Washington Vice President Dick Cheney's slow and unapologetic public response to the accidental shooting of a 78-year-old Texas attorney is turning the quail-hunting mishap into a political liability for the Bush administration and is prompting senior White House officials to press Cheney to publicly address the issue as early as today, several prominent Republicans said Tuesday.
The Republicans said Cheney should have immediately disclosed the shooting Saturday night to avoid even the suggestion of a cover-up and should have offered a public apology for his role in accidentally shooting Harry Whittington, a GOP attorney from Austin. Whittington was hospitalized Saturday night in Corpus Christi, Texas, and was returned to intensive care after suffering a minor heart attack Tuesday morning.
"I cannot believe he does not look back and say this should have been handled differently," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman who is close to the White House. Weber said Cheney "made it a much bigger issue than it needed to be."
Marlin Fitzwater, a former Republican White House spokesman, told Editor and Publisher magazine that Cheney "ignored his responsibility to the American people."
The episode is turning into a defining moment for Cheney, a vice president who has operated with enormous clout to shape White House policy while avoiding public scrutiny over the past five years.
President Bush has allowed Cheney to become perhaps the most powerful vice president in history and has provided him with unparalleled autonomy. Early in the first term, Cheney developed the administration's energy policy, largely behind closed doors, and then heavily influenced Iraq policy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
No evidence has emerged to suggest that the shooting was anything more than a hunting accident, but the spectacle of the vice president wounding a prominent Republican at an exclusive Texas ranch has become the punch line for politicians and comedians alike, and has penetrated the popular culture through late-night television. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he referred to Cheney as the "shooter in chief" in a Tuesday morning meeting with members of Congress. It has also raised anew criticism of Cheney's operating style.
Cheney has avoided public comment on the shooting other than to release two short statements. One stated that he would be issued a warning for not paying a $7 hunting fee in Texas; the other, released Tuesday by his office, detailed when he learned of Whittington's worsening condition and said his "thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Whittington and his family."
Whittington suffered an irregular heartbeat Tuesday after a shotgun pellet in his chest traveled to his heart, according to hospital officials in Corpus Christi.
Some current and former White House officials said Cheney's refusal to address the issue or accept any blame is a potential political problem for Bush because it reinforces the image of a secretive and above-the-law White House.
Cheney, a former House member, White House chief of staff and corporate executive, is dismissive of the national press and unfazed by criticism and unflattering publicity. Bush picked Cheney as vice president in large part because of his lack of political ambitions and ability to keep confidences.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson, a fellow Wyoming Republican who hunts with Cheney, said the vice president decided during the Gulf War when he was defense secretary that journalists ask "stupid questions" and distort things, and so he probably sees no need to publicly explain himself.
"Whatever he does, Dick will do it his own way, because whatever he does, it will be the subject of ridicule," Simpson said.