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Did Keeping His Silence Damage Cheney's Image?


Today, President Bush spoke publicly for the first time about Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident. Over the weekend, Mr. Cheney inadvertently shot 78-year-old lawyer Harry Whittington while hunting quail. News of the incident was not made public until hours later. Mr. Cheney spoke for the first time yesterday. Today, the president said he thinks Cheney handled the incident just fine.

GEORGE W: It's a deeply traumatic moment for him, and obviously for the, it's a tragic moment for Harry Whittington. And so I thought his explanation yesterday was a very strong and powerful explanation. And I'm satisfied with the explanation he gave.

NORRIS: NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr has these thoughts on the matter.

DANIEL SCHORR: Finally, after four days in an undisclosed location, one of his favorite places, Vice President Cheney emerged to appear on the Bush-friendly Fox News Channel and accept full blame for the shooting of fellow quail hunter Harry Whittington.

One of the worst days of my life, Cheney said. But the accident that for a time shook the country would not soon be forgotten. It had its bizarre aspects. On Sunday Sheriff Salinas was dispatched to talk to the Vice President and establish that the shooting had been an accident. I guess the police are trained not to assume anything. Today they announced that they had decided not to press any charges.

Equally bizarre was that the shooting first became known through what might be called a high-level leak. While the Vice President's party and the White House maintained their silence, the proprietor of the ranch, Katherine Armstrong, was dispatched on Sunday morning to tip off her local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

The paper then posted the story on its website and thus, a serious incident involving the man a heartbeat away from the presidency became known to a bemused public.

Cheney could've learned a lesson from the president about leveling with the public. In his 1999 memoir as governor, Mr. Bush tells of accidentally killing a protected songbird while hunting with his friend, Karen Hughes. They agreed immediately to go public and confess. Bush wrote, "People watch the way you handle things. They get a feeling they like and trust you, or they don't."

Vice President Cheney would have been well advised to do as Mr. Bush had done, go public immediately rather than spend four days figuring out how to handle this problem. As it was, he was already facing declining popularity. The CBS news polls showed an approval rating of 35% and a disapproval rating of 46%.

Perhaps even worse news for Cheney was an article in the Wall Street Journal today by conservative speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan. She said her hunch is that people in the White House are thinking that if Cheney wasn't vice president, who would be a good vice president?

In his Fox News interview yesterday, Cheney said that he would never get the image of Whittington falling out of his memory. The chances are he's going to have a lot of help remembering.

This is Daniel Schorr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr passed away on Friday, July 23, 2010. See an obituary, photo gallery and an archive of Schorr's commentaries for NPR.