me. I was there on a private weekend with friends on a private ranch." He said Armstrong "was a good mutual friend," and noted that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove has also hunted at the Armstrong ranch.
"Katharine suggested, and I agreed, that she would go make the announcement, that is that she'd put the story out," he said. "And I thought that made good sense for several reasons. First of all, she was an eyewitnessshe'd seen the whole thing. Secondly, she'd grown up on the ranch, she'd hunted there all of her life. Third, she was the immediate past head of the Texas Wildlife and Parks Department, the game control commission in the state of Texas, an acknowledged expert in all of this. And she wanted to go to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which is the local newspaper, covers that area, to reporters she knew. And I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knew and understood hunting. And then it would immediately go up to the wires and be posted on the Web site, which is the way it went out. And I thought that was the right call."
Cheney said he was more concerned about accuracy than speed. "I do think what I've experienced over the years here in Washington is as the media outlets have proliferated, speed has become sort of a driving force, lots of time at the expense of accuracy," he said. The Vice President added that White House Counselor Dan Bartlett and Press Secretary Scott McClellan "urged us to get the story out," but that "the decision about how it got out, basically, was my responsibility."
"Scott does a great job and it's a tough job," Cheney said. "It's especially a tough job under these conditions and circumstances. I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them they didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times. But it strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as The New York Times is, especially for covering a major story in south Texas."
Strategists for Cheney concluded that the interview was a way of "turning the corner," according to a Republican official involved in the discussions. "As long as Mr. Whittington recovers, it's fine," the official said. "It cost the Administration a week. It has weakened the Vice President, but not for the long term."
Sources tell TIME that the Vice President and his staff had prepared an elliptical statement about a hunting accident and were considering releasing it on Sunday morning. But Mary Matalin, the well-known Republican strategist and former counselor to Cheney, said the statement "didn't say much of anything." She said she thought it "would have invited hysteria," and that "a fuller accounting, with an eyewitness" would be preferable. Matalin said she talked with a Cheney staff person around 8 or 9 a.m. Sunday, and talked with the Vice President shortly after that, and that his concern was "what's an expeditious way to do this."
Matalin also said people who don't understand the Vice President's reactionespecially his reluctance to go on camera to talk about the tragedyhave stopped thinking like normal people. "His audience is Harry," Matalin said. "Every time I've talked to him, it's always about Harry. ... He wasn't covering up. He was gathering facts, going to the sheriff. It wasn't Campaign 101 style. It was the objective of getting the information to the press, and attending to the sheriff and most importantly dealing with my friend. Sorry, those were the priorities. It got done."
The Vice President's approach resulted in a 20-hour delay in the news getting out. The more normal method takes five minutes. A Bush communications official picks up the phone anywhere in the world and says to the White House operator, "I need to make a wire call." A few minutes later, the operator calls back with Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg reporters on the line, ready to flash the news around the world.
Even some of Cheney's friends have expressed dismay about his reticence to apologize, and he took responsibility in the interview. "Ultimately, I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry," he told Hume. "And you can talk about all of the other conditions that existed at the time, but that's the bottom line. And there's no † it was not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend. And I say that is something I'll never forget.'
The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee issued a cheeky research paper on Wednesday headlined "Cheney and the Bunker of Secrecy," opening with the observation that Bush "said he chose Dick Cheney to be his running mate because he was a 'straight-shooter,' " and pointing out all the times over the years that Cheney has resisted the release of information. The Vice President now has yielded to a Beltway rite the big interview with a carefully chosen star journalist. So far however, in keeping with his refusal to play by the usual rules, he has resisted the typical next step begging for forgiveness.