Never has an accidental shooting occasioned so much glee. Whatever mistakes Vice President Dick Cheney might have made while hunting on the Armstrong Ranch in Texas this weekend, or in deciding how to make the mishap public, have been eclipsed by the disgusting wallowing in the accident of all his critics and the unsurpassable self-regard of national reporters outraged by a delay of at least 14 hours in getting alerted to the story. They worked themselves into a first-class tizzy at Monday’s White House press briefing, proving that no matter what the story is, reporters think it’s all about them. It is understandable that Cheney would not consider notifying the media his first priority following an accident during a quail-hunting trip with friends, and the meaning that is being read into the incident–about Cheney’s character, the administration’s competence, Bush’s foreign policy, and much else–is absurd.
That said, there are customary political and media rules about how to handle such things. Those rules require rapid disclosure. It was a mistake not to alert the national press of the incident immediately. And if an accident seems to be much less important than a matter of policy, that doesn’t make it less important politically–oftentimes, it is the non-substantive issues that can be most powerful politically. With Harry Whittington having suffered a minor heart attack Tuesday morning, and still in intensive care 72 hours after the shooting, the perception that the vice president is downplaying the seriousness of the incident and not playing straight is going to be stronger than ever. There is a risk that the administration will sustain significant political damage from the controversy.
Cheney himself should make a public appearance on the matter, and the sooner the better. He should get himself with a respected national anchor–perhaps Brit Hume of Fox News–as soon as this evening to express his regret and explain in his own words what happened. He should stop relying on press aides who were not present at the accident to tell his side of the story. Not talking only feeds speculation, and aids the cause of those who want to lampoon and smear him. Let’s hear from the vice president.