Cheney's image gets fresh blow

Media question delay in reporting shooting


WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a fellow hunter was the latest embarrassment for President Bush's image-challenged No. 2, and its aftermath dramatized the poor relations with the news media that have plagued Cheney since the start of the administration.

The 18-hour gap between the shooting of prominent Austin lawyer Harry M. Whittington on Saturday afternoon and when the vice president's office spoke to reporters about it fed stereotypes about Cheney, often portrayed as grouchy and secretive, who became known in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for disappearing to an "undisclosed location."

It was also the most recent instance of Cheney becoming the public face of the Bush administration's tight-lipped ways and a further blow to a vice president who took a beating last fall with the indictment and resignation of his top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., for his role in leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

As of last night, Cheney and his spokesmen had yet to issue a statement about the shooting incident. The vice president did not appear at an Oval Office photo session with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Bush had nothing to say about it there.

However, yesterday evening, Cheney's office released a five-paragraph statement explaining that Cheney had sent a $7 check to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which was expected to issue a warning to the vice president for his failure to obtain a required stamp for hunting upland game birds.

Some former Bush administration officials call the handling of the hunting episode symptomatic of Cheney's staff, describing his top aides as hostile to reporters and his press office as in turmoil.

The quail-hunting mishap on the Armstrong Ranch in southeast Texas, which occurred about 5:50 p.m. Saturday, took on a life of its own yesterday as reporters hammered the White House about why the public was not told earlier and why key details - such as who else was hunting with Cheney - were being kept secret.

One member of the hunting party was Pamela Willeford, a Texan who serves as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland. Cheney's spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, referred a reporter to Katharine Armstrong, whose mother owns the Armstrong Ranch, for information about others who were there with Cheney. Armstrong declined requests by The Sun to be interviewed.

Bush first learned of the shooting from his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., on Saturday night, and was told later that night by Karl Rove, his top political adviser, that Cheney had been involved, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

The `first priority'

Peppered with questions at his daily news briefing, McClellan defended the White House failure to acknowledge that the shooting had taken place until the day after the incident, saying that the "first priority" was making sure that Whittington got proper medical attention.

It was Cheney's decision not to immediately release information about the shooting, said McClellan, adding that he heard about the accident Saturday night but did not learn of the vice president's involvement until Sunday.

Cheney's "first reaction was: Go to Mr. Whittington and get his team in there to provide him medical care," McClellan said. The vice president decided, along with Katherine Armstrong, that she should be the one to tell the news media. Her mother, Anne Armstrong, was a top official in Republican administrations dating back to the Nixon White House and a director of Halliburton Co. when Cheney was hired as chief executive.

Katherine Armstrong spoke by phone with a reporter from The Corpus Christi Caller-Times on Sunday morning about the shooting, said Shane Fitzgerald, the newspaper's managing editor. Cheney's office confirmed the account later that day.

Whittington remained hospitalized in Corpus Christi in stable condition, officials at the Christus Spohn Health System said yesterday. Administrator Peter Banko said the 78-year-old attorney was to be moved from intensive care to a normal medical surgical unit.

Whittington was "talking, awake, alert in good spirits," said Dr. David Blanchard, a physician who treated him, adding that the patient had been making jokes.

After Whittington was taken to the hospital on Saturday, Secret Service officials notified the Kenedy County sheriff of the accident and the sheriff arranged to interview Cheney at 8 o'clock the next morning, said Eric Zahren, a Secret Service spokesman.

"Anytime there's an incident, we're going to notify local law enforcement," especially if someone is taken to the hospital with injuries, Zahren said.

But authorities posted outside the Armstrong Ranch turned away local officers who arrived Saturday night to interview Cheney, a law enforcement source said.

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