White House's Handling of Cheney Shooting Criticized

Vice President Dick Cheney has been avoiding the press since accidentally shooting lawyer Harry Wittington during a weekend quail hunt. There was no public statement, even after hearing that his hunting partner suffered a minor heart attack on Tuesday due to complications from the accident. Madeleine Brand talks to Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, about how the White House is handling the fallout.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, a second witness points the finger at the trial of former Enron chiefs in Houston.

But first, Vice President Dick Cheney will break his silence about his hunting accident on FOX News today. These will be Cheney's first public remarks since he accidentally shot his friend Harry Whittington over the weekend. Whittington then suffered a minor heart attack.

As Whittington's medical condition grew more serious, so did criticism of the vice president and the White House for the way they've handled the story. Earlier, I spoke with Wayne Slater. He's the Austin bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, and he's also the co-author of the book, Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. I asked Wayne Slater what we should expect to hear from Cheney tonight.

Mr. WAYNE SLATER (Austin Bureau Chief, The Dallas Morning News): What Vice President Cheney has to do, and I assume that he will do, is sort of express concern, I mean, act the way anybody would do who had accidentally injured a friend. He has to really offer up a detailed account of what had happened, that it was an accident, that this was a friend, a long-time friend, someone he was concerned about, and really reinforce the idea that his first attention was the safety and the health and the treatment of the man he accidentally shot.

But the problem for him will be, how will he answer the other questions? Like, why did it take so long before the American people knew this happened?

BRAND: Right. And this happened on Saturday evening, and today is Wednesday. So, why did it take so long? Who's handling his media relations?

Mr. SLATER: Well, the vice president is handling his media relations. And I think that's one of the telling things about this whole episode. By waiting so long, by not telling anyone publicly, I mean, not having the public informed that the vice president had been involved in an episode in which he had shot someone, accidentally or otherwise, in this case, it really reinforced all the, sort of, preconceptions about this White House being closed, and this White House and Cheney was a man with his own rules, and so forth.

And I know what we know is that Karl Rove talked to the owner of the ranch, and then talked to the president on Saturday evening. So, the president was informed in an odd way, not from the vice president's office, or the vice president, but by Karl, who had talked to the owner of the ranch.

It's clear that one of two things happened. One, Karl wasn't thinking, Rove and the White House wasn't thinking about the public aspects of this, that people really ought to be informed, and that there would be a firestorm of controversy if people didn't know. Or, more likely, that the vice president himself is steering the public relations of this.

And you have Karl Rove, long-time close and enormously influential person with the president, and I'm told that the White House people wanted to go public with this that evening, at least in a limited way, but that it was the vice president and his people who said no.

BRAND: And the president ceded to the vice president?

Mr. SLATER: He did. That is what it appears, that is what happened. That's what happened, here. And that's an astonishing thing. Clearly, Rove, who is a brilliant political strategist and understands the public relations aspect of this, and the president, who obviously, who knows Harry Whittington quite well, obviously acceded to the will of the vice president in how to handle this. And it was handled badly.

BRAND: Now, tell us about the victim, Harry Whittington. You know him. Tell us more about him.

Mr. SLATER: Well, he's an interesting guy, a strong Republican, part of the emerging Republican hegemony here in Texas. He's a fund-raiser. He's a very wealthy real estate person in Austin. He's a lawyer. And he also, he has a building downtown Austin, not far from where I'm sitting, which has long been the home of virtually any Republican statewide officeholder, including George Bush and the current governor, for their political campaign.

When George Bush was first going to run for governor, Karl Rove steered Bush, who already knew Harry, to Harry's office. Harry Whittington was one of the first people you talked to.

Whittington was a guy who drove Bush's father around when he first ran for Congress in the '70s in Texas. He has known anybody and everybody of note in the Republican Party, a very straight-up person, often operates on matters of principle rather than political expediency. But he's a good strong Republican and a long-time friend of the Cheneys.

BRAND: Wayne Slater is the Austin bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. SLATER: Great to be with you.

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