Friday, February 17, 2006

The Last Throes of Dick Cheney?

[[S C A N D A L S]] * An anniversary that the Bush White House probably hopes nobody will notice, today marks 205 years since the U.S. House of Representatives broke a deadlocked election by choosing Thomas Jefferson as the third president of the United States, with Aaron Burr as his vice president--the only American veep, other than Dick Cheney, to shoot a man while in office. Burr, a former New York attorney general and U.S. senator, who’d hoped to become president himself in 1800, started out his tenure as Jefferson’s second-in-command on a negative note, by peevishly contesting his new boss’ right to occupy the White House (after all, both men had won 73 electoral votes). However, Burr’s notoriety was assured when, on the morning of July 11, 1804, he faced off in a duel against former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, a rival whom Burr said had maligned him in public. On a rugged ledge in Weehawken, New Jersey, the vice president shot Hamilton in the lower abdomen--a wound that resulted in the latter’s demise a day later, and Burr’s fleeing to South Carolina, lest he be arrested for murder. The veep subsequently returned to Washington, D.C., to finish out his term of service, and was never prosecuted for killing Hamilton.

At least the target of Burr’s gunplay knew what he was in for. Not so Harry Whittington, the 78-year-old Austin lawyer and “Republican fixer” who Cheney peppered with birdshot during a quail-hunting expedition at a Corpus Christi, Texas, ranch last Saturday night. It was an embarrassing episode of carelessness that soon turned into a media tempest, thanks to the veep’s knee-jerk secrecy (news of the shooting didn’t even leak out until the ranch’s owner revealed it to her local broadsheet a day later), his apparent failure to notify the White House in a timely fashion that the shooting had even occurred, revelations that Cheney had been hunting without the proper credentials, rumors that he had been drinking before he set out with his deadly weapon (followed by word that mention of Cheney having imbibed beer at lunch was mysteriously scrubbed from an MSNBC Web site), and news three days after the incident that Whittington had suffered a minor heart attack as a result of Cheney’s hair-triggered carelessness. (It didn’t help matters any, either, that White House press secretary “Stonewall Scotty” McClellan failed on Tuesday to inform reporters about Whittington’s heart attack, even though he knew about it prior to that day’s official press briefing.)

As Democrats and myriad other critics of the Bush-Cheney administration jumped on this “Birdshotgate” scandal, Republicans grew decidedly nervous. And mouthy. Marlin Fitzwater, who had served as White House press secretary under both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, told Editor & Publisher magazine that Cheney had “ignored his responsibility to the American people” by keeping a tight lid for too long on the Whittington shooting. Ari Fleischer, who’d been George W. Bush’s first press secretary, said, “It would have been better if the vice president and/or his staff had come out last Saturday night or first thing Sunday morning and announced it. It could have and should have been handled differently.” Right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin opined, “Unfortunately, this is very bad news for the White House ... The Dems will exploit this accident to smear Cheney as incapable of being trusted, weak of mind, etc. The resignation rumors will fly again.” And, sure enough, by Thursday New York Times columnist Bob Herbert was calling on the veep to “step down--for the sake of the country and for the sake of the Bush administration.” Herbert continued:
This story is never going away. Harry Whittington is Dick Cheney’s Monica. When Mr. Whittington dies (hopefully many years from now, and from natural causes), he will be remembered as the hunting companion who was shot by the vice president of the United States. This tale will stick to Mr. Cheney like Krazy Glue, and that’s bad news for the Bush administration.

The shooting and Mr. Cheney’s highhanded behavior in its immediate aftermath fit perfectly with the stereotype of him as a powerful but dangerous figure who is viewed by many as a dark force within the administration. He doesn’t even give lip service to the idea of transparency in his public or private life. This is the man who fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep his White House meetings with energy industry honchos as secret as the Manhattan Project. ...

A vice president who insists on writing his own rules, who shudders at the very idea of transparency in government, whose judgment on crucial policy issues has been as wildly off the mark (and infinitely more tragic) as his actions in Texas over the weekend, and who has now become an object of relentless ridicule, cannot by any reasonable measure be thought of as an asset to the nation or to the president he serves. ...

Dick Cheney is a constant reminder of those things the White House would most like to forget: the bullying, the intelligence failures, the inability to pacify Iraq, the misuse of classified information and the
breathtaking incompetence that seems to be spread throughout the administration.

Mr. Cheney would do his nation and his president a service by packing his bags and heading back to Wyoming. He’s become a joke. But not a funny one.
(Well, maybe a little funny. Certainly late-night comedians had a good laugh at the expense of the perpetually dour-looking veep. Senator Chuck Hagel [R-Nebraska] contributed to the chuckles by alluding to Cheney’s five Vietnam-era draft deferments in his statement made to the Omaha World Herald: “If he’d been in the military, he would have learned gun safety.” And of course there are all those T-shirts entering the marketplace, declaring open season on Cheney, with droll slogans such as “Guns Don’t Kill People--Vice Presidents With Shotguns Do.”)

However, it wasn’t simply liberals such as Herbert who suggested that Cheney’s ouster might be in order. The same point was made in The Wall Street Journal by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who wrote that
The Dick Cheney shooting incident will, in a way, go away. And, in a way, not--ever. Some things stick. Gerry Ford had physically stumbled only once or twice in public when he became, officially, The Stumbler. Mr. Ford’s stumbles seemed to underscore a certain lack of sure-footedness in his early policies and other decisions. The same with Jimmy Carter and the Killer Rabbit. At the time Mr. Carter told the story of a wild rabbit attacking his boat he had already come to be seen by half the country as weak and unlucky. Even bunnies took him on.

