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White House Responds to Cheney Accident

February 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The Wyoming state legislature had issued several months ago an open invitation to Vice President Cheney to come and speak to them for the first time in four years. Only on Tuesday did legislators learn he had accepted, three days after his accidental shooting of Harry Whittington during a Texas quail hunting trip.

SPOKESMAN: He has served several presidents in various capacities but he has never forgotten Wyoming.

KWAME HOLMAN: While the state representatives and invited guests waited, Harry Whittington was 1,200 miles away outside a Corpus Christi hospital making his first public remarks since the shooting.

HARRY WHITTINGTON: All of you media have been very patient and waiting for me to make my appearance here. I hope you understand I’m sorry I delayed you, but I know your role is to get the news out to the public. I compliment you on what you’ve done. I’ve read and seen many of your reports, and I know your job isn’t easy. I regret that I couldn’t have been here earlier, so you could see what a lucky person I am.

KWAME HOLMAN: Back in Cheyenne, Mr. Cheney, born, raised and educated in Wyoming, had emerged to thunderous applause. (Applause) And he thanked his home state audience.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: It’s a wonderful experience to be greeted with such warmth by the leaders of our great state. It’s especially true when you’ve had a very long week. Thankfully, Harry Whittington is on the mend and doing very well.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was good news for the Bush administration, as well, which struggled all week to contain the public relations firestorm ignited after the vice president failed to disclose the incident for nearly 14 hours.

REPORTER: Do you think that an average citizen would have been accorded that same amount of time before having to answer questions about a shooting incident?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: That was what was arranged with the local law enforcement authorities. You ought to ask them that question.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some congressional Democrats called Mr. Cheney’s response to the crisis another example of his secretive operating style.

SEN. HARRY REID: I think the reason it took the vice president a day to talk about this is part of the secretive nature of this administration. The American people are not entitled to know what’s going on, in their mind-set. They keep things pretty close to the chest.

KWAME HOLMAN: A few Republicans also were critical. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran, told the Omaha World-Herald: “If he’d been in the military, he would have learned gun safety.” And, as expected, the late night comedians also weighed in.

SPOKESMAN: We can’t get bin Laden, but we nailed a 78-year-old attorney. (Laughter)

JAY LENO: After he shot the guy, he screamed: “Anyone else want to call domestic wiretapping illegal?” (Laughter)

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, the White House press corps pushed continuously for a public response from Vice President Cheney. NBC’s David Gregory:

DAVID GREGORY: Does the president think that the vice president should address this publicly personally, speak to the American people in any fashion, to explain what happened and why it took so long to disclose it publicly?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, I think what happened has been explained. The vice president’s office has talked about it.

REPORTER: So the president doesn’t think that the vice president should actually speak about it himself, not through intermediaries?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, look, I mean, you’ve talked to the vice president on a fairly frequent basis in the past, and I’m sure you will in the future.

KWAME HOLMAN: Then, late Tuesday afternoon, a hospital spokesman, not White House spokesman McClellan, announced that Harry Whittington had suffered a minor heart attack.

PETER BANKO: Some of the birdshot appears to have moved and lodged into a part of his heart, causing the atrial fib and what we would say is a minor heart attack.

KWAME HOLMAN: On Wednesday, the vice president broke his silence. He sat down for an exclusive interview with Brit Hume of Fox News.

BRIT HUME: Who — what caused this? What was the responsibility here?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, ultimately, I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry. And you can talk about all of the other conditions that existed at the time, but that’s the bottom line. And there’s no — it was not Harry’s fault. You can’t blame anybody else. I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend, and I say that is something I’ll never forget.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Cheney defended they way the shooting had been disclosed to the press by the Texas ranch owner Katharine Armstrong who called a local reporter and friend the next day.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: It was important that it be accurate. I do think what I’ve experienced over the years here in Washington is as the media outlets have proliferated, speed has become sort of a driving force, lots of times at the expense of accuracy. And I wanted to make sure we got it as accurate as possible, and I think Katharine was an excellent choice. I don’t know who you could get better as the basic source for the story than the witness who saw the whole thing.

KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday, President Bush commented for the first time.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I thought his explanation yesterday was a very strong and powerful explanation, and I’m satisfied with the explanation he gave.

KWAME HOLMAN: As for Harry Whittington, he apparently was aware of the firestorm that circled the vice president all week and apologized.

HARRY WHITTINGTON: My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week. We send our love and respect to them as they deal with… with situations that are much more serious than what we’ve had this week. And we hope that he will continue to come to Texas and seek the relaxation that he deserves. (Applause)

KWAME HOLMAN: The vice president, however, was expected to spend the weekend in Wyoming.