Political Fallout from the Cheney Shooting Political experts discuss Vice President Cheney's shooting accident, the public relations dilemma it has spawned and how the White House manages the news.
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Political Fallout from the Cheney Shooting

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Political Fallout from the Cheney Shooting

Political Fallout from the Cheney Shooting

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From NPR News, in Washington, D.C., I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

During the last election, Vice President Dick Cheney poked fun at Senator John Kerry's widely photographed hunting trip.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: The Senator wore a new camouflaged jacket for the occasion, which made me wonder how often he'd been goose hunting before.

CONAN: Four days after shooting a man by accident in Texas, the Vice President breaks his silence on FOX News.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On Saturday, the Vice President of the United States accidentally shot a man. On Sunday, that news was released to a local newspaper in Texas, and now, after three more days, Vice President Cheney decides to speak publicly about this incident for the first time. At this hour, he's scheduled to tape an interview with Brit Hume that FOX News plans to play back at 6:00 Eastern time.

The victim, Texas lawyer Harry Whittington, is listed in stable condition in a hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas. Earlier today a hospital spokesman said he has a normal heartbeat after suffering a mild heart attack yesterday. He's doing extremely well, the spokesman said. Local police have already determined that the shooting was an accident.

There are plenty of unanswered questions though. Not about the accident so much, but about the way this story was handled by the Vice President's staff and by the White House, about what it tell us about the role of Vice President, about the role of this Vice President, about crisis management and damage control, and about political insulation, the so-called bubble that can isolate senior officials from political reality.

Later in the program, a Congressional committee challenges Google on China. But first, the political fallout from Vice President Cheney's shotgun. How big a deal is this? What does it tell us about the Vice President? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The email address is talk@npr.org.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Nice of you to come in, as always, Ron.

Mr. RON ELVING (Senior Washington Editor): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And Peter Baker joins us. He's White House correspondent for the Washington Post. He's at a studio at the paper's office here in Washington, D.C. It's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. PETER BAKER (Reporter, Washington Post): Hi, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And Peter Baker, let me begin with you. In the newspaper this morning, you said that this incident has developed into a defining event for Vice President Cheney. How so?

Mr. BAKER: Well of course, obviously in the public mind this is something that he will always be remembered for. I mean, what do we, what do a lot of people remember about Gerald Ford? That he stumbled a lot, because Chevy Chase mocked him on Saturday Night Live. Some of the things people remember about other politicians have stuck with them, like Jimmy Carter and the killer rabbit, and other moments like this that just sort of become, you know, a joke or become part of the popular vernacular, and so forth.

It's also defining though, I think, in a more serious way in what it tells about this Vice President in this White House, his power, his influence, his modus operandi, his penchant for secrecy, his, you know, his disregard, the fact that he doesn't really care very much what people think of him. It's a very rare moment when you get to sort of see a lot of these things come into play all at once.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Ron Elving, what started, obviously, as a misfortune has developed into something larger. How big a deal is this?

Mr. ELVING: It's hard to say how big a deal it's going to seem 30 days, 60, 90 days from now. Obviously, the first question is what happens to Harry Whittington? And as his doctors down in Corpus Christi, Texas, were indicating a little while ago, in their brief news conference out on the street corner, the indication is at this point that the case has resumed the trajectory they described for us earlier, when he was described as recovering fairly easily from, not minor injuries, surely, but survivable hunting accident injuries, and that he would be going home fairly soon.

Of course, after the described as mild heart attack, then they said that trajectory back and they said no, it'll be probably be a week before he goes home. Today they were saying six days max, maybe fewer. He's sitting up, taking a little nourishment, wants to do some work from his law office.

If that is the case, then I think we return to the place where this is seen primarily as a metaphor, something that is for those who do not like the Vice President another chance to say, here's a guy who's arrogant, here's a guy who's out of touch with the normal reality that would affect most of the rest of us, most of the rest of us would never think about keeping it ourselves, or keeping it in a very, very narrow realm of people should know, if we should happen to accidentally shoot someone on a hunting accident. For those who want to take that point of view, this is going to be another exhibit in a long, gallery of exhibits of the attitude of Dick Cheney.

CONAN: Peter Baker, though, you talked to several of the Vice President's friends, and Republicans as well, not meaning to draw a complete distinction there...

Mr. BAKER: Yes, some overlap.

CONAN: ...but there has been some criticism of the way this has all been handled.

Mr. BAKER: Well, yeah, you know, Republicans are troubled by this, obviously. They don't want this to be, you know, sucking so much oxygen out of the room now, this is now Wednesday. We've been talking about this since the weekend. President Bush is in Ohio trying to pitch his plan for expanding Health Savings Accounts, part of his State of the Union agenda, but my guess is that's not going to be the top of the evening news tonight.

