White House Hit for Response to Cheney Incident

Renee Montagne talks to Senior Correspondent Juan Williams about the heated exchanges between the White House press corps and White House spokesman Scott McClellan about the timing of the release of information on Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Vice President Cheney's office released its first official statement yesterday on that hunting accident over the weekend. The statement said Cheney had spoken with Harry Whittington, the 78-year-old lawyer he shot, and he'd wished him well.

The Vice President has not spoken publicly about the incident, though some Republicans are calling on him to do so.

NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams joins me now to talk about the official response to the shooting mishap.

Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning Renee.

MONTAGNE: The White House is coming under fairly intense criticism for its handling of this incident. What's going on?

WILLIAMS: Renee, on Saturday and Sunday, the White House communications team took the position that the Vice President's staff was in total control of information about the shooting.

Andy Card, the White House Chief of Staff, and Karl Rove, the Deputy Chief of Staff, both spoke with President Bush about the incident on Saturday, and none of these officials took any steps to inform the American people that the second highest ranking official in the government had been involved in a shooting.

But even fellow Republicans now have come out to criticize the way Cheney has handled the situation. Yesterday I spoke with someone on the President's staff who said that they feel deeply embarrassed, conflicted, by Cheney's refusal to be forthcoming. And former Republican Congressman Vin Weber said he thinks Cheney as turned this into a bigger story by not being upfront about it.

MONTAGNE: Why hasn't the Vice President taken a more public position?

WILLIAMS: Well, two things to remember. First, you know, Vice President Cheney really doesn't feel the need to. He's said he's not running for president so he's not accountable to the public in that sense. And secondly, even inside the White House he's regarded as a power center of his own. He does not answer to the president's top aides.

And also I would say that, in looking forward, the Vice President continues to avoid reporters. He left a meeting in the Oval Office yesterday before reporters were allowed to enter the room.

His supporters are saying that, you know, in some ways he may have given the Whittington family more time to deal with the incident before becoming the focus of national attention by delaying the release of any statement.

MONTAGNE: Well the White House Press Corps continued its aggressive questioning yesterday. Let's listen to a little bit. Here's NBC's David Gregory. He's talking to White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

Mr. DAVID GREGORY (Journalist, NBC): I'm not getting answers here, Scott, and you, I'm trying to be forthright with you. But don't tell me that you're giving us complete answers when you're not actually answering the question, because everybody knows what is an answer and what is not answer. And the final...

Mr. SCOTT MCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): Well, David, now you want to make this about you, and it's not about you. It's about what happened and that's what I'm trying to...

Mr. GREGORY: No...no...well I'm sorry that you feel that way. (Unintelligible)

Mr. MCCLELLAN: ...and I'm trying to provide answers to your questions.

Mr. GREGORY: I have one final question...

MONTAGNE: Juan, people certainly out here are talking about this, it's quite a tale, but is there a sense that the press corps is overreacting.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know Renee, I think it looks that way to the outside, but this is an example of repressed anger boiling over.

The shooting incident might be best understood as the straw that broke the camel's back. This White House has a real penchant for secrecy. In recent weeks they've been slow to release a simple photograph of lobbyist Jack Abramoff with President Bush, and there's the classic example of Vice President Cheney himself refusing to release records of meetings he held with energy officials in 2001, to give those records to a Congressional committee.

Eventually, the courts backed Vice President Cheney in that case. So the press corps, I think, is reacting to five years of being stiff-armed by this Administration. And it's only because of Mr. Whittington's continued health problems that I think the White House is now finding itself dogged by a story that they'd hoped would've gone away by now.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much Juan.

That's NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

This is NPR News.

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