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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Why the Cheney shooting story won't go away

Time magazine wants us all to quit worrying about a sitting Vice-President doing something that hasn't happened since Aarron Burr's day: shooting another human being.

Of course, this time, it was an accident unintentional.

True, it is a "geeky" issue as to how far away the Vice-President was from the victim. It only matters if you are the victim, or the investigator, or maybe the general public, wanting to know just what your public officials get up to, and how accountable they are held for their actions.

Not very, apparently.


Wildlife officials say the most common cause of hunting accidents is a shooter's swinging on game outside the safe zone of fire, as Cheney did. But as generic as the incident was, there are some unanswered questions about that day. For instance, why hasn't the Secret Service released its report? And why hasn't the local sheriff released the text of the depositions his office conducted? There is also a small and geeky but persistent debate over whether Cheney might have been closer to Whittington than 30 yds., the figure in the sheriff's report. Some gun experts say from that distance, it would be unlikely that birdshot could penetrate Whittington's clothes and chest wall. Others agree with Jon Nordby, an analyst with Final Analysis Forensic of University Place, Wash., who says, "It is certainly possible, and I've seen it. I had a case where a BB went through a jacket at 90 ft. and through the pericardial sac and caused death."
And if death had occurred this time, would we still say Whittington shared some responsibility? The central question, too, is almost glossed over here: how much safer can you expect to be in the field, than behind the guy with the raised gun about to fire? Are you really supposed to expect him to wheel about and shoot behind him?

After searching for his birds for a bit, Whittington returned to the vehicle where Katharine Armstrong was. She "told him to go and shoot the second covey," the report says. Whittington walked toward Cheney and Willeford but, as Armstrong later told reporters, didn't announce his presence. "Your first responsibility is to let the other guy know where you are," says Texas A&M professor Dale Rollins, a quail-hunting expert. But Cheney too had a responsibility to know where Whittington was. "It's critical, especially with more than two hunters, to stay in a straight line," says Rollins. Cheney turned toward the setting sun to fire at a bird from the covey Medellin had discovered—and that was the shot that felled Whittington.
What did Whittington do wrong? Not shout "Hey, behind you!" as Cheney targeted his prey? But maybe now we know why Cheney used that word since dropped from every version of his "acceptance of responsibility," (as if responsibility were a gift he could return to sender): "Ultimately." The whole idea that Whittington shares some responsibility apparently simply will not die; but it deserves to. Especially because Cheney is clearly not man enough to take responsibilty for his actions.

At about 8 a.m. Sunday, a Cheney aide called strategist Mary Matalin, who regularly advises the Vice President. The aide read her a statement about the accident that Cheney had considered releasing before he decided to encourage Armstrong to go to the Caller-Times. But the statement "didn't say much of anything," Matalin says—not even that Cheney was the shooter. Matalin then spoke with a second aide and with Cheney's family and heard different versions of what had happened in the shooting. She decided no statement should be released amid the confusion. Matalin spoke with Cheney, and, she says, they agreed that "a fuller accounting, with an eyewitness," would be preferable.
Maybe it's a bit "geeky," but those of us who comprise the American public would like to know what versions of the stories were going around before one was settled on. Was it settled on because it was true? Or because it was the best excuse or explanation they could manage?

Or isn't that what reporters are supposed to wonder?

Perhaps Time thinks we are all Harry Whittington now, and we should apologize for inconveniencing the Vice-President any further by asking any more questions.

The questions, however, persist.

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