So, Republicans are a little distressed, many of them, not all, but many of them are distressed that this wasn't handled in a more efficient way, in a more effective way. The rules for damage control in circumstances like this are, you know, reasonably well established for Democrats and Republicans. You get your story out fast, you get out your version of it as fast as possible, and if there's something to express regret for, you express regret and try to move on.

CONAN: In that regard, Peter, and Ron I wanted to ask you about this as well, I remember clearly how, when he was caught up in the House banking scandal back in the early 1990's, at the time Dick Cheney had already been promoted, he was Secretary of Defense for the first President Bush, but he was caught up in the House banking and tried to get out of it, in front of it, that first day. We had huge, poster board sized copies of the checks that he wrote to the House bank and he apologized out in front, answered everybody's questions, just stood there and answered questions just as long as anybody wanted to ask them. And that time, you know, he, well, he certainly got damaged to some degree by the House banking scandal, but it didn't cost him his job and nobody brought it up when he ran for Vice President some years later.

What is it that has happened since then? Do you think, Peter Baker, where he develops this penchant for privacy? Or what some would call secrecy?

Mr. BAKER: Well, you know, some of his friends were saying yesterday that part of it is that he felt burned, or stung in a way, by the Gulf War when he would stand up there every day as Defense Secretary next to Colin Powell, and he found the questioning by the reporters, he wasn't very impressed, let's say. He thought many of them, in the words of one of his friends, were stupid questions, and he thought that, he lost respect, I think, for the give and take of the press-politician relationship.

And he's come to the conclusion that no matter what he did, whatever, you know, he comes out and says, he's going to be ridiculed for it anyway. He's still not going to, it's still not going to be enough to silence the chattering class, so why cater to, you know, all of the nay-bobs of the media when they're just going to pounce on him anyway.

CONAN: And thereby we get what looks like a policy, Ron Elving. Speeches that the Vice President gives are mostly to conservative organizations, American Enterprise Institute, of which he is a, on the board, I think, or his wife is, anyway, and interviews, when he gives them, to Rush Limbaugh, Shaun Hannity, and today, FOX News.

Mr. ELVING: Exactly. I don't think the vice President sees it as a big part of his job, as opposed to the President's job, to sell the President's policies or the President's program. He does see it as a part of his function to go speak to the converted, some of the organizations you described. Last week he spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference that was meeting here in Washington and gave them a lot of red meat. And, he does seem to either enjoy that or see that as part of his mission. He does not, however, see it as his responsibility to engage with the rest of the media.

And let me hasten to add that the point here is not to mix it up with the people who are in the media, to mix it up, say, with the people who go to press briefings in the White House, or for that matter, the people who are on television, the chattering class, as he would describe them. The point here is to reach the people beyond them, to whom they are the media. That is to say, the people between him and the people he is governing, the people to whom he is responsible. There really is no other way in our system for him to do so. We don't have government radio, government television. And so he needs to get his message out through these people who represent the people, and that's what's really incumbent on public officials. He has to find his job to minimize that particular responsibility.

CONAN: 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. E-mail is talk@npr.org and let's go to Bob. Bob's calling from San Antonio.

BOB (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon, Bob.

BOB: I just totally disagree with the way the media is going after Vice President Cheney. The only person he owes an apology to, at least from this American's perspective, is to the poor fellow he accidentally shot in a hunting accident. If this had been two hunters in New Hampshire or Iowa or anywhere else it wouldn't have seen page one beyond the local paper. And...

CONAN: And maybe not there.

Mr. ELVING: Yeah.

BOB: And maybe not there, yeah, you're right. But all of a sudden now we have, you know, everybody is dissecting this from any and every angle they can. But I just, this is one American that thinks that, you know Vice President Cheney ought to be left alone. I'm sure he's apologized to this gentleman and I'm sure he feels horrible as any of us would if we'd have been the ones to accidentally shoot someone.

CONAN: Peter Baker, on the other hand, it's been over 200 years since a vice president shot anybody on purpose or not.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah, I mean this is not two hunters in New Hampshire. I mean let's just face it. This is the Vice President of the United States, a heartbeat away from the presidency, and yeah we do dissect what the vice president does, whether it be on a hunting trip or in his public duties as we do the president.

When President Clinton was accused of various things during his term and it became a public thing it became part of a judicial process, and we examined that in quite a lot of detail even though a lot of people felt like, Well, this is his private life.

I mean you know there are different standards for the President and for the Vice President of the United States and that's not always comfortable. And maybe the vice president owes nobody an apology. That's not for me to decide, but I think, you know, it is for us to report on what he did, and what his actions were, and what the law enforcement did, and how the people in the White House are handling it.

