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And I'm Renee Montagne: Vice President Dick Cheney has given his first public account of his weekend hunting accident. In an interview with Fox News, Cheney took full responsibility for accidentally shooting Texas lawyer Harry Whittington. Whittington is in stable condition at a Texas hospital. Cheney defended his decision to wait to inform the public about what had taken place, as NPR's David Greene reports.
DAVID GREENE reporting:
Cheney admitted in the interview that it's not everyday a vice president shoots somebody, not since Aaron Burr in 1804. But Cheney said he waited until yesterday to speak out in part because he wanted to make sure the man he shot, Harry Whittington, appeared on the road to recovery, which he does. Hospital officials say after a mild heart attack due to a pellet near his heart, his heartbeat has returned to normal and he's up sitting in a chair. So now Cheney took us back to Saturday afternoon when he was out hunting quail.
Vice President DICK CHENEY: The bird flushed and went to my right off to the west. I turned and shot at the bird and at that second saw Harry standing there. Didn't know he was there.
Mr. BRIT HUME, (Reporting, Fox News):
HUME: You pulled the trigger and you saw him.
CHENEY: Well I saw him fall basically. It happened so fast.
GREENE: So fast, Cheney said, that he had no idea if he hit a bird. He just saw the 78-year-old Whittington on the ground bleeding. He was conscious but not responding.
CHENEY: I had no idea how serious it was going to be. I mean, it could have been extraordinarily serious. You just don't know at that moment. You know he's been struck. You know, it's a lot of shot that hit him. But you don't know, you think about his eyes. Fortunately, he was wearing hunting glasses and protected his eyes. You just don't know.
GREENE: And that was part of the reason he said that Americans had to wait to learn that he had shot somebody. He said he wanted all the facts to be straight. He said he also thought ranch owner Katherine Armstrong, a seasoned hunter and eyewitness could best tell the story. And so the next day, Sunday, she called her local paper, the "Corpus Christi Caller Times."
CHENEY: If we'd put out a report Saturday night on what we heard then, one report came in and said superficial injuries. If we had gone with a statement at that point we would have been wrong. And it was also important, I thought, to get the story out as accurately as possible.
GREENE: The delay caused an uproar in the White House press corps. Cheney said national reporters probably just didn't like that a small paper in Texas got the scoop. He also acknowledged that during a lunch time barbecue, he drank a beer. But by the time he was hunting quail at 3:00 p.m., he said, nobody in his hunting party was under the influence.
There were some complaints that Cheney chose Fox News for his exclusive recounting. Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey accused him of wanting to restrict the discussion to a friendly news outlet. Brit Hume did press the vice president at times. In talking about the interview on air afterwards, Hume also suggested that some Americans aren't sympathizing with reporters at the White House
BRIT HUME: A lot more Americans are hunters than are members of the White House Press Corps are hunters. And I think a lot of people who are either hunters who have been around hunters and hunting know that things happen, that hunting mishaps occur.
GREENE: But many traditional allies of Cheney say he was plain wrong for waiting to inform the public about the shooting. Ari Fleischer, Mr. Bush's former press secretary, told NPR prior to the interview that Cheney could have put the story to rest by getting information out fast.
Mr. ARI FLEISCHER, (Former White House Press Secretary): I think the vice president erred in not making this known immediately to the White House Press Corps on Saturday night or Sunday morning. It was the right thing to do. This is a serious event and it should have been immediately disclosed.
GREENE: If nothing else, this was all true to form for Cheney. He's known as one of the most low-profile vice presidents in history. He has often criticized the press. Even when he holds sessions with reporters, he often insists they identify him as a senior administration official rather than as vice president. People who know him say they would have been surprised if he rushed before the cameras after the incident.
Mr. JACK PITNEY (Professor of Government, Claremont McKenna College): He's a Gary Cooper figure in an Oprah Winfrey world.
GREENE: Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California worked for Cheney as a fellow in his Wyoming Congressional office in the 1980s.
Mr. PITNEY: I think among the top Washington politicians, he's one of the people who are least worried about their image in the press and the public. This is not a guy who lives and dies by public opinion polls.
GREENE: Especially now, Pitney said, given Cheney has no stated plans to run for a promotion in 2008.
David Greene, NPR News Washington.