White House Tries to Deflect Interest in Hunting Accident

The White House has faced questions and criticism in its handling of the hunting accident involving Vice President Dick Cheney. The victim in the mishap, lawyer Harry Whittington, suffered a minor heart attack Tuesday. Cheney's office subsequently issued its first statement on the matter.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The Bush Administration is still answering questions regarding its handling of the weekend shooting incident involving Vice President Dick Cheney. He accidentally shot a hunting companion. Initially, 78-year-old Harry Whittington's injuries were described as minor, but things changed yesterday. Doctors in Corpus Christi, Texas said Whittington suffered a minor heart attack.

NPR's Don Gonyea has this review of events.

DON GONYEA reporting:

It was late Saturday afternoon, and as Vice President Cheney, Attorney Harry Whittington, and a third hunter, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, Pamela Willeford started across the field at a private ranch in Texas, every thing seemed routine. Until, according to eye witness Catherine Armstrong, the ranch's owner, Whittington approached the others at one point from the rear without verbally announcing his presence. Quail suddenly took flight, Cheney swung around and fired.

Whittington, 30 yards away and wearing a bright orange safety vest, was hit. Emergency care was swift, thanks to the medical team that travels with the vice president, and Whittington was taken to a hospital in Corpus Christi. But the public didn't know any of this until a day later, Sunday afternoon.

Unidentified Announcer: Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot and wounded a man while the two were hunting for quail at a ranch in south Texas. The accident occurred Saturday afternoon, but was not disclosed by Cheney's office until today.

GONYEA: By this time, Cheney was back in Washington. As for Harry Whittington, he was hospitalized, but said to be doing well. But on Monday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan faced intense questioning. When did the president find out? When did McClellan find out? Why wasn't the White House Press Corp and the public notified right away? McClellan insisted that there were legitimate reasons.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): It's also important to make sure that the first priority is focused where it should be, and that is making sure that Mr. Whittington has the care that he needs. And the vice president went to the hospital yesterday to visit him. The vice president was pleased to see that he was doing well, and in good spirits.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, the jokes were quick in coming, this one from David Letterman.

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Host, Late Show with David Letterman): The guy who got gunned down, this buddy of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LETTERMAN: ...he is a Republican lawyer, and a big Republican donor. And, fortunately, the buckshot was deflected by wads of laundered cash. So, he's fine.

GONYEA: Yesterday morning, even the White House showed signs of being ready to laugh about it. The NCAA Football Champion Texas Longhorns, with school colors burnt orange and white, were slated to visit that afternoon. Spokesman McClellan joked that all the orange clothing expected to be on display was not because Vice President Cheney was around.

But just hours later came word that Mr. Whittington's condition had taken a turn for the worse. He had suffered what doctors called a minor heart attack. A single pellet of birdshot was lodged near his heart. Dr. David Blanchard heads the emergency room at the hospital.

Dr. DAVID BLANCHARD (Director of Emergency Services, Corpus Christi Memorial Hospital): The chambers of the heart, the two top chambers, not the bottom, were beating irregularly. It's basically like an electrical short circuit, called atrial fibrillation.

GONYEA: It was a sobering turn of events. McClellan knew of Whittington's worsened condition when he held his regular press briefing before the news broke, but said nothing to reporters about it. But at that briefing, he was critical of persistent questioning about the shooting.

Mr. McCLELLAN: If you all want to continue to focus on this, you all can spend your time on it. We're going to keep focusing on the pressing priorities of the American people, like talking about how to make healthcare more affordable and accessible.

GONYEA: But on Capitol Hill, Democrats saw a pattern. This was another example of a White House obsessed with secrecy. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Senate Minority Leader HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): And talk about secrecy, the vice president accidentally shoots someone, and keeps that a secret for nearly a day. That man of course is now very sick. So, I think it's time the American people heard from the vice president, in a real meeting just like we're having here.

GONYEA: Vice President Cheney has not talked to reporters this week, but his staff issued its first written statement on the subject yesterday afternoon, noting that Cheney called Whittington yesterday, and that the patient was in good spirits.

President Bush has not commented on the shooting, either. Last night, he hosted a Valentine dinner for a 100 guests at the White House. Today, he heads to Dublin, Ohio, for a speech on healthcare.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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