Mr. ELVING: You know, I can empathize with the caller's impulses here, because I think a lot of us could look at this in the same way under the right circumstances. Let's imagine for the moment that on Saturday night the vice president had had some sort of public statement where he either called in reporters, because there are always reporters around he can call in, or he had gone to a television station and taped a statement saying today these things happened and this was my role in it. I feel terrible. The man who was injured is a friend of mine. This is obviously something that makes me feel terrible. I wanted you to know this is what happened.

Had he done that Saturday night, had he done that Sunday morning, had he done that Sunday afternoon, I think there would have been a somewhat different reaction from everyone in the country. But because he took the attitude that he did, this has taken on this particular connotation.

CONAN: Bob thanks very much for the phone call. Peter Baker thank you for your time today, we know you're on deadline, we appreciate it.

Mr. BAKER: Thank you.

CONAN: Peter Baker, White House Correspondent for the Washington Post. We're going to take a short break and come back with more of your calls. If you'd like to join us it's 800-989-8255, e-mail is talk@npr.org. I'm Neil Conan you're listening to TALK of the NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK of the NATION. I'm Neil Conan in Washington. We're talking today about Vice President Cheney and how the news of his shooting accident over the weekend has been handled. The vice president announced today that he's granting an interview to Fox News. It's being taped I think as we speak and we'll be scheduled to broadcast at 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time tonight. If excerpts are available before then we'll try to get them for you.

Still with us here in Studio 3A is NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving. Of course you're welcome to join us 800-989-8255, e-mail is talk@npr.org and here's an e-mail we got Ron from Chris Golden in Pomfret, Connecticut.

I really think that the vice president should have made a public statement as soon afterwards about the incident as possible. It's not proper for the land owner to tell the information to a local newspaper. It's not proper for the vice president to go on Fox News to make his first statement. If he would just make a public statement and apologize we could begin to move on, end the speculation.

Somewhat along the lines of what you were saying before the break. But isn't part of this about the office of vice president? It's not often that the vice president is actually seeking to go out and, well, make news.

Mr. ELVING: Most presidents would prefer to make the news, thank you, and let the vice president fulfill ceremonial obligations, things of that nature.

CONAN: And carry around buckets of warm spit.

Mr. ELVING: Well to use the old Jack Garner analogy, For what the job was worth. But you know this is not a normal relationship between, or not a typical or traditional relationship between a president and a vice president. Dick Cheney has been enormously important to this president in terms of making policy, in terms of determining how the White House will react to events, including of course the invasion of Iraq, which was a policy driven apparently in large part by the vice president and the secretary of defense and some other people that they had both been part of bringing into the administration.

So this is not a fellow who was added to the ticket to bring in a big state. After all they brought in Wyoming which would have voted for any Republican nominee. He was someone who was brought in to be a guiding force, a guiding light in this administration.

He's enormously powerful, and even if he does not have any designs of becoming president himself, this is not a side figure. This is not a minor man in this administration. So, for him to be involved in an incident of this kind is I think newsworthy and he, it was on him, on the night that it happened, the weekend that it happened, to take that into account in his own personal behavior.

CONAN: As Peter Baker was saying earlier, Vice President Cheney has little apparent regard for the news media and talk to whom he would like to talk to, when he would like to talk to them, and addresses the audiences that he likes to address. If he were thinking about running for president his options would not be so limited.

Mr. ELVING: Well, it would be a 180 degree different situation. If he were seeking the 2008 nomination of the Republican Party to be president, he would have to behave as politicians normally do, which is to say, they engage a wide variety of different media, of different political organizations. They try to go out and make themselves as presentable as possible to as many power centers as possible. And that's not what this vice president does. Maybe it's not what he should do, given the fact that he does not want to be a candidate. But in any event, it isn't what he has done. And I think in this particular instance he may have been thinking on Saturday night or Sunday, Maybe this doesn't have to be a big deal. You know he was expecting Harry to be okay.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. ELVING: And he was expecting that the whole thing just didn't need to be the world's biggest event. Well, I think now we all know better, particularly because there was that reversal in the condition of the victim. And of course any implication that the man might have had a serious or fatal complication to this particular shooting would have put this in an entirely different light.

So, it does not seem to have been appropriate at this juncture, but I suppose that given the entire pattern of the vice president's behavior, it's not that surprising that their first question was how many people need to know about this.

CONAN: We've got another caller on the line, Sierra. Sierra calling from Tallahassee.

SIERRA (Caller): Yes I, you made some good points. I have to say now that Cheney has no reason to run for president next time because he's basically been president this time. I mean there's been enough jokes about him being the puppet master behind Bush the puppet.

But what I was originally calling in to say was this just seems to reinforce the entire attitude that this administration has had from day one which is, you know it's a very paternalistic, you know, pat you on the head, thank you so much for your input. You can shut up now. We know what we're doing. We're going to take care of everything, and go away, which personally bugs the hell out of me.