Same with Dick Cheney. He’s been painted as the dark force of the administration, and now there’s a mental picture to go with the reputation.
Pull! Sorry, Harry! Pull!
Although Noonan contends that “as a scandal I’m not sure [the Whittington shooting] has a big future,” she remarks that this controversy may have arisen at an opportune time:
I suspect what [political advisers inside the Bush White House are] thinking and not saying is, If Dick Cheney weren’t vice president, who’d be a good vice president? They’re thinking, At some time down the road we may wind up thinking about a new plan. And one night over drinks at a barbecue in McLean one top guy will turn to another top guy and say, “Under the never permeable and never porous Dome of Silence, tell me ... wouldn’t you like to replace Cheney?”

Why would they be thinking about this? It’s not the shooting incident itself, it’s that Dick Cheney has been the administration’s hate magnet for five years now. Halliburton, energy meetings,
Libby, Plamegate. This was not all bad for the White House: Mr. Cheney took the heat that would otherwise have been turned solely on George Bush. So he had utility, and he’s experienced and talented and organized, and Mr. Bush admires and respects him. But, at a certain point a hate magnet can draw so much hate you don’t want to hold it in your hand anymore, you want to drop it, and pick up something else. Is this fair? Nah. But fair has nothing to do with it.

This is a White House that likes to hit refresh when the screen freezes. Right now the screen is stuck, with
poll numbers in the low 40s, or high 30s.

The key thing is Iraq. George Bush cares deeply about Iraq and knows his legacy will be decided there. It has surely dawned on the White House that “Iraq” will not be “over” in the next two years. Iraq is a long story. ...

George Bush, and so the men and women around him, will want the next Republican presidential nominee to continue the U.S. effort in, and commitment to, Iraq. To be a candidate who will continue his policy, and not pull the plug, and burrow through.

This person will not be Dick Cheney, who has already said he doesn’t plan to run. So Mr. Bush may feel in time that he has reason to want to put in a new vice president in order to pick a successor who’ll presumably have an edge in the primaries--he’s the sitting vice president, and Republicans still respect primogeniture. They will tend to make the common-sense assumption that a guy who’s been vice president for, say, a year and a half, is a guy who already knows the top job.
Meanwhile, in Slate, Mickey Kaus countered, “The possibility that Cheney would resign--allowing Bush to appoint and anoint a successor--seemed plausible before Cheney’s hunting accident. It’s probably less likely now, because Bush wouldn’t want to be seen as having given in to the press mob.” Furthermore, winning this prez’s seal of approval won’t necessarily help a candidate, even one like John McCain who’s trying so assiduously to suck up to Bush’s narrow-minded base. Not when 51 percent of the American electorate say they’re far more likely to support a candidate who opposes Dubya than one who backs his plays.

By Friday, what had begun as a shock to the public and turned into a source of disgust (as Cheney defenders tried to blame the victim for the shooting), finally became farce. Acquiescing to pressure from political strategists, the veep agreed to give a mea culpa interview--but only if the interviewer was from FOX News Channel, a Republican mouthpiece that he had once officially endorsed. (CNN’s Jack Cafferty characterized that arrangement as “a little like Bonnie interviewing Clyde.”) The next day, Whittington, finally released from his hospital bed, told reporters that he was sorry for all the headaches he’d caused Cheney over the previous week. Whoa! Who caused trouble for whom? By any logical thinking, Whittington didn’t owe the veep an apology--quite the opposite. It was Cheney who left his hunting buddy with a face pocked by birdshot, and who then allowed his surrogates to cover for him by portraying Whittington as a lackadaisical lout for having stumbled into his gunsight. Screenwriter and novelist Howard A. Rodman, writing in The Huffington Post, likened Whittington’s raspy-voiced regrets to Mary Todd Lincoln apologizing all over John Wilkes Booth’s family for the hardships her husband’s assassination had caused them. (“We all assume certain risks in whatever we do,” Mrs. Lincoln said. “Whatever activities we pursue and regardless of how experienced, careful and dedicated we are, assassinations do and will happen.”)

After a week of reporting on this incident, there still remain plenty of questions to be asked and discrepancies to be resolved. And no self-denunciations from Harry Whittington or staged applause for Cheney from the Republican-dominated Wyoming Legislature are likely to shoo this story from the news pages. Not because the shooting was anything more than an accident, but because the carelessness that led to it, the arrogance that was demonstrated by its hushing-up (at least in the short term), and the concerted administration efforts made to dismiss its significance, once the story eventually hit the front pages all reflect a familiar pattern of behavior by the Bush White House. As environmental activist Carl Pope quipped in response to the prez’s delayed defense of Cheney’s actions, “In supporting the Vice-President’s handling of the Whittington shooting, Bush said, ‘He heard a bird flush and he turned and pulled the trigger ...’ Pulling the trigger without aiming and shooting at a noise instead of a target--isn’t that the story of the past five years?”

READ MORE:Shoot First, Avoid Questions Later,” by Sidney Blumenthal (Salon); “One of the Worst Days of Cheney’s Life,” by Kevin Hench (The Huffington Post); “When Vice Presidents Shoot People,” by Cary Tennis (Salon); “Smoking Gun: Dick Cheney’s Assault on the Public’s Right to Know,” by Jacob Weisberg (Slate); “Is Cheney a Liability?” by Dick Morris (Political Wire); “Bring Back Spiro Agnew,” by Martin Garbus (The Huntington Post); “FOX’s Hume Congratulated Himself for Kid-Gloved Cheney Interview” (Media Matters); “Gunsmoke: Does the NRA Really Take Safety Seriously?” by John Dickerson (Slate).

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