Too Quick on the Draw, Cheney Ducks for Cover

For the unfortunate victim of Dick Cheney’s quail-shooting misadventure, the experience of being blasted with birdshot and almost killed was all too real. For those of us lucky enough to be out of range, however, that incident may serve as a metaphor for the Vice President’s troubled tenure.

Withholding word of the shooting accident for as long as possible was, of course, all too typical of Mr. Cheney’s attitude toward the press. His preoccupation with secrecy and his contempt for the public right to information has been plain from the beginning, when he fought to hide the names of the oil executives who wrote the White House energy bill. (He still refuses to reveal their names and affiliations.)

In this case, he apparently decided to “privatize” the release of the embarrassing news by encouraging his hostess to leak it to a local newspaper in Corpus Christi, Tex., instead of informing the White House press office. Unorthodox to the point of weirdness, that choice may yet have been an innocent mistake made in the midst of panic. But given the Vice President’s record of self-serving concealment of facts, such efforts to manage information inevitably look like attempts to cover up.

He had ample reason to delay press attention to the accident on the Armstrong ranch, again for reasons that echo a larger theme. According to news reports, he failed to obtain the stamp required to shoot “upland birds” on his hunting license. So he was engaged in an illegal activity when he pumped a round of birdshot, which can be quite lethal, into the face and torso of Austin attorney Henry Whittington.

While persons who commit this violation of Texas law can be subject to substantial fines and revocation of their hunting license, the Vice President was let off with a warning.

Observing this darkly comical interlude, it is impossible not to wonder how such news would be treated if it had occurred during one of John Kerry’s hunting trips during the last Presidential campaign. What if Mr. Kerry had fired his shotgun into the hide of a fellow hunter instead of hitting the birds overhead? What if he had then withheld the news from the reporters covering him, and let his host tell the local paper instead? And what if the privileged, wealthy Senator had neglected to get the proper license, and been let off with a warning? How loudly would the cable commentators have shrieked?

In short, Mr. Kerry would have been held responsible in the most humiliating fashion. He would have been mocked and scorned. Yet so far, Mr. Cheney has not taken public responsibility for this accident. All we have heard are the encomiums and excuses proffered by the lady lobbyist who hosted him and the wealthy Republican contributor whom the President appointed as our ambassador to Switzerland. They have assured us that the Vice President is a great hunter, a stickler for safety and a dead shot. They have suggested that the fault lies with Mr. Whittington.

Whatever fawning tales his friends may tell, it seems clear enough that Mr. Cheney’s hunting skills are less than advertised and that he is not as careful as he ought to be. He shot before he knew where he was aiming, and the consequences of his actions were rather different than he anticipated. This is the Dick Cheney that Americans have come to know in office: an arrogant man with an undeserved reputation for competence, whose inclination to fire at will can be quite dangerous to those around him.

The suffering of poor Mr. Whittington—and the embarrassment of Mr. Cheney—may not be completely in vain. For as James Carville has noted, this accident provided a timely distraction from more concrete and important examples of the incompetence that plagues the Bush-Cheney administration. The more coverage that is devoted to the shooting, the less attention will be paid to the latest disasters at home and abroad.

In our own country, the details of the federal government’s failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina continue to emerge. The latest report prepared by Republican members of Congress lambastes the President for the disaster’s aftermath.

In Iraq, the results of shooting first and asking questions later are once more on display. The post-election power struggle in the Iraqi Parliament has empowered the most extreme Islamists in the Shiite community, notably Muqtada al-Sadr, whose renewed influence can only please the Iranian mullahs. How this advances American interests or the rise of democracy in the region has yet to be explained.

In the courts, the facts are emerging about White House manipulation of intelligence to promote a foolish war. The National Journal has reported testimony by Mr. Cheney’s indicted former chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, which strongly suggests that the Vice President misused classified material for partisan advantage.

Let us hope that Mr. Whittington recovers more swiftly and fully than Mr. Cheney’s reputation ever will.