And I've never understood, I've read a lot of the press gaggles online at thewhitehouse.gov and heard the way Scott McClellan talks to the press, and I don't blame them quite frankly for finally just losing it and going off because you can only be blabbed at for so long without actually having your questions answered before you get really tired of it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, Ron Elving the press has certainly been pampering the White House. Let me put this another way, and Sierra thanks for the call. But one of the things that the vice president's reluctance to address this publicly did was lead the White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan, dangling in the wind to again cite an example from a previous administration.

Mr. ELVING: Well, we are told by the White House that the president deferred to the vice president which is an unusual, perhaps, verb. But that the president deferred to the vice president in the handling of publicity about this incident. That the president did not insist that there be some sort of a statement or what have you.

The president said, well, you basically handle this Dick, and this was then the decision that was made by the vice president's office to go in this direction. We don't know yet. I think eventually we will learn what kind of conversations went on, who all the people who were involved. Certainly there was some high level staff in the White House involved in these conversations over the weekend. But eventually, obviously, they could see that the situation was taking on a cast that they had to deal with.

This administration, I don't think, is fundamentally different from previous presidential administrations in one respect. And that is that they would much prefer that after they had listened to folks and taken questions from the media, that people would leave them then to make their decisions and move on in terms of executing them. This administration, though I think has been more direct, in a sense more candid about this much, that they don't much care what the media may think of them or say about them. And that at some juncture or another they are quite prepared to go their own way.

They've been a little more frank about that. They've been willing to turn a kind of personal cold shoulder to the media that previous administrations did not think they could afford to do.

CONAN: In just a couple of minutes we're going to switch subjects and talk about hearings today on Capitol Hill looking into the relationship of big search engine companies, Google, Yahoo, with the Chinese government, and questions that have come up about that. So if you'd like to get in on that conversation give us a call at 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Let's get another caller in on this subject. This is Gary; Gary is calling us from St. Louis.

GARY (Caller): Yes, and I cannot believe I'm calling national radio and defending Dick Cheney, but you know if Cheney himself had been hit this would be something that would definitely be news that we need to know about quickly. But there's you know there's a privacy issue with regards to Mr. Whittington. You know, he needs to have some protection.

This doesn't affect the government unless you know it would determine that it was not an accident or Cheney was you know under the influence. So, from that standpoint I'm you know we got to respect Mr. Whittington's privacy, and maybe Cheney was you know trying to help to do that. Also, this was again not a government issue, and so why the press corps feels that the vice president's office needs to spoon fed. It wasn't like they were hiding it, they just didn't announce it to the world and you know you could Google wherever Cheney is. I'm sure somebody found it on the local newspaper down there that it was found out.

So if this were a government you know activity, yes, they need to let the public know. But if it's not a government activity why should the government have to tell the press what they should be looking out you know for themselves?

CONAN: On the basis of what was released to the media through that local newspaper in Corpus Christi on Sunday, Gary, there were a lot of questions that were left unanswered. I mean just basic questions, I mean, for example the vice president's press office had confirmed the story, but in terms of what happened, what his role in it exactly was, what he did afterwards, had he spoken with Mr. Whittington, a lot of these questions were, needed to be followed up don't you think?

GARY: Well, I think they possibly need to be followed up, but I don't think that the press office needs to get angry. Those are questions, legitimate questions, that need to get asked, but it seems to be more focused on why didn't you tell us? Why didn't you let us know?

CONAN: Ron Elving, are there...

GARY: This wasn't a government activity.

CONAN: Ron Elving there was certainly a belief among many that there was an attempt to see if this would be, if not covered up, if it would just sort of blow away on its own before it became any kind of a big deal at all.

Mr. ELVING: I'll grant that this was not a government activity. The vice president was not discharging his official duties when this incident happened. But of course, if this had been, for example, an automobile accident that had happened while the vice president was on his private time, and had someone been injured in that car accident, the authorities, the normal authorities who get involved in that sort of thing, would have had questions about it. And in this particular case, there was a sheriff. There could, if the sheriff chose, be a district attorney involved and a grand jury involved because, when someone gets shot, even if the person survives, that is considered a matter for local authorities to get involved in. That makes it a governmental activity. Maybe it wasn't initially, maybe it was just a nice private hunting trip. I have no reason to doubt that it was. But once it involves someone being injured, just like a car accident, there is a legitimate public interest in what happened.

GARY (Caller): And I think if there had been an attempt to hush it and, like, to ask the sheriff not to release it, and if that comes out, that's different. But for them to volunteer something that is, his own, you know, his own personal activity, that's what reporters are supposed to do is find things out. They're not supposed to, you know, sit down and say, tell us what you did today, especially, specifically because it wasn't government.

CONAN: Okay, Gary, thanks very much for the call...

GARY: Thank you.

CONAN:...Appreciate it and I think we're just going to leave it there. Ron Eliving, thanks very much for taking time out of your day to join us here in studio 3A.

Mr. ELVING: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor.

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