Birdshot Blunders

White House turns what could have been a forgivable hunting accident into suspicious cover-up, replete with excuses, denials, and, of course, no apologies

Leave it to the Bush White House to turn what could have been a forgivable hunting accident – Vice-President Shoots Lawyer – into a suspicious cover-up, replete with excuses and denials ... and no apologies. The good news is that the man Dick Cheney mistook for a quail, 78-year-old Harry Whittington (one of the nicest Republican millionaires you'll ever meet in Austin), is expected to make a full recovery after suffering a setback Tuesday with what doctors described as a mild heart attack brought on by a birdshot pellet lodged near his heart. All told, Whittington sustained wounds to his face, neck, and chest after being hit by a blast of about 100 birdshot pellets. The scare Tuesday sent him back to the intensive care unit and extended his Corpus Christi hospital stay for at least another week.

As most readers and national TV viewing audiences now know, Whittington and Cheney were part of a weekend hunting party that included a couple of the Lone Star State's most prominent Bush women: Pamela Willeford, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden; and Katharine Armstrong, the former chair of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, whose family owns the 50,000-acre South Texas ranch where the accident occurred late Saturday afternoon. Of course, a good 12 hours had elapsed before the White House even acknowledged the shooting, and that was only after a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, acting on a telephone tip from Armstrong on Sunday morning, called the big house for an official comment. Now, White House spinners are in the all-too-familiar position of having to explain their slow response; no one is buying the line that they delayed releasing details of the shooting because Whittington's medical welfare was their first priority. And so far, Cheney has yet to apologize, at least publicly, for his shotgun blunder.

Whittington, the genteel chairman of the Texas Funeral Services Commission, is an independent-minded Republican who doesn't always tout the party line. He is largely credited with restoring consumer confidence in the TFSC, a scandal-ridden agency when former Gov. Bush (caught up in the same "funeralgate" scandal) appointed Whittington to clean things up. He has also gone up against the Texas GOP mindset in promoting prison reform and opposing the death penalty, particularly in cases involving mentally retarded inmates. More recently, Whittington has waged a long-running (and so far successful) legal battle against the city of Austin for condemning one of his Downtown properties to build a city parking garage